In the weeks leading up to tonight's midnight deadline for Major League Baseball's owners and the players union to reach an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement, all signs pointed to a clean negotiation and no indication of a work stoppage leading into the 2017 season.
But in recent days, three key issues rose to the forefront, and while – as of Wednesday morning – it appears that negotiations have progressed to the point that next week's winter meetings at National Harbor aren't in jeopardy, the next 24 hours still remain critical.
A few days ago, the most significant roadblock appeared to be the owners' insistence on creating an international draft. But now the main haggling, according to reports, is amendments to the current luxury tax, which is aimed to create competitive balance in the game by forcing teams to pay a penalty for spending more than $189 million.
That shouldn't affect the Orioles, who have never come close to reaching that luxury tax mark. But the club's payroll has increased every season and will likely pass $150 million in 2017, so they are nearing that threshold. That's expected given the game's escalating salaries.
What would affect the Orioles more would be any changes to the draft-pick compensation process. The Orioles have utilized the current system – which is designed to reward teams who lose a qualifying offer free agent with a draft pick and forces the signing team to forfeit its highest unprotected pick – to sign players whose markets dipped by being tied to draft-pick compensation.
Executive vice president Dan Duquette made his savviest move with the team by signing Nelson Cruz to a one-year, $8 million deal before the 2014 season. He also signed pitchers Ubaldo Jimenez and Yovani Gallardo to value deals late in offseasons.
While draft-pick compensation won't go away, there could be some changes to the process, according to reports, so that free agents' market value won't dip so much by being tied to a qualifying offer. The only way to do that is lift teams' hesitation to lose their top unprotected pick, so the only likely solution there is dropping compensation picks lower on the draft board. Currently, compensation picks are slotted between the first and second rounds.
The Orioles also would have benefited from an international draft, simply because they aren't a team that delves into the deep waters of what's become a lucrative international free-agent market. An international draft would include bonus slots just like the existing First-Year Player Draft that would prevent bonuses from ballooning as they have in recent years.
One aspect that would definitely help the Orioles would be the addition of a 26th spot on the major league roster. We've all seen how well manager Buck Showalter can maneuver his roster, and even though he has often railed against the access of September call-ups, adding one more roster spot would allow him to keep an additional pitcher who would start or develop another multi-inning reliever. And given the movement the Orioles roster sometimes goes through on a regular basis during the season, an extra spot would give Showalter one extra roster spot to play with, which would be incredibly valuable.
Even if the owners and union can't come to an agreement on key sticking points, they can agree to extend deadlines on certain topics in order to prevent a shutdown of the game, which would be a black mark given baseball's 21 years without a labor impasse. That is what is most likely to occur provided negotiations continue to move forward.