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MLB Labor Update: Spring Training is in Danger

Spring Training dates are coming fast. What’s the state of the lockout and will games be lost?

Familiar Spring Training dates and deadlines are coming soon. While the baseball owners and the MLB Players Association have held regular meetings since the start of the year, it does not look like a deal to end the lockout and replace the expiring Collective Bargaining Agreement is coming any time soon.

Today, I’m not going to bog you down with details from negotiations. Most of that information is being held pretty carefully under wraps. The rumors we have are pretty much just that – rumors. Instead, we’ll focus on the timeline and upcoming schedules and try to get an idea of the make-or-break point for Opening Day.

Spring Training is Coming... But Don’t Expect it to Start on Time.

MLB and the Players Association have met regularly since about mid-January. That followed months of radio silence from both parties after the start of the lockout. The renewed meeting schedule and signs of some small progress in negotiations initially gave some hope that this conflict could get resolved before any adjustments to the league schedule were necessary.

Fast forward a few weeks and while both sides are still meeting, there are few reports of substantive agreements. Today, February 2, gives the players and owners less than two months to both figure out their issues and get their players trained for the season. Start walking backward from there.

The Grapefruit League is scheduled to begin spring training competition on February 25th, with the Cardinals opening their spring schedule against Houston on the 26th. That’s three weeks from now. Full squad workouts would normally begin about two weeks before that – around Valentine’s Day. Pitchers and catchers often gather up to a week before full-squad workouts. That would be around the 10th of February in a normal year.

You can see what’s happening here. The PA and the owners have about a week to figure out their differences before the training time starts to get lost. With no agreement likely this week, it’s safe to assume that at best Spring Training will end up abbreviated even if the season starts on time.

MLBPA is preparing to lose checks. Sort of.

Meanwhile, Jesse Rogers of ESPN reported that the MLBPA is already making plans to keep their players afloat financially. Each player in the PA is set to receive $5000 checks starting this week to cover the month of February. That might sound like a lot for many of our readers (I know I would take a $5000 check this week!) but it’s pennies to the players. A $5000 living allowance from the union translates to just $60,000 over a course of a year. The league minimum salary for players is nearly 10x that amount.

So, yes, the players might be getting a small bump in their bank account to get them through the end of winter months, but it is not even close to the amount needed to replace lost income if paychecks don’t start on time. The threat of lost income if the lockout extends into the regular season is very, very real and should be a motivating factor in getting these negotiations moving.

It should be noted that the players are used to having to survive the winter and Spring Training with little or no income. MLB contracts begin with the start of the season not with the start of Spring Training. Players aren’t normally paid during for spring games.

What about the rest of the free agents?

It really looks like those players who signed before the lockout were the smart ones. Considering the schedule that I outlined above, players will have at most a week after the lockout ends to make their way to a Spring Training site for what will almost certainly be an abbreviated pre-season schedule. Players – even big-name players – who aren’t yet under contract will have a very short window to get signed and into camp.

That’s bad news for the high-production free agents who will want to pit teams against each other and stretch out negotiations. That list includes offensive superstars like Carlos Correa, Freddie Freeman, Kris Bryant, and Trevor Story. And quality pitchers like Carlos Rodon, Clayton Kershaw, Zach Greinke, and Kenley Jansen.

The designated hitter factors heavily into this as well. While it seems likely that the league will be instituting a universal DH – both sides agree on this issue – National League teams had to approach their abbreviated signing period under the current rules. There are a number of DHs remaining on the market but an unknown number of DH jobs for those players. If the DH does not go through this year, players like Eddie Rosario could find themselves searching for a roster spot that just isn’t there.

You can see a more complete list of remaining free agents from MLB Trade Rumors here.

When should we worry about games being lost?

Good question. Back in 2020, the game was shut down for COVID and then further threatened by labor negotiations before the league could start games again. That July teams only had 23 days to prepare for the season: July 1 – July 24. The feeling among MLB teams and players is that timeframe was too short for a proper training environment without increasing the concern for injuries, particularly to pitchers.

MLB’s Opening Day is currently scheduled for March 31. If we walk back 23 days – the 2020 Spring Training window – we hit March 8 as the hard deadline for the season starting on time. Add a few more days for preparedness based on the lessons learned in 2020, and March 1 becomes a rough point of no return.

That matters. Because baseball just doesn’t do anything without a deadline.

It takes a trade deadline to spark roster movement during the season. The start of Spring Training provides a deadline for agents to start moving down from their demands in free agency. The Winter Meetings has become a traditional early-offseason signpost for teams to lure in elite free agents.

For this labor dispute, the loose deadlines around Spring Training have offered enough calendar motivation to encourage both sides to hold regular meetings – which we have seen. But it will be the deadline for losing game checks and ticket sales that will drive both the owners and the players to the negotiating table with a real desire for compromise.

In the end, I think both sides will meet this rough March 1 deadline. The regular meetings and signs of multiple concessions from both sides regarding issues like arbitration, compensation for pre-arbitration players, and years until free agency have me optimistic that a deal will get done before games are lost.