More than three months ago, Major League Baseball owners implemented a lockout of the players that commissioner Rob Manfred said at the time would hopefully “jump-start the negotiations and get us to an agreement that will allow the season to start on time.”
That appears to have been far from the case. The start of spring training is less than two weeks away, and only a handful of meetings between the owners and the MLB Players Association have taken place to work toward a new collective bargaining agreement. It seems doubtful Orioles pitchers and catchers, at least those on the major league roster, will report to Sarasota, Florida, on Feb. 15 as scheduled. Each passing day in which the owners’ lockout continues also increases the likelihood of the postponement or cancellation of games in the regular season, slated to begin March 31.
Late last week, the players’ union rejected a request from the owners to involve a federal mediator in their negotiations — a move players saw as a public relations stunt rather than a sincere effort to move discussions forward. Players then took to social media to lay out what they were after and publicly encourage the league to come to the bargaining table, uniting with the hashtag “#AtTheTable.”
New York Mets starter Max Scherzer expressed the players’ desires plainly: alterations to luxury tax thresholds, increased salaries for players not yet eligible for free agency and the ends of service time manipulation and tanking. Owners have budged on a handful of the players’ wants, just not to a level the union has found worthy of an agreement.
As the two sides work toward an outcome they find mutually beneficial, it’s clear the loss of games helps neither. So, what are they after, and how might that outcome impact the Orioles?
If there’s an issue the sides seem to be in something resembling an agreement on, it’s the issue of tanking, the concept of teams minimizing their effort to construct a winning team to have high draft picks over several consecutive seasons. It’s a methodology the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros deployed en route to winning the World Series, and the Orioles — with a manager in Brandon Hyde who coached on those Cubs teams and a general manager in Mike Elias who was an executive for Houston — are largely seen as also participating in that strategy. In three seasons under Elias and Hyde, the Orioles are the only team more than 100 games under .500.
The first two seasons earned them top-five draft picks — as well as the larger signing bonus pools that come with them — and if the format under the previous CBA remains in place, Baltimore will pick first overall in 2022. Both the league and the players have discussed implementing a draft lottery, similar to what the NBA uses to determine who selects earliest in its draft, though neither side has that method starting until 2023, according to The Athletic. The difference is in the depth of the lottery, with MLB’s proposal including the top three picks and the union’s featuring the first eight selections. To further incentivize trying to win, the players also want to reward smaller-market teams that make the playoffs or even finish .500 with additional draft picks no later than after the second round. Both proposals limit the number of consecutive seasons a team is eligible for the lottery.
What this means for the Orioles: If the 2022 season sees the Orioles finish with baseball’s worst record for the third time in five years, there’s no guarantee they pick first overall in the 2023 draft. Under the league’s proposal, Baltimore’s worst-case scenario would be the fourth pick, where the union’s proposal could have them end up as low as ninth.
It’s likely this resolves in some form of middle ground in terms of number of picks the lottery decides, but with both proposals featuring limits on how long teams can be featured in the lottery, 100-loss seasons in both 2022 and 2023 — the latter of which would be an indictment of this rebuild — could guarantee the Orioles a lower pick than they would otherwise receive. The hope is that they won’t be picking near the top of the draft for much longer, but if that’s not the case, changes to the draft structure could affect them for years to come.
Service time manipulation
To be credited for one of the six years of service time required to reach free agency, a player must be in the majors for 172 days of the 187-day season. Teams have on occasion delayed a top prospect’s debut to guarantee they don’t reach the full year, effectively giving themselves seven years of control over the player. In the most notable example, the Cubs kept former second overall pick Kris Bryant in the minors up until he could earn only 171 days in 2015.
Teams generally (and understandably) prioritize a full year down the line — one in which that player is likely to be in the prime of his career — over two weeks or even months in the present. It’s a system unfair to the player in question, who reaches free agency a year later and likely has his salary somewhat diminished in the process. Still, both the league and the union seem to be willing to address this issue, ensuring that every team is incentivized to have its best players on the field on Opening Day. Each side’s proposal at least partly involved award voting, with the players wanting to credit players who meet certain criteria with a full year of service regardless of how much time they actually spend in the majors, while the league suggested awarding draft picks to teams who have top prospects actually earn a full year, among other requirements.
What this means for the Orioles: This could be the most immediately impactful aspect of these negotiations from Baltimore’s perspective. The Orioles’ 40-man roster does not have any catchers, but they do have top prospect Adley Rutschman ready to take over the position. The first overall pick in the 2019 draft, Rutschman immediately became the jewel of Baltimore’s farm system and thrived in the high minors in 2021, his first full professional season.
