Well, what a difference a 16-hour desperation marathon mission can make.
For weeks and weeks now, it has been clear — as I and many others have written — that there are no high-minded principles at stake in the baseball lockout. The fight is and has always been about money, hundreds of millions of dollars, and how it gets divvied up. The owners, having finally gained the strong upper hand after many decades of incompetent and arrogant negotiating, are not interested in giving back their gains. The players, having seen teams pull every trick in the book to avoid paying them their open-market value, want to see their salaries go back up again — total payroll in 2021 was the lowest it had been since 2015.
When negotiations are about money — and only about money — the only way to make progress is for one side to say, “I’m willing to give up this much money,” and the other side to say, “OK, fine, I’m willing to give up this much money,” and for this to keep going until the offers come close to touching.
For three months, it did not appear that the owners or the players — but particularly the owners — were willing to have this sort of give-and-take conversation.
On Monday, for whatever reason, they did. I’m sure the owners will say that the reason for the breakthrough was pressure imposed by the artificial deadline they had set — MLB had stated unequivocally that if a deal wasn’t brokered by Monday, they were going to start canceling games.
I tend to think it was something else: Expanded playoffs.
But we’ll get to that in a minute — as baseball fans and writers stayed up all night trying to figure out what the heck was going on, it appears that this is where we now stand:
Owners offering $675,000.
Players pushing for $775,000
Bonus pool for players not yet arbitration eligible
Owners offering $25 million
Players pushing for upwards of $100 million
Threshold for luxury tax
Owners offering $220 million rising to $230 million over length of CBA
Players pushing for $250 million rising to $264 million over length of CBA
Best I can tell, that’s pretty much everything now. Well, there’s some bantering about the international draft and dropping draft pick compensation for free agents and how many teams will be in the amateur draft lottery, but none of that seems likely in any way to hold things up. The players have given up efforts to expand salary arbitration eligibility. The owners have given up efforts to make the luxury tax itself more onerous (they had been demanding a significant increase in the luxury tax rate, which would have made it even more of a salary cap). It’s all down to spreadsheets and numbers now. They’re meeting again this morning with another artificial deadline (5 p.m. Eastern) to save Opening Day.
It’s not a done deal; as you can see there is still a wide financial gap here. The reporters talking to union sources are hammering the point that a deal is not guaranteed. But I have to believe that odds are that they will now get things done — to sacrifice Opening Day over the dollars between the two offers would be pure madness.
And … expanded playoffs.
So here’s what I think proved the difference on Monday: I think the owners realized in a very real way that the players actually don’t want the playoffs expanded. My guess is that, all along, the owners kind of thought expanded playoffs would be something they could just throw in to the deal, good for everybody, kind of like the universal DH.
But the players don’t see expanded playoffs as a good thing. I also don’t see expanded playoffs as a good thing, but we have different reasons. The players seem to believe that the easier it is to get in the playoffs, the less urgency there is for good teams to spend money.
They are undoubtedly right. The one thing we have seen in baseball is that there does not seem any way to incentivize small-market (and tanking) teams to spend money on players. The CBT was SUPPOSED to give those teams more money to spend on improving, but that turned out to be a joke. The added wild-card team was supposed to give those teams more reasons to try, but that turned out to be a joke too.
So, my guess, owners realized that they probably needed to be just a little more generous in their terms to secure the extra playoffs they want. They offered a somewhat better deal to the players if they would agree to a 12-team playoff (it was 10 teams last year) and a better deal still if they would agree to a 14-team playoff. The players were willing to explore a 12-team option if …
And that’s where we are.
Now, personally, I utterly loathe the idea of expanded playoffs because I see it as yet another short-sighted, short-term money grab that makes the baseball season even less special. To play 162 games to eliminate just 60% of the teams is nonsensical, and continues that long but persistent march to eradicate what made baseball special and different in the first place. But the people who run baseball have long given fans lesser evil choices, and if forced to choose between expanded playoffs or months without baseball because of a labor war, I suppose I’ll take expanded playoffs and the slower decline into the abyss.
Now, of course, it would be perfectly baseball for the two sides to get relatively close to a deal like this and then have the whole thing blow up over, you know, whatever. Being optimistic tends to be a fool’s errand when it comes to baseball. But I am relentlessly and hopelessly optimistic about baseball. I think there’s a deal somewhere in the middle here that allows the players to believe they’ve stemmed the tide and gives the owners the impression that they won yet again. That’s the only way this thing was going to end. Let it end today.