What to know about MLB’s offseason, expiring CBA and potential work stoppage

A lockout appears likely to happen when the CBA expires on Dec. 1 at 11:59 p.m.

Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff
Fenway Park won't be busy this winter, but the Red Sox might be.

Major League Baseball’s offseason officially began in early November, after the Atlanta Braves won the World Series. Since then, any player whose contract expired at the end of the season became a free agent. The Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers already made a trade. All the usual offseason machinations have begun.

But this offseason seems likely to be unusually busy – or perhaps unusually not busy, depending on how things go – because MLB and the players’ union are in the process of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement that will need to be in place for the offseason to proceed as usual and the 2022 season to start on time.


With that uncertainty looming, the heads of baseball operations for all 30 teams will gather in Carlsbad, Calif., for the annual general managers’ meetings, which begin Tuesday. They will do so uncertain of when new rules governing the way they build their rosters will be in place, or if new rules will even materialize at all. And they do so uncertain of whether a work stoppage will occur before MLB and its players can agree on how they will operate moving forward.

Here’s what you need to know about MLB’s offseason and the CBA.

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– When does the CBA expire?

The collective bargaining agreement expires at 11:59 p.m. Eastern time Dec. 1. If MLB (representing team owners) and the players’ union have not agreed to a new CBA by then, owners would almost certainly decide to “lock out” the players by freezing all offseason transactions until they know the financial constraints and new regulations under which they will be operating. Of course, the owners do not have to freeze transactions and can continue negotiating as the offseason proceeds. But traditionally, they have opted to freeze all operations until new rules are in place.

– What are the other key dates for the offseason?

After the GM meetings, that Dec. 1 expiration of the CBA is really the only date that matters. If an agreement is in place, MLB’s winter meetings will take place in the first week of December and everything proceeds as usual. If not, everything stops until the sides reach an agreement. Either way, pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to spring training sites in mid-February.

– Will there be a work stoppage?

Most people in the industry seem to think so, but most people in the industry have not been in the rooms where MLB Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem and Major League Baseball Players Association senior legal officer Bruce Meyer have been engaged in some form of negotiations for months now.


Consensus in the industry holds that the players want major systemic changes to the way they are compensated and the way teams are held accountable for not making concerted efforts to compete. Changes that big will undoubtedly be uncomfortable for the traditionalist, conservative MLB ownership. The question is how far the players are willing to go to get those changes and how willing MLB is to make them.

If a work stoppage takes place, it will be the first MLB has endured in more than two decades. That work stoppage, a strike staged by players protesting the implementation of a salary cap, made MLB the first American professional sports league to lose an entire postseason to labor unrest. A year after losing nearly an entire season’s worth of revenue to the coronavirus pandemic, a lockout could be financially devastating.

– What does MLB want to change about the CBA?

Aside from a few small tweaks, team owners probably would be just fine continuing under the current operation procedure for a few more years. One of MLB’s most high-profile desires is an expanded postseason, which would increase television and ticket revenue by adding a few teams and another round to the playoffs. How that would work and what it would look like would depend on the proposals themselves.

– What do the players want to change about the CBA?

The players want to change just about everything, at least to hear their representatives explain it. Among the biggest concerns for players is the question of what MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark calls “competitive integrity” – in other words, tanking. Players want to find a way to incentivize small-market franchises that do not make genuine attempts to field competitive teams to spend. The more those teams spend, the more lucrative jobs exist for players, the more opportunity for highly paid veterans.


Similarly, the union hopes to ensure that young players who create large portions of organizations’ on-field production without being paid commensurate to their contributions can work within a system that compensates them more fairly. Issues such as service-time manipulation – or teams holding major-league-ready young stars in the minors to avoid starting the clock on the six years of major league service time most players complete before becoming free agents – are likely sticking points, too.

Oh, and any hint of a salary cap will be a non-starter for the players. The current competitive balance tax that imposes progressive fines on teams that pass a preset spending threshold is already unpopular among players, who think that if wealthy teams can spend freely, it will encourage those with lower payrolls to spend, too. Anything that hardens the line on the upper limitations of what teams can spend on player salaries will be a no-go for players, though MLB knows that well, of course.

– Who negotiates on the players’ committee?

While every major league team elects a player representative each year, the players are collectively represented by an eight-player executive subcommittee, also elected by players leaguewide. The eight players on this year’s subcommittee are Max Scherzer, Andrew Miller, Gerrit Cole, Marcus Semien, James Paxton, Jason Castro, Francisco Lindor and Zack Britton.

– Will the universal DH be adopted for 2022?

Probably. Both sides seem open to universal implementation by next season. The only question is whether the owners, some of whom would have to pay for one more expensive player than they would have to without the DH in the National League, will decide to use the DH as a bargaining chip to get some concession they want from the players. If both sides just sat down and picked things they agreed on before getting to the tough stuff, the universal DH would probably be one of the first things both sides could agree to fairly quickly.

– What other rule changes could go into effect?

The main on-field changes seem to be expanded playoffs and the universal designated hitter. Commissioner Rob Manfred has said he does not expect the rule changes that were implemented amid the coronavirus pandemic – putting a runner on second base in extra innings, shortening doubleheaders to seven-inning games, etc. – to stick. Other topics could be the makeup of the ball, sticky stuff regulation and a pitch clock to try to speed games along.


But all of those are likely to be secondary considerations to off-field rule changes such as moves toward or away from a salary cap or floor (though neither seems likely to make a final agreement), the abolition of arbitration for young players in favor of a formula to calculate salaries during those years and a new approach to determining when players are eligible for free agency.

– Can the CBA include vaccine mandates?

Sure, but only if the players’ union agrees to it. So far, the players have not come close to agreeing to a vaccine mandate – the only on-field employees that did not operate under one of those by the postseason, at least in broad terms. The players seem unlikely to change their stance on that issue now.

– What happened the last time the union and MLB negotiated a CBA?

The previous three times the CBA was set to expire, MLB and the MLBPA reached agreements before it did. The last time, after the 2016 season, both sides “kicked the can down the road” (as many involved now like to put it) by avoiding drastic change to the major issues they will have to confront this time around.

– How many times has baseball had a work stoppage?

MLB had eight work stoppages from 1972 to 1995 but none since. The last one, in 1995, stunned a generation by ending the 1994 season early, canceling the World Series and leaving MLB reeling from the ill will for years.

– When does spring training start?

Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report in mid-February.

– When is Opening Day?

Opening Day is Thursday, March 31 – for now.


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