MLB, Rob Manfred on the clock as a lockout seems inevitable

CHICAGO — Free advice to Billy Eppler: 

Don’t worry for a second about a manager, not for a millisecond about coaches, once you officially take over the Mets’ baseball operations. Hot Stove League is heating up and the Mets are in dire need of players. 

The most important aspect of this feeding frenzy is that it has a Dec. 1 expiration date, at which time Eppler will have plenty of time to decide his field staff. 

Commissioner Rob Manfred spoke Thursday at the conclusion of the Major League Baseball owners’ meetings, and he made clear that while his owners would love to sign off on a new collective bargaining agreement by the end of the current deal (11:59 p.m. on Dec. 1) and haven’t made any official decisions, they also view a lockout of the players as a viable path to avoiding the sort of work stoppage that really stings, that being an actual stoppage of work during the scheduled season. 

“Honestly I can’t believe there’s a single fan in the world who doesn’t understand that an offseason lockout that moves the process forward is different than a labor dispute that costs games,” said Manfred, who might be overestimating the species. 

The phrase “moves the process forward” reflects the owners’ thinking on this: If they can’t find common ground in time, then perhaps the best avenue to a 162-game season involves shutting down the sport — putting the squeeze, realistically, not only on the unemployed free agents and signed players who don’t want to lose 2022 pay but also on owners anxious about ticket sales and ancillary revenue. All sides suffered a huge hit with the COVID-shortened 2020 season. The teams also struggled through the early contests that saw limited attendance. 

Rob Manfred speaks at the owners' meetings Thursday.
Rob Manfred speaks at the owners’ meetings Thursday.

Manfred acknowledged, “We understand, I understand, that time is becoming an issue,” and while bargaining sessions between MLB and the MLB Players Association occur regularly, you won’t find a soul in the industry who thinks that the two sides will meet the deadline. Players, which reacted to the Basic Agreement five years ago within 12 hours of ratifying it turned bitter. They want to eliminate service-time manipulation and increase the pay of younger players in the event that older players are actuaried out. Also, they wish de-incentivize teams from losing by restructuring the amateur draft. These noble goals were all achieved. At some point, they might need to choose between the following: 

The owners’ desire for change tends to focus more on the game itself; Manfred again touted the success of the 15-second pitch clock that currently governs the Arizona Fall League. This, too, is noble, although the owners don’t seem to adore such time-savers so much as to horse-trade economic concessions for them. 

One of the biggest concerns about these talks is the apparent animosity that has developed between the sides since last year. Manfred, however, asserted, “The focus on 2020, I think, has been excessive” and “We never let personalities or what has happened in the past affect our pursuit of the fundamental goal. That is to make an agreement.” Asked whether he held concerns about the MLBPA’s competence, Manfred said, “No. Players are people I greatly respect. I assume the players selected people they believe are competent to represent them in the negotiations.” 

Justin Verlander’s big paydays, Noah Syndergaard, Eduardo Rodriguez and Noah Syndergaard are not signs of a sport that is in danger. Both sides will have to work out this in order to host a 162-game next season. This would likely mean that spring training might be interrupted at around February 15. If that doesn’t happen? The 140-game benchmark is a well-known pressure point. 

It would not be a problem for the Mets to conduct a managerial search during a lockout in order to fill the news gap. You will find it compelling to read (and report) rather than incremental progress, or lack thereof, in the labor negotiations. You should start to shop, Billy. And Steve. It’s Black Friday in the baseball world, and soon it will likely just go dark.

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