It's still my opinion that the pace of negotiations will be controlled by Manfred and MLB owners. They have a pretty good idea of what might move the talks forward and what players will see as a non-starter. As I wrote in my last piece, Manfred and company see their best chance of getting what they want — or at least denying the players most of what they want — as applying maximum pressure, which will only happen when games are canceled, and players are losing money.
This isn't a commentary on which side is more at fault for a work stoppage, although I have my own opinion on that. It's more reflective that the MLB side of negotiations is controlled by more militant owners that tend to be from smaller markets. They're still fuming that MLB is the only major U.S. sport that doesn't have a hard salary cap, and that outcome is highly improbable for this agreement. The chances of these owners agreeing to a substantially higher Luxury Tax or significant changes to how young players will be paid are almost as low as the players conceding on a cap.
So, while I'd be ecstatic to be proven wrong, I don't believe we'll see serious proposals that have any chance of moving the needle from Manfred and MLB until mid-to-late February. In the meantime, I expect them to continue with the usual delaying tactics: making offers that concede little or nothing to the players and then releasing self-serving statements bemoaning the players' stubborn unwillingness to accept their generosity.
Joel Sherman had a thoughtful piece in the New York Post on why he doesn't expect spring training or the regular season to start on time. Like me, Sherman doesn't expect much worthwhile negotiating to occur until the clock is close to striking midnight:
An optimist would say neither side is really going to show its best offers until a drop-dead date, and there will be a lot of rhetoric until then. But a drop-dead date is in the eye of the beholder (I think Casey Stengel said that first). Spring training camps are scheduled to open Feb. 16, the first spring games are Feb. 26, and the regular season opener is March 31.
When we see the two sides making proposals that spur bargaining rather than flat-out rejection, we'll know that we are finally in the endgame for the 2022 CBA. A couple of points that Sherman makes in his piece that I believe will affect whenever the season might start:
One thing on which management and players agree is that the 23-day hurried Spring Training II in July 2020 was too short, especially to get pitchers’ arms ready.
...One agent theorized that MLB might just punt on April when it struggles to sell tickets, accept the losses then make up for those losses by just spending less on the remainder of free agency.
I've been reading items from various pundits opining that a late agreement might include a short spring training like we saw in June 2020, but that was in preparation for a 60-game schedule. Assuming that we're probably going to see a much longer season than that (knock wood), a month of spring training seems more likely this time around. I doubt that teams want to chance significant injuries to their starting pitchers, particularly after a couple of seasons where the pandemic severely disrupted normal routines.
As for the agent who thought MLB would be willing to give up on April entirely, that thought has been in my mind, too. COVID will almost undoubtedly be less of a factor as the weather warms. Also, as the agent noted to Sherman, April is a month when teams struggle to sell tickets, anyway. Losing that month would cost teams less than it would cost players. If MLB wants to put maximum pressure on the union, losing a month's worth of games would be one way to do it for sure.
Of course, if that happened, it could backfire on MLB if the players weren't willing to accept a shortened schedule and insisted that all of the games be made up. That could lead to a work stoppage that continued into warm weather months that MLB owners wouldn't want to see games lost. As bad as a late start to 2022 would be for the sport, a prolonged lockout that lasted into May or later would be a freaking disaster for the sport. As a life-long baseball lover, it would break my heart to see the warm months arrive with baseball still on the sidelines. As a Mets fan who spent decades waiting for the Wilpons to lose control of the franchise, that would be more bitter still.
I'm curious to see what sort of bargaining takes place between now and the point in mid-February when starting the season on time starts looking doubtful. If the sides aren't gaining some traction towards an agreement a month from now, it will be difficult not to fall deeply into pessimism over the chances of a "normal" baseball season.
Meanwhile, I turn my thoughts toward the question of how the folks running the Mets might seek to try to advance some of their long-term goals if there is a protracted lockout that persists beyond the scheduled start of the regular season. Obviously, they would continue to try to attract talented people to fill out the lower levels of the organization. They've done a great job during Steve Cohen's tenure as owner in building out their analytics, but I'm sure there's still work to be done in upgrading scouting and development.
I followed with interest the international free agent signings that began yesterday. Mets Minors has an excellent recap. The Mets have had some success in this area. Edgardo Alfonzo, José Reyes, and Carlos Gómez were some notable signings. Amed Rosario, Juan Lagares, Wilmer Flores, and Jeurys Familia contributed to the Mets. Current top prospects Francisco Alvarez and Ronny Mauricio may join that list someday.
Despite some successes, the Mets never went all-in on the international market in the way clubs such as the Dodgers, Padres, Rangers, and others have done over the years. Supposedly that will change under Steve Cohen, and the Mets had a good start this year with a couple of 7-figure deals to outfielders and a number of other signings. Still, it will take years of effort to build relationships with key figures in other countries. Unless some sort of international draft gets implemented, it's vital that the Mets organization continues to work at this and put themselves in play for the top international players. This is something they can certainly continue to work on through the lockout.
Any player currently on the 40-man roster is part of the Players Association and will be locked out until there is an agreement. This includes top prospects like Ronny Mauricio, Mark Vientos, and Khalil Lee. That's unfortunate, but there are key prospects like the top two in the system Francisco Alvarez and Brett Baty, who are not yet on the 40-man, along with the vast majority of kids in the Mets' system. Even a protracted major league lockout shouldn't stop their development. As a matter of fact, the Mets could take some of their major league coaches like pitching coach Jeremy Heffner and hitting coach Eric Chavez and have them work with the kids in the case of a protracted lockout.
You have to feel for kids like Mauricio, Vientos, and some of the young pitching who are on the 40-man. These guys already saw their development handicapped by the cancellation of the 2020 minor league season. If the lockout drags on into the summer, they will lose even more crucial development time. No one ever wins from a lengthy baseball work stoppage — not the fans, not the players, not the teams — but kids like these stand to be big losers if this thing drags on. Let's hope it doesn't come to that.
Please be well and take care.