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Locked out: A frenetic week rich with player movement screeches to a halt as MLB brakes with first work stoppage in 26 years

Sports columnist Ben Frederickson and Jeff Gordon discuss baseball's shuttering and what the Cardinals have left to accomplish when business resumes.

After a pulse-pounding few days and a billion-dollar binge on free agents that elevated baseball into the headlines at the same time clubs cut fringe players to save a million here or there, a week rich with such contrasts reached its inevitable climax.

Major League Baseball came to a halt late Wednesday night with its first work stoppage in 26 years.

Welcome to the winter of our disconnect.

Moments after the expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement that binds owners and the players’ union, the commissioner of Major League Baseball announced an official lockout, the ninth work stoppage in the history of the majors and first in a generation.

“We hope that the lockout will jumpstart the negotiations and get us to an agreement that will allow the season to start on time,” Rob Manfred said in a statement that was presented as a “letter to fans.” It also included some of the initial jabs of a work stoppage.

“This defensive lockout was necessary because the players’ association vision for Major League Baseball would threaten the ability of most teams to be competitive,” it alleged. “It’s simply not a viable option.”

In a statement, the union countered: “This shutdown is a dramatic measure, regardless of the timing. It is not required by law. ... It was the owners’ choice, plain and simple, specifically calculated to pressure players into relinquishing rights and benefits, and abandoning good faith bargaining.”

After representatives from both sides met Wednesday in Irving, Texas, the owners convened to approve an immediate lockout of players and plunge the game into its first labor limbo since losing the 1994 World Series to a players strike. Max Scherzer was one of the players involved in Wednesday’s negotiations and, during the announcement of his record-setting three-year, $130-million deal with the Mets, he said “the lockout seems like that is a very likely scenario.”

Owners had the choice to continue with the existing CBA and allow for the winter to progress on those terms. The rush of signings in the past 72 hours hint at what the industry expected. The lockout immediately ends all transactions involving major-league players. The overheated market freezes. Communication is prohibited between the teams and players on the 40-man roster, free agents, and their agents. The winter meetings, scheduled for next week near Disney World, have been canceled for major-league teams.

The owners believe a lockout will create leverage for eventual negotiations with the players’ association. It also could lead to a lengthy standstill because neither side feels a bruising financial pinch until games and television revenue are at stake — in March.

“There is a part of it that is this — it’s our say in our game and the direction that we can go forward,” said former Cardinals reliever Kyle McClellan, who was a part of the union’s committee that negotiated the CBA in 2011. “There have probably been more changes in the past five years than the previous 20. And that’s a cause for conversation. You have to look where the game is headed and what that means for both sides. Both sides understand the severity of this. Nobody wants a work stoppage. They know what that does to the fans.”

The expired CBA was agreed upon in 2016 and celebrated as a continuation of the longest labor peace in North American major pro sports. The last time MLB had a work stoppage was Aug. 12, 1994, five weeks after Shohei Ohtani was born.

Concerns the union had in 2016 have only grown aggravated in the years since.

A middle class of players have been squeezed out of the free-agent riches. Teams are turning to younger, “cost-effective” players, churning rosters, and manipulating service time to score an extra year of control before free agency. At the same time, the calculus analytics have brought to the game and changes to the draft have incentivized tanking because for some teams finishing last can be more valuable than finishing third — and cost less, too.

To address these concerns, the players’ union would like to see changes to the arbitration process, proposing earlier access to it and lowering the threshold for free agency from its current length at six years of service time. According to reports, players proposed a player’s age also be a trigger for free agency. The union has also stressed the need to change the draft process and install guardrails that eliminate the appeal of the freefall strategy Houston, the Cubs, Pittsburgh, and other teams have used to withdraw from competing and rebuild into a contender.

“First and foremost, we see a competition problem and how teams are behaving because of certain rules,” said Scherzer, a Mizzou All-American and Parkway Central grad. “Adjustments have to be made because of that in order to bring out the competition. As players that is absolutely critical to us, to have a highly competitive league, and when we don’t have that, we have issues.”

Scherzer told The Athletic recently a CBA that did not address competitive concerns and did not lead to “younger players getting paid” would not be one he’d “put my name on.”

In his statement, Manfred called the union’s goals “the most extreme set of proposals in their history.”

While seeing their game grow in recent years to an $11-billion industry and franchise values mushroom, the owners don’t mind the current economic structure, but have proposed some changes. The owners would like to expand the playoffs — which might only deepen the competitive issues Scherzer mentioned — and introduce changes to rules (pitch clock) and uniforms (advertisements). According to reports, the owners offered two incremental improvements for players by dropping draft pick compensation that reduces a free agent’s market and upping the minimum salary, which has lagged.

Both sides agree on the universal designated hitter, making it a chip to play to achieve a gain elsewhere in negotiations.

Scherzer is one of eight players on the MLBPA’s executive committee and directly involved in the negotiations. This year, the union also has a lead negotiator, Bruce Meyer, whose first real tussle as a representative of the MLBPA came during the negotiations to restart the 2020 season after quarantine. His assertive style mirrors that of the owners’ leader, the one who has made significant gains in the most recent CBA negotiations — commissioner Rob Manfred.

The union’s executive committee, which also includes former Cardinals reliever Andrew Miller in a prominent and trusted role, has three players who have nine-figure contracts, the spoils of CBA negotiations done by previous generations. Two, Gerrit Cole and Francisco Lindor, have current deals worth more than $300 million. Two others, Scherzer and Marcus Semien, signed deals in the past week for at least $130 million. Scherzer, at 37, set a new record for annual salary at $43.3 million.

On Wednesday, while negotiations happened in Texas, Scherzer and four other players had contracts worth at least $100 million announced by teams. All were part of an exhilarating week of player movement and team’s lavish spending. Cue the celebratory press conferences.

It was the symbolic equivalent of pouring a warm, comforting cup of rich cocoa in the kitchen — while all around the house was on fire.

Scherzer acknowledged as other free agents did: The likelihood of a lockout accelerated their interest in signing before the CBA’s expiration, “to remove the risk” of a rushed free-agent market close to spring training. A potential work stoppage created a deadline. That’s usually what gets things moving in baseball — whether that’s trades, free agency, or labor negotiations. Deadlines force action. It could be spring before that de facto deadline nears.

“We’re trying to make the game better, (and) we’re trying to make the game more competitive through various means,” Scherzer said. “There are so many ways as players as a whole that we believe we can make the game better. And, we’re absolutely committed to doing that. … As players, we’re steadfast in our belief in how we see the game.”

Garcia picks Padres; Cards sign minor-league SS

Luis Garcia, the righthanded reliever the Cardinals approached about returning for the 2022 season, agreed to terms Wednesday with San Diego. Garcia, who turns 35 in January, signed a two-year deal reportedly worth $7 million. Plucked out of the Yankees’ organization at midseason, Garcia became a late-inning, heavy-sinker factor for the Cardinals. The Cardinals had discussions with other righthanded relievers included Ryan Tepera and Joe Kelly, neither of who had signed by Wednesday evening. Another wave of relievers became available at Tuesday’s contract-offer deadline for 40-man players. That group includes Robert Gsellman, who has a similar profile to Garcia when the Cardinals acquired him. … The Cardinals signed shortstop Roberto Baldoquin to a minor-league contract a day after releasing middle infielder Jose Rondon from the 40-man roster. Baldoquin, 27, hit .355 with a .553 slugging percentage in the Atlantic League this past season. The Cuban originally signed with the Angels in 2015 for an $8-million bonus. He reached Class AA in 2018 and 2019, where he hit .253 with a .376 slugging percentage in Los Angeles’ system.

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