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The Holding Pattern

Baseball is less than a week away from a negotiating deadline. Will we see any market movement before things are decided?

MLB: General Managers Meetings Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason took a break for a couple days to celebrate Thanksgiving, much the same way the rest of us did. The Diamondbacks and Mariners got a deal done just in time for turkey, but across the rest of baseball, not much has been happening recently. Some rumours, some rumblings, but not much more. And really, not even the level of rumours and rumblings one might have expected.

I have some bad news, everyone: we may not get much action for the foreseeable future.

Of course, this section of the offseason is almost always a little slow, waiting for the Winter Meetings to kick off before the big time wheeling and dealing begins, but this year we have a completely different situation to deal with. I speak, of course, of the fact major league baseball and the players’ union have yet to come together and agree on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

As it stands now, there is a deadline set, the first of December, for the two sides to get something done. If that deadline is missed, the owners have threatened a potential lockout of the players. (Actually, if I have the correct wording, I believe they’ve threatened to consider taking a vote on whether or not to lock players out, which is admittedly a couple steps further removed from an actual threat than what I initially said. So, you know.)

A lockout at this point would not be a huge issue, really; it’s still two and half months from the beginning of December to pitchers and catchers report day, so it isn’t as if the season is right around the corner and we’re staring down an imminent work stoppage. However, considering where baseball is right now, I have to say a lockout at this moment could very well be killing the golden goose.

Now, I know; we Cardinal fans are, for the most part, disgusted — absolutely disgusted, I say! — by the sight of the Cubs celebrating their first championship in over a century. However, even those of us who have been showering in the dark and crying a lot over the past month (show of hands?), have to admit that we just witnessed an all-time great World Series. Extra innings of game seven, two historically title-starved cities battling for baseball’s ultimate prize. It really doesn’t get any better than that, even if the end result was, again, utterly nauseating. The NFL is in a ratings crisis right now, baseball just had one of the greatest Octobers ever. In the battle for mindshare in the American sporting public, a big offseason of exciting moves and blockbuster transactions would be just what the doctor ordered.

And instead of capitalising on the wave they’re currently riding, it looks like MLB might be heading for an ugly, protracted labour battle, the sort they haven’t had since 1994, when a canceled World Series did very, very serious harm to the sport, harm that was only gradually healed through the rest of the decade thanks to an Iron Man streak, an historic home run chase, and a dynastic run by the big pinstriped gorilla of the American League.

Now, I’m not really interested in who’s right or who’s wrong in this battle; I would tend to believe neither side is right or wrong, only fighting for the best deal they can get. I do find it very strange that any article written on the potential of a work stoppage/strike/lockout/whatever will contain in the comments section an enormous wave of vitriol toward the greedy players, including a fair number of people stating some version of how much of a joke it is that millionaire independent contractors have a union. It seems really weird to me that there’s all this anger toward the players, the ones who do the thing people pay to see, and who are only going to have careers that last until their late 30s, and are very much the employee portion of this employer/employee dynamic, and far, far less toward team owners, who don’t do anything anyone pays to see, are not among the 750 best in the world at something most people can only imagine being able to do, and are often trying their damnedest to bilk taxpayers out of stadium financing money in one way or another while also trying to find new ways to keep payrolls down. Then again, considering how our recent election went, perhaps I shouldn’t be as surprised as I am that the working classes of my country are so eager to eat their own out of petty jealousy, a wide range of -isms and -phobias, and a disgustingly childish zero-sum worldview.

Back to your regularly scheduled programming.

Whether or not a possible work stoppage would be a disaster for baseball, or only a bump in the road before the offseason gets properly underway, one thing seems relatively certain: we’re probably not going to see a ton more business get done before something breaks one way or another in the CBA negotiations.

The major culprit, of course, is the draft-pick compensation rules, which currently attach a first-round pick penalty to players who received the qualifying offer from the team they were most recently employed by. Dexter Fowler and Justin Turner, two of the more notable free agent names floated around this offseason in relation to the Cardinals’ potential plans this offseason, both fall under the purview of the qualifying offer issue. (Sadly, Fowler’s name seems to be the one everyone thinks is more likely, while Turner is the player I would actually think has the chance to make a bigger impact on the quality of the 2017 squad. But I digress.) For the Cardinals to sign either of those players (or Kenley Jansen, for that matter, just in case they decided to build an invincible bullpen), they would be forced to give up their 2017 first-round draft pick, something the Redbirds have seemingly been extremely hesitant to do in the past.

There have been negotiations involving doing away with the draft pick penalty in the current CBA talks (something I’m very much in favour of, preferring to keep the bonus pick going to the team losing a player but eliminating the tax certain players are saddled with), but MLB’s ask in return for the draft pick thing was an international draft, which seems like a way-out-of-proportion trade to me, but what do I know? Regardless, the fact that eliminating the draft pick loss seems to very much be on the table right now makes me think we won’t see any of the players who fall under the qualifying offer rule sign before the matter is decided. Perhaps some enterprising team tries to swoop in and get players signed to deals for less than the market might bear, hoping to capitalise on the atmosphere of uncertainty right now, perhaps also hoping they’ll not have to pay the piper in terms of picks if the system is changed, but I would think the more likely outcome is teams waiting to see which way the wind blows, and revising the prices they’re willing to pay accordingly.

If that does, indeed, prove to be the case, we could be in for a frustrating offseason, at least in the near term. I honestly don’t believe either side of the dispute could be foolish enough to look at the amount of money pouring into the game currently, and how beautiful a position they seem to be in at the moment, and risk doing real damage to that by repeating the nastiness of two decades ago (hey, at least this time the Expos won’t get fucked over, right?), but if we head into the Winter Meetings with a lockout going on, there’s going to be precious little fun to be had talking about baseball this December.