Based on every internal and external glowing report about Rutschman, there’s little reason to think he couldn’t handle catching John Means on Opening Day, whenever it arrives. But two extra early-season weeks of Rutschman in 2022 is not equivalent value to a full season of Rutschman in 2028. It’s fair to wonder whether either side’s proposal would provide enough incentive for the Orioles to have Rutschman be their Opening Day catcher; is a draft pick worth a full year of a former first-overall pick, who by that point could be a multi-time All-Star and one of the top catchers in baseball?
Pre-free agency salaries
Arbitration is a salary structure within MLB in which players with at least three but fewer than six years of service time are able to earn increasing salaries before they reach free agency; players between two and three years who have the most service time are also eligible.
MLBPA’s effort to make all two-year players eligible for arbitration gained no traction, so the union largely shifted its attention to improving salaries for pre-arbitration players. Players proposed an increase of about $200,000 to bring the minimum salary to $775,000, with the league suggesting step increases capped at $700,000 in the player’s third season, according to The Athletic.
Both the owners and the union are open to the introduction of a pre-arbitration bonus pool, where players not yet eligible for arbitration would have their salaries increased based on performance. The league proposed a pool of $10 million, while the union’s latest offer — part of a larger proposal the league said it would counter then did not — was $100 million.
What this means for the Orioles: Of the 62 players the Orioles used in 2021, only 10 had reached arbitration. Any increase to the league minimum salary would surely mean an uptick in Baltimore’s overall payroll. For much of the year, about 20 of the Orioles’ 26 roster spots featured a player not yet eligible for arbitration; a $100,000 increase in the salary of each player would mean about $2 million more spent over the course of the season. Baltimore’s 2021 Opening Day roster featured only two individual players making that much.
Much remains to be determined in regard to the bonus pool, but if teams are at all involved in deciding which players receive how much, those choices could have long-term impacts on how players view the organization.
Unlike most other professional sports leagues, MLB lacks a salary cap. But the union believes the competitive-balance tax, which taxes teams with a payroll exceeding certain tiers, effectively serves as one.
Both sides have proposed increasing the thresholds, with the league suggesting smaller upticks with greater penalties for exceeding the tiers and the union desiring the opposite pairing. Teams have often pointed to the penalties for exceeding the luxury tax threshold as a reason not to add or even to shed payroll, most notably in the form of the Boston Red Sox trading away star outfielder Mookie Betts.
Although an increase in the threshold would allow teams to freely spend more, it doesn’t require it. A change that would perhaps have that effect is implementing lower tax thresholds that teams would be required to spend above to avoid penalties. Last year, the league reportedly made a proposal for a $100 million salary floor — a mark five teams, including Baltimore, were beneath in 2021 — though it came with a reduction in the lowest CBT tier. It’s an unlikely point for the owners to agree to without the players’ side having to sacrifice something of significance.
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What this means for the Orioles: Baltimore has never exceeded any of the CBT tiers and certainly hasn’t approached them during this rebuild, with money stripped from the major league payroll and some of that devoted to other areas of the organization. As young players begin to see their salaries increase and free agents are added to the mix, that could change.
In the meantime, the introduction of a salary floor or a tax-based pseudo version — a concept not discussed in these mid-lockout negotiations — would be more impactful. Including projected salaries for arbitration-eligible players Means, Trey Mancini and Tanner Scott, the Orioles’ 2022 payroll for CBT purposes is as of now expected to be about $60 million, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. That’s 29th of 30 teams.
Number of playoff teams
In the shortened 2020 season, more than half of MLB’s 30 teams made the playoffs. The Orioles were up for one of the 16 playoff spots late in the year but ended up with the game’s fifth-worst record anyway.
The league returned to 10 playoff teams in 2021, but that count seems likely to expand in 2022. The owners have proposed 14 playoffs teams — more playoff teams means more playoff games, which means more television money — and players have somewhat acquiesced to that desire by suggesting 12 teams, though its proposals include a structure that could have as many or more actual games as MLB’s (which also reportedly features increases in players’ postseason shares). Both proposals include byes for each league’s best teams.
What this means for the Orioles: If a 12-team format existed in 2021, all four of the Orioles’ AL East companions would have made the playoff field. Baltimore’s front office has the difficult task of not only building a team capable of contending, but also facing a quartet of teams that already are.
An expanded postseason, as 2020 nearly showed, means the leap the Orioles need to take to become a playoff team becomes a narrower one. This is an element of these discussions not likely to come into play for the 2022 Orioles, and a successful rebuild should mean they don’t need to be clawing for those final playoff berths anyway, but it’s an aspect that could impact them in the future regardless.