It feels like MLB is trying to force a signing deadline

MLB can’t get a salary cap, but they’ve got other ideas for artificially depressing free agent spending.

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It’s March 6. Major League Baseball is weeks into spring training now, and yet, some of the top free agents are still sitting there by the phone, waiting to be signed. It’s a real problem, but what the problem is, exactly, is not something that the league and the Players Association agree on.

MLB wants to institute a signing deadline, for all free agent activity, that’ll create “flurried,” short-term activity in the offseason. They’ve even proposed such a deadline to the union, which was not interested in that kind of arrangement, and have since brought up the fact they proposed it as if it would have been a true solution to the issue. Alden Gonzalez recently wrote about all of this for ESPN:

During early labor talks in 2019, MLB proposed a multiyear-contract deadline that would land on the last full day of the winter meetings, which are typically held in the first full week of December. After that, free agents would be allowed to sign only one-year deals until the start of the following offseason. The MLBPA rejected the proposal. MLB tried again in the summer of 2021, less than six months before the CBA’s expiration, this time proposing a seven-day window — once again spilling into the end of the winter meetings — for players to sign multiyear deals. It was formally rejected by the union in the fall.

Each time, said a source familiar with the league’s strategy, MLB presented its proposals on a trial basis, allowing players to back out if the new system was deemed unfavorable. The union, sources said, never countered. The MLBPA canvassed a wide group of agents and players after the first proposal, and they were virtually unanimous in their belief that a deadline would negatively impact players, a source familiar with the union’s thinking said.

MLBPA executive director Tony Clark told reporters in Scottsdale, Arizona, recently that a signing deadline is “going to do more damage to players in those conversations than the other way around,” alluding to a widely held belief among players and agents that front office executives would use it as a tool to suppress salaries.

I’m with Clark, in that MLB would simply wait players out and force bad deals — the solution to players attempting to sign contracts for what they’re worth would be to be, eventually, forced to sign one-year deals in the months after the imposed deadline, or severely discounted multi-year deals if they simply want to avoid the experience again. This should be obvious to anyone who thinks about it for more than 10 seconds, too, but sadly, that’s asking a little too much from far too many.

It’s also worth pointing out, as Craig Goldstein recently did, that no other sport operates this way, either:

For starters, no other major sport does this. Even the ones you think of when you think of for their constant free agent news cycles–-they don’t have a deadline. Sure, much of the relevant portion of the offseason wraps up for free agents quite quickly in both the NBA and the NFL, but neither have artificial rules forcing everyone to act. Think about it: The NFL’s now-reigning Comeback Player of the Year was just a dude who was sitting on his couch midseason until the Browns picked him up to be their quarterback. It works the same way in the NBA—there’s no deadline by which a team can sign a free agent.

What both sports have, though, is a salary cap. A hard one in the NFL and a soft one in the NBA, but both leagues have caps (and floors) that dictate how much money is available to the players. That’s why things are so frenzied when free agency opens up—not only are teams generally limited to similar terms (with significant exceptions in basketball), but also the specific pot of money available to players is known by all sides, so players jump at the chance to secure theirs from preferred destinations. With no cap or floor, MLB’s players and agents have a much different scenario on their hands in terms of generating the best offers from teams.

MLB claims the idea for a deadline is to make a big showing of the offseason activity that makes fans excited for the upcoming season. That’s a cover: they want more control over the proceedings and to limit free agent spending even further in lieu of the cap they also desperately want but can’t get. The Players Association doesn’t want there to be an artificial deflation of the free agent market, which is pretty standard operating procedure for them, and the reason why they didn’t even bother submitting counter proposals to MLB’s attempts at instituting a deadline. It’s not even worth engaging with, but MLB is going to keep trying to make it happen.

To the point that it’s starting to feel like all of this waiting is being done with purpose. Collective purpose, even. There’s probably a word for that sort of thing, but instead of using it at this early juncture, let’s just wonder aloud if MLB is intentionally making the offseasons feel far worse than they need to for players in order to try to drum up either desperation from players for something to change during the next collective bargaining in 2026, or for fans to be so fed up with the waiting game that they no longer are backing the players on this point. Public relations isn’t the whole battle, but it’s certainly part of it, and MLB knows they’re better off when the fans aren’t assuming they have ill intent.

My guess is that talk for a deadline goes nowhere, just like talk for a salary cap does: it’s a non-starter topic. But MLB will also try to find other ways to deflate the free agent market even further and make it less attractive to players, in order to sign more of them to team-friendly pre-free agency deals in the future. It’s all connected, and something to watch out for, especially the closer we get to the next round of bargaining.

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