Major League Baseball
Uncertainty reigns as MLB offseason of CBA negotiations and labor strife begins
Major League Baseball

Uncertainty reigns as MLB offseason of CBA negotiations and labor strife begins

Updated Nov. 11, 2021 9:05 p.m. ET

By Pedro Moura
FOX Sports MLB Writer

CARLSBAD, Calif. — Three weeks from today, Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement is set to expire. 

Within the industry, the widespread expectation is that it will expire without a new agreement reached, and that the league’s owners will then formally lock out the players. The question is: After that date, how long will it take the two sides to reach a new agreement?

If it takes one month, little tangible will be lost besides the winter meetings. If it takes two, spring training will probably have to be pushed back. If it takes three, the regular season might. Beyond that, more serious problems would arise. 


But at some point, the consensus says, an agreement will happen, and the 2021-22 offseason will begin in earnest. Some don’t mind waiting for teams to trade and for elite free agents to find their new homes.

"Talent is the steak," super-agent Scott Boras said Wednesday. "I really don’t care what time dinner is."

But fans do, some players and owners do, and though they didn’t say as much this week at the general managers meetings, executives do, too. A lockout of any substantial length, even if it does not delay the season, will affect the inner workings of the offseason in untold ways. 

Among them: Teams operate far differently in the offseason now than they did, say, at the time of the 1994 MLB strike, when players rarely communicated with their employers during the winter. Now, it’s common for managers and coaches to conduct check-ins with their charges monthly, if not weekly, and nutritionists and athletic trainers to prescribe and check up on personalized regimens. Many players even train at their team’s facilities.

For example, the Dodgers have routinely had a quarter of their major-league roster working out at Dodger Stadium on most weekdays in recent winters. Plenty of prospects join them. Meals are provided. Players frequently point to such sessions as a source of camaraderie, and teams believe hosting them helps an organization keep in touch with players’ development.

If owners institute a lockout on Dec. 2, as is expected, all of that will have to cease until an agreement is reached.

"We’re proceeding as if that’s going to continue," Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said.

Like nearly every other decision-maker who spoke this week at the Omni La Costa resort, Friedman professed to be unconcerned about the possibility of a work stoppage. Many GMs said they were operating as if it were business as usual. 

It’s not. Any new CBA will alter at least some of the rules. It’s conceivable that free-agent compensation rules and arbitration eligibility could change. It’s even possible that a salary floor could be enacted. How could a team that wanted to shed salary do so as usual, given even the remote possibility that the rules might demand adding salary in a matter of months?

It’s worth noting that the steady trend this century has been for transactions to occur later and later each offseason. In combination with the labor uncertainty, that fact has led to expectations that teams won’t act decisively before the expiration date.

"Not if you’re watching the Mariners," Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto said with the slightest of smiles Tuesday.

The difference between his comments and his peers’ is that his history supports his claim. With trade after trade, Dipoto has proven that he prefers to act quickly. This year, he openly declared an interest in "marquee players," not the "accent" pieces the Mariners shopped for in recent offseasons. Surely, he will try to find solutions sooner than later.

The potential problem, of course, is that it takes two to tango in trades, and marquee free agents won’t sign until they’ve explored the entire market and exhausted their options — or until they are blown away by an offer that supersedes all the uncertainty. Those are unlikely, but not impossible, to come in the next 21 days. Also, teams might be reluctant to trade their arbitration-eligible players without knowing what rules will govern them moving forward. 

Most likely, we’ll see a slow trickle of transactions through this month’s end, a halting for some time and then an explosion in the weeks after an agreement is reached. 

When that agreement might come is difficult to predict because of the dynamics of labor negotiations, which continued Wednesday. Any prediction is a guess as to which side will buckle first. The two sides are currently in disagreement on several issues, especially teams’ competitiveness and early-career compensation. There are so many levers left to pull. The universal designated hitter and any expanded playoffs must also be sorted out between now and a new agreement.

When or if all of that is decided, teams can sort out their rosters.

This is how uncertain this offseason will be: No one’s even sure if an eventual transactional rush will be better for players or teams. A convincing argument can be drummed up for either side. There is ample available talent on the free-agent market, between Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Max Scherzer, Marcus Semien, Kris Bryant and Freddie Freeman (if he counts, considering no one expects him to leave Atlanta). 

As usual, Boras represents many of the top talents. There might not be quite the same glut on the trade market, but with some teams under a clear mandate not to spend, there will be young talent available by trade, too. Oakland’s Matt Olson might step in for Freeman as the first-base prize.

"I feel like the game’s in a great place," said Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins, who runs a team in prime position to add. "There are a lot of really competitive teams and a lot of opportunities for teams to get better. It does seem like it's going to be very competitive this offseason."

Maybe so. But when?

Pedro Moura is the national baseball writer for FOX Sports. He most recently covered the Dodgers for three seasons for The Athletic. Previously, he spent five years covering the Angels and Dodgers for the Orange County Register and L.A. Times. More previously, he covered his alma mater, USC, for The son of Brazilian immigrants, he grew up in the Southern California suburbs. Follow him on Twitter @pedromoura.


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