MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, union chief Tony Clark hail new CBA as lockout ends
BY ALDEN GONZALEZ
Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association reached a new collective bargaining agreement Thursday afternoon, finally halting a 99-day owner-imposed lockout fraught with rampant tension and colored by heightened mistrust.
Twenty-six of the 38 union leaders voted in favor of a five-year CBA that saw its members make significant gains with regard to minimum salaries and the competitive balance tax threshold, among other areas. The 30 team owners ratified the deal by a unanimous vote, according to the league, finalizing a CBA that provided them with an expanded postseason field and the ability to place advertisements on uniforms.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, the face of pointed criticism from players throughout the process, said he "could not be more excited about the future of our game" and vowed to work more closely with MLBPA executive director Tony Clark with hopes of bridging a noticeable gap.
"One of the things that I'm supposed to do is promote a good relationship with our players," Manfred said during a news conference from MLB headquarters in New York. "I've tried to do that. I think that I have not been successful in that. I think that it begins with small steps. It's why I picked the phone up after the ratification and called Tony and expressed my desire to work with him. It's gonna be a priority of mine moving forward to try to make good on the commitment I made to him on the phone."
With the end of the second-longest work stoppage in the game's history, the market officially opened, paving the way for trades and free-agent signings. Players are required to report to their respective spring training facilities by Sunday, and the first exhibition games will take place four or five days later. Opening Day will come on April 7, a week later than originally scheduled, but 162 games will nonetheless be played.
Under the new CBA, minimum salaries will begin at $700,000 in 2022 -- an unprecedented 23% increase from the prior year -- and rise to $780,000 for the final year in 2026. The competitive balance threshold, which taxes big-spending teams that surpass preestablished limits, will be set at $230 million in 2022 -- a near 10% increase from last year -- and reach $244 million by 2026. A $50 million player pool to reward pre-arbitration players who excel will also be incorporated.
"Our union endured the second-longest work stoppage in its history to achieve significant progress in key areas that will improve not just current players' rights and benefits, but those of generations to come," Clark said in a statement. "Players remain engaged and unified from beginning to end, and in the process reenergized in our fraternity."
Clark scheduled a separate news conference Friday.
Other changes within the new CBA include:
• A 12-team postseason, with the top two division winners earning first-round byes.
• A 45-day window to impose rule changes, decided on by a new joint committee, beginning in 2023.
• A universal designated hitter.
• A six-team draft lottery, implemented with hopes of curtailing tanking.
• A provision that prevents teams from optioning eligible players more than five times within a season.
• Two measures aimed at limiting service-time manipulation: a full year of service time awarded to players who finish within the top two in respective Rookie of the Year voting, and draft picks awarded to teams that promote players on Opening Day who finish among the top vote-getters for major awards.
• Additional advertising through patches on jerseys and decals on helmets.
An international draft, a component that added another layer of difficulty to negotiations on Wednesday, could be implemented as early as 2024. The union has until July 25 to decide on an international draft, which would trigger the removal of draft-pick compensation for high-priced free agents. Under the league's proposal, the draft would be a 20-round, hard-slot system for players at least 16 years old outside the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada.
Manfred told ESPN's Jesse Rogers on Thursday that he felt "a great weight" because of the harm the lockout caused fans.
"I have a great job, but one of the negative parts of it is when you have a situation like this, where you're depriving the fans of the game," he said. "I feel a great weight from that. When we learned that they ratified, I felt that weight came off my shoulders."
Moments later, Manfred began his formal news conference with an apology to fans.
"I know that the last few months have been difficult," he said. "There was a lot of uncertainty, at a point in time when there's a lot of uncertainty in the world. Sort of the way the process of collective bargaining works sometimes, but I do apologize for it.
"One of the good things about collective bargaining is that it gives our players an opportunity to have input on what their workplace in the game is gonna look like going forward. And they took full opportunity to provide that input during these negotiations. Our players are great, great athletes. I respect them, and I respect the input that we've received from them during this process. And we really did learn a lot."
Tension between the owners and the current crop of players dates back to the ratification of the previous CBA in 2016, which paved the way for an era rife with tanking, service-time manipulation and cost-efficiency that prompted player salaries to decrease at a time of booming league revenues. The bitterness escalated when the two sides failed to come to a mutual agreement for the COVID-19-shortened season in 2020 and boiled over as negotiations for a new CBA ensued.
The union -- looking to incentivize competition, put more money in the pockets of young players, diminish caps on big-market spending and revitalize the middle class of free agency -- initially sought structural changes such as earlier free agency, automatic arbitration after two years and cuts in revenue sharing. Their first core-economics proposal came in May, but the league didn't counter until August. Manfred instituted a lockout on Dec. 2, stating hopes that it would trigger accelerated bargaining, and the two sides went 43 days without talking.
Eight days of negotiations in Jupiter, Florida -- which saw the union relent on prior requests around free agency, arbitration eligibility and revenue sharing -- ended with Manfred postponing the start of Opening Day on March 1. The league imposed another deadline for Tuesday, this time for a full 162-game season, and finally agreed to higher competitive balance thresholds, seemingly carving a path for a deal. But the international draft, an unpopular mechanism for Latin American players who prefer a free market, emerged as a divisive issue that took two days to navigate around.
Manfred told Rogers on Thursday that he had serious concerns that the league would miss a chunk of the season and that the games would not be made up.
"There were spots where I was concerned we were going to miss a lot of time," Manfred told Rogers. "Whenever you think you get going and it looks like you can make an agreement and then it doesn't happen, that's concerning. We had two of those -- one in Jupiter and one earlier this week. When you start to get momentum and you can't close, that's worrisome."
At Thursday's news conference, Manfred was asked if something could have been done to get a deal done sooner, without pushing back Opening Day and canceling several spring training games.
"The way the process of collective bargaining is designed to work under the statute, it's really driven by two things: time and economic leverage," Manfred said. "No agreement comes together before those two things play out in a way that you find common ground. I think we made an agreement when it was possible to make an agreement."
That agreement will now trigger a frenzied next four weeks for the sport. More than 200 free agents -- most notably Freddie Freeman, Carlos Correa, Trevor Story and Kris Bryant -- remain unsigned. Cash-strapped teams such as the Oakland Athletics and the Cincinnati Reds are expected to trade star players. The Rule 5 draft will be canceled, but arbitration hearings will be scheduled. And it'll all take place with spring training as the backdrop.
A major question will loom beyond all of that: Can the league and its players begin to work more harmoniously together?
"I do believe -- I hope -- that the players will see the effort we made to address their concerns in this agreement as an olive branch in terms of building a better relationship," Manfred said. "We built some processes into this agreement where we're gonna be interacting more regularly with players on topics like the international draft and rule changes. I think those opportunities for positive interaction help to build a better relationship."