Draft, realignment among labor issues

BY Ken Rosenthal • October 17, 2011

The announcement of the last collective-bargaining agreement before Game 3 of the 2006 World Series set a target for major league players and owners in their current talks:

Strike another new deal during the Series, announce it to the widest possible audience, achieve the maximum public-relations benefit.

Will it happen? Maybe. Maybe not.

The possibility of an agreement occurring during the Series is “a coin flip,” according to one source with knowledge of the discussions.

The two sides remain far part on the owners’ desire to institute “hard slotting” — predetermined signing bonuses — for the amateur draft, major league sources say.

However, the same sources suggest that the gulf between the sides on that issue could narrow quickly, and enough progress has occurred in other areas for an agreement during the Series to remain within reach.

The more meaningful target for a deal — one that both sides are motivated to meet — is the start of free agency five days after the end of the Series.

Although the current agreement does not expire until Dec. 11, the players want an agreement before the market opens so that they can realize the benefits of the expected changes in free-agent compensation.

The owners’ incentive stems from the disappearance of the luxury tax — an important inhibitor on the spending of high-revenue teams — if a deal is delayed. The current agreement includes no provision for the extension of the tax beyond 2011.

“Legally, nothing changes until Dec. 11,” one source said. “But a lot will be lost on both sides if there is no agreement before the end of the World Series. It would create another set of issues — not deal-breakers, but additional issues that would have to be negotiated.”

The sales of season tickets and sponsorships also would be enhanced by a swift conclusion to the talks. A deal of three years or longer, following the current five-year agreement, would give the sport more than two decades of uninterrupted labor peace.

The new deal is expected to include the addition of a one-game, wild-card round to the postseason in 2013, sources say. The plan is tied to the creation of two 15-team leagues. The NL currently has 16 clubs, the AL 14. That change cannot be implemented before ’13, and the players oppose playing one season with the current alignment but a new qualifying format.

One holdup in the creation of two 15-team leagues is the delay in the approval of the Astros’ new owner, Jim Crane. The Astros are the most likely club to move to the AL, but their situation remains “fluid,” one source said.

As for the draft, slotting remains the most divisive issue. The new deal could include a provision that will introduce some form of worldwide draft, not immediately, but possibly within a year, one source said.

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