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Matthew Roberson: What will Major League Baseball look like post-lockout?

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In this file photo, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred looks on prior to Game 1 of the World Series between the Atlanta Braves and the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on Oct. 26, 2021 in Houston.

In this file photo, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred looks on prior to Game 1 of the World Series between the Atlanta Braves and the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on Oct. 26, 2021 in Houston. (Bob Levey/Getty Images/TNS)

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Whether it’s full on reconstructive surgery or just some touch ups around the edges, Major League Baseball could look a lot different the next time we see it.

For starters, an Opening Day in May or June would have a much different vibe than the traditional late-March start date. While the weather across the country would be much more tolerable the later the season is delayed, the collective feelings from fans and players would be cold enough to bring things down toward the familiar temperature.

A prolonged lockout is a classic no-win situation for both sides, though Rob Manfred and the owners would surely spin it as a necessary evil geared toward moving the league forward. That may make sense in their brains, but listening to Manfred explain how the second shortened season in three years is actually a good thing could be enough for some people to tune out until the commissioner is deposed.

As the lockout bleeds into January and beyond, it creates the unavoidable situation of nothingness ultimately giving way to a frantic scramble. The last major transaction before the lockout came right under the buzzer when Marcus Stroman signed a three-year deal with the Cubs just hours before MLB had to pretend like he didn’t exist anymore. The moment the lockout ends, teams and players are free to communicate again (legally, that is), which could spark another frantic free agent frenzy.

From an entertainment standpoint, a 72-hour blizzard of player movement would be fun, but it amplifies one of the core problems that got us a lockout in the first place. The players, understandably, have a keen interest in getting paid as early and often as they can. Players who hit free agency during the lockout were dealt a bad hand — or if you choose to view it another way, were wronged by their agents, who could have seen this coming and negotiated around it — but the topic of free agency as a whole will get a re-examination in the coming weeks.

The players, put quite simply, want to get to arbitration and free agency sooner, thus giving them as many opportunities to cash out as possible. Currently, players need six full years of service time to reach free agency. They need three years under their belt before they can take their team to arbitration. Bringing those numbers down will be of chief interest to the players union, and achieving their goal would have massive ripple effects throughout the league.

MLB imposed a lockout in its players on Dec. 2, triggering its first work stoppage since 1994.

If the waiting period for free agency was five full seasons instead of six, Aaron Judge would be a free agent right now rather than the end of the 2022 season. If Judge was on the open market now, as he’d likely prefer, he’d be in line for one of the richest deals in league history given his stellar 2021 production. He could still get that deal next winter, but the specter of injury or poor performance threatens to cost him a few million.

The current system also prevented Judge from being paid what he was worth after his historic rookie season. Rather than turning 52 homers and a Rookie of the Year award into a multi-million dollar contract, Judge was rewarded with a $77,800 raise. This system now has its teeth in Juan Soto, one of the undisputed best players in the world who won’t get paid like one until 2025.

Many of the players’ lockout interests reside at the bank, and rightfully so, given that the players are the lifeblood of the sport. For the owners, simple yet controversial changes like an expanded postseason or sponsorship patches on jerseys could rake in more than enough cheddar to cover those costs. The combination of more playoff games and jersey patches would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a report by The Athletic.

None of those topics even broach the baseball side of things, like a designated hitter in the National League or a draft lottery that would install soft protection against tanking. The short term implications of that are important for someone like, say, the Mets’ aging albatross Robinson Cano, who’s wondering where he’ll play when he makes his return from a PED suspension. But the long term effects are crucial as well.

Take a team like the Oakland Athletics, who are expected to bottom out and sell off most of their attractive players before it’s their turn for a deserved payday. The reward for that process, apart from billionaires saving money that is essentially negligible to them, has always been a top draft pick. More losing means more of a chance to land a generational talent and underpay them for the first six years of their career, continuing the vicious cycle that the players are fighting to end.

That losing takes a toll on the fans, though. Just ask anyone in Baltimore or Miami. For the A’s, actively trying to lose, plus a less-than-desirable stadium situation, could be the last straw for fans who would have to stomach the supremely sad reality of the A’s playing in Nashville or Las Vegas. Small market teams will continue to tank if there’s an incentive to do so, and figuring out a way around that is one of the most fraught issues on Manfred’s plate that’s still sitting untouched over a month into this uncomfortable dinner.

Other things will get sorted out along the way, whether it’s immediate or an arc on the cyclical curve that often sweeps through American society and the sports that inhabit it. Will a collective disdain for bullpen games — despite years of evidence now showing they actually work — lead to starters throwing more innings again? Maybe the stolen base will make a comeback, or the league will attempt to counteract the home run boom by making ground ball pitchers the new market inefficiency? The difference is in a matter of percentage points, but the lowest league-wide ground ball rates of the last 20 years are all in the last three years.

The seeds of those faraway questions will be planted in this new CBA, or at least, they should be. An eerily silent beginning to the lockout does not seem to bode well for anyone involved, and the inactivity does nothing but create more tension about what the sport will look like when it comes back this year, if it even does at all.

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