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MLB Lockout: What it Means & What’s at Stake

Why is the MLB having a lockout? What is a lockout, anyway? As baseball enters full-on labor turmoil, you have questions and Boardroom has answers.

The doors are shut. The gates are locked. Baseball is closed for business. For the first time in a generation, the MLB is experiencing a work stoppage, with a lockout officially taking hold as the league’s collective bargaining agreement with the MLB Players Association expired.

We’ve already seen a flurry of big-name, big-money moves in the earlier stages of the MLB offseason period, but that all gets put on hold now — and the reverberations could affect far more than contract dollars. In fact, baseball fans need to be prepared for a delayed start to the 2022 season.

Or the chance that the season doesn’t happen at all. It sounds extreme, but that’s just how far apart the MLBPA is from the league and its owners on a long list of items.

It’s a lot to take in. But amid the confusion, recriminations, and inevitable anxiety, Boardroom is here to answer your FAQs about the lockout.

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When did the MLB lockout begin?

The CBA between Major League Baseball and the MLBPA lapsed at 11:59 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Dec. 1. As a result, the league’s owners voted unanimously to institute a lockout that went into effect Thursday, Dec. 2.

What is a lockout in baseball? What’s the difference between a lockout and a strike?

Both are legally defined as “work stoppages” in labor law parlance, but a strike is specifically a decision made by organized labor — a union like the MLBPA, for instance — while a lockout involves the owners figuratively and/or literally locking the players out of the workplace.

Notably, the NBA has had two lockouts since baseball last experienced a work stoppage. In 1998-99, the start of the season was delayed and the 82-game slate was shortened to 50 games. It happened again in 2011-12, with the season shortened to 66 games.

When was the last MLB work stoppage?

That would be the 1994 players’ strike, which wiped out the World Series and extended into calendar year 1995.

How does the lockout affect free agency, other offseason signings, and trades?

All player transactions — whether via free agency, the arbitration process, pre-arb deals, and beyond — cannot take place while this work stoppage is in effect.

What are the key issues dividing the owners and the players?

A ton of topics have led to the overall discord, but two major ones stand out among all others: service time and competitive balance.

What is the debate over MLB service time?

Currently, players become eligible for free agency after six years of big league service, with one full year constituting 172 days (not games) in a given season under the expired CBA.

The league prefers an age-based approach to free agency eligibility, proposing a threshold of 29.5 years of age. For breakout stars like Toronto’s Vlad Guerrero Jr., already an MVP-quality player at age 22, this would lengthen the path toward earning that first free agent contract by several years.

For a full explanation of how service time works in baseball, click here to read Boardroom’s free agency primer.

In addition to free agency, how does arbitration factor into the service time debate?

The league wants to replace the pre-free agency arbitration process with a single pool of money for all eligible players. A $1 billion figure has been bandied about.

That’s already a non-starter with the MLBPA, but the owners took things further, proposing that salary numbers be determined from that pool through a unified player performance algorithm. The league even floated using a benchmarks like Fangraphs’ wins above replacement (fWAR) to determine compensation for pre-free agency players.

Naturally, that idea was 100% dead on arrival.

To learn more about the MLB arbitration process, click here to read Boardroom’s cheat sheet.

So, what’s got the owners and players so far apart on the subject of competitive balance?

Baseball is a world of deep wallets. Even in the wake of revenue losses incurred by COVID, franchise valuations are climbing — Sportico estimates that the average MLB team is worth $2.2 billion. Clubs like the Dodgers, Yankees, and Red Sox have the capital to support huge salary spending year after year; they would appear to have an unfair advantage on paper despite the efforts of the luxury tax to deter such shopping sprees.

And while many will point to the success of the small-market, lower-budget Tampa Bay Rays in retort, they may be the ultimate exception that proves the rule.

As MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said in an official statement:

“This defensive lockout was necessary because the Players Association’s vision for Major League Baseball would threaten the ability of most teams to be competitive. It’s simply not a viable option. From the beginning, the MLBPA has been unwilling to move from their starting position, compromise, or collaborate on solutions.”

Even setting aside value judgments (or sanity in general) for a moment, that doesn’t sound like.

Will the start of the 2022 MLB season be delayed?

A LOT can happen in a short period when two parties are staring down the possibility of lost revenue, but there will absolutely be no baseball without a new collective bargaining agreement in place.

With that in mind, there is a good chance that Opening Day doesn’t take place on Opening Day based on how things stand.

What are the chances that the 2022 MLB season is canceled?

I don’t even want to go there.

I’ll simply say this: Strap in, folks. We could be set for the longest winter in the National Pastime’s history.

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Boardroom’s Guide to the 2021-22 MLB Offseason