A busy weekend for free agents suggests a lockout is likely

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We’re just a few days away from the expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement: when the clock strikes midnight and December 2 arrives, that’s it. There was a sudden flurry of free agent activity this weekend, with likely more to come — Max Scherzer is rumored to be close to a deal with the Mets, but as of this writing nothing is official — and there is a pretty reasonable explanation for it all that MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand tweeted on Sunday night:

Consider this a continuation of what was discussed last week. MLB’s owners and negotiating team, in concert with the Players Association, were certainly acting like two parties that know a lockout has gone from a possibility to a likelihood when they agreed to move the non-tender deadline from after the expiration of the CBA to before it. Now, we’ve got players and their agents pushing to get deals done before the expiration of the CBA, while front offices and the owners who authorize the kind of big money deals that players like Marcus Semien (seven years, $175 million), Kevin Gausman (five years, $110 million), and Scherzer (rumors of $40 million per year) are receiving are, well, authorizing those kind of big money deals. Everything is pointing towards a lockout: we’re probably going to see a lockout.

I mentioned this a bit in last week’s piece, but I only feel it more strongly now that we’re seeing these higher-end free agents working to get deals in place before the deadline. Let’s recap:

It’s all just about reducing the unknowns as much as possible. [Ken] Rosenthal mentioned that this “effectively will flood the market with more free agents who might get pressured into lesser deals after lockout ends,” but if there was no change to the non-tender deadline and everything is going into lockdown once the CBA expires — which would happen earlier in the day than the original non-tender deadline — then those players are still going to be in the “contractual limbo”  and on a reduced negotiating schedule once the lockout ends. At least this way, some players might be able to secure a new gig on December 1, as general managers and team presidents scramble to fill some holes before everything shuts down.

Any kind of additional peace of mind that can be given to the membership of the Players Association is a positive heading into a lockout. If too many players are antsy about the fact they don’t know where they’re going to work or live in the coming season, then it might be that much easier to pressure them into taking a lesser deal just so they can put this state of unknowns behind them. Moving the non-tender deadline isn’t liable to significantly reduce the number of players who won’t know where they are playing or reporting to for the 2022 season, no, but if it puts the minds of some veterans at ease, who know exactly what they’ll be making and where once the lockout does end and the season begins, then maybe it reduces the number of little voices inside of players’ heads wondering if the fight they are currently fighting is worth all the unknown factors.

Scherzer and Semien are both Association reps on the MLBPA’s Executive Subcommittee. These guys know the score and the state of negotiations, basically, and they’re out here pushing to get signed before the lockout shuts everything down. They aren’t doing it for some kind of like, insider trading reason out of panic for what’s to come, no, but are instead acting as they should: like players who are going to get paid regardless of what the conditions of the new CBA are like, in order to bring peace to their own minds and allow them to focus exclusively on figuring out what’s best for the players whose futures are much more in question than that of a future Hall of Fame starter who can still shove and an infielder who has been one of the league’s top players in the last two non-pandemic-shortened seasons.

The history of labor negotiations in MLB are littered with veterans being impatient and just wanting to figure out their own financial futures, and forgetting the value in fighting for the guys who are still pre-free agency. Marvin Miller had to briefly come out of retirement to give a pep talk to the MLBPA that Donald Fehr was executive director of, to remind them of this. Seeing some veterans — and veterans who play a vital role in the union, veterans respected by their peers enough to be put in the position they’re in — putting their own concerns aside so they can be focused on negotiations and the lockout is probably a good sign.

Maybe I’m reading into things too much. I don’t think so, though. Scherzer has shown himself, on more than one occasion, to think quite a bit and be very intentional with not just his own financial security, but also the state of the union as a whole. I can’t imagine his pushing for a pre-lockout deal is simply a coincidence with a lockout seemingly imminent, but is instead a calculated move that tells us quite a bit about the state of bargaining. Which is to say, it works as confirmation that the next few days are time for MLB and the PA to work things out, but nothing is going to get worked out if MLB wants a lockout before they start negotiating for real.

It’s possible that things have changed in the past few days, but the most recent leaks we’ve seen — and the words of the commissioner — suggest MLB wants this lockout. And the behavior of the two sides in moving the non-tender deadline, and the sudden flurry of free agent activity, does nothing to disabuse me of the idea that a lockout is likely.

  • For Baseball Prospectus, I wrote about how MLB’s concessions on housing to minor-league baseball players show that they’re scared of those players organizing any more than they already have.
  • You can tell Bruce Meyer is good at his job with the PA because almost every time you’ve heard his name, it’s been attached to someone from the owners’ side complaining about him. Anyway, The Athletic has a piece up on Meyer, who is fighting for the change MLB players say they want.

  • Hannah Keyser made a point worth sharing on Twitter over the weekend, regarding the tone of coverage surrounding the potential lockout.

  • For my own part, I’m always wondering who someone is talking to when they begin a statement on the lockout with “no one wants a lockout/work stoppage/etc.” It’s certainly not me: if a work stoppage is what it takes for the workers to get a fair deal, then bring on the work stoppage. The players can’t strike, but if they refuse to give in to the pressures of the owner-imposed lockout, they can still come away with collectively bargained wins.

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