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Updraft? MLB, union close gap on reinventing draft, crave 11th-hour momentum in negotiations

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Baseball Lockout

New York Mets' Max Scherzer, back to camera at left, former player Kevin Slowey, center, and former St. Louis Cardinals' Andrew Miller arrive for baseball contract negotiations at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla., Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022. (Greg Lovett/The Palm Beach Post via AP)

JUPITER, Fla. — As time shortens before Monday’s stated deadline to assure a full regular season, the longest day of discussions at the Jupiter Summit between Major League Baseball and its players’ union ended with momentum toward agreement on a substantial change to the draft.

Both sides, after four days in Florida with either incremental or ornamental exchanges, shared a sense of progress after the sun set at Roger Dean Stadium with the possibility that the sides could agree on baseball’s first draft lottery when they resume talks Saturday and move on.

Any path to a deal has to be cleared of pebbles and stones.

Boulders still loom ahead.

As the second longest work stoppage in baseball history inched closer to 90 days, the leagues canceled spring training games through March 7, an MLB spokesman said.

Three more days of lost exhibition games reflects the owners expectation that coming to an agreement on any deal is likely to take until Monday’s deadline Major League Baseball has set before it begins canceling regular-season games and, thus, reducing salaries players can expect to be paid. The union has not agreed to that deadline and has privately shared some doubt about completing an agreement in time. The MLBPA has responded to the urgency the deadline created by meeting every day this weekend; meetings are scheduled through Monday.

Perhaps emblematic of the ticking clock, commissioner Rob Manfred surprised the union with his presence Friday at the ballpark and met privately with MLBPA chief Tony Clark. Manfred has been present at the ballpark, an official confirmed, but had stayed to the owners’ side of Roger Dean. The one-on-one meeting between Manfred and Clark lasted less than 30 minutes and was the first time the principals of the two sides are known to have meet since April 2020. That meeting went so awry that they each had to issue statements about their interpretations of a one-on-one meeting.

It is not unusual for them to be absent from the negotiations but present for their individual group caucuses. Manfred has not been present at the table with the union for these negotiations since April, an official confirmed.

The conversation between the two leaders Friday centered on advancing the negotiations, an MLB spokesman said.

For the fifth consecutive day, a group of players huddled with union officials in the Cardinals’ spring training parking lot before using the Cardinals’ building as their headquarters for their discussions and their meetings with the owners.

Cardinals coach Jose Oquendo, his day complete after working with minor leaguers on the fielding drills during the morning, was leaving the lot just as the group of players, including St. Louis native Max Scherzer and former Cardinals reliever Andrew Miller, entered the building. Within 5 minutes, the owners had come from their side for the first of three exchanges, not including the Manfred-Clark confab.

The initial catering order at Roger Dean Stadium was to provide food for the owners’ meeting rooms through Friday.

Catering was extended through Monday.

While conversations covered the broader, bigger issues of the luxury tax and the gap between the two sides on the proposed minimum salary and arbitration eligibility, the only exchange of proposals Friday were about the draft lottery. One of the union’s area of focus has been on reducing the incentives for tanking and changing the draft so that the worst record does not guarantee the top pick. Both sides agree — the catch has been how to get there.

The owners counterproposal Friday continued to include only the top four picks — not top seven, as the union proposed — but borrowed some of the restrictions the union authored to limit how many consecutive years a team could be eligible for the top picks.

MLB’s proposed draft lottery would include all teams that did not make the playoffs and assign a percentage chance of landing the first pick of the draft based on their final finish. The bottom three teams in the standings would all have the same chance at getting the first pick, shrinking the appeal of the tank-and-tumble approach Houston practiced to score three consecutive No. 1 picks from 2012-2014. In response to the union’s model, MLB introduced limits to how many consecutive years a team would be eligible in the lottery before being ineligible for higher picks.

The day of talks ended with two representatives from the owners’ side meeting briefly with the union and carrying a counterproposal back to the other side.

A potential speedbump to the draft momentum comes at the opening of MLB’s description: The number of teams that did not make the playoffs. The two sides remain apart on that number with the union proposing 12 teams in an expanded playoffs and the owners seeking 14.

Still, the pace of meetings and length of the day Friday revealed how the next three days will have to go if an agreement is to be reached before both sides leave Monday and, if a new CBA isn’t inked, halt these daily negotiations and regather in opposing corners. The goal Friday, each side described, was to identify an issue where there could be a narrowing of negotiations, seize on that potential, and create momentum for an agreement. Both sides used that description: Momentum.

What they gained on issues.

What they’ve lacked on others.

If they can complete a draft lottery architecture that appeals to both sides they can clear that from the conversations and invest in the next topic, working through the issues and the CBA like a shopping list. The union made a proposal to reduce service time manipulation and are awaiting word from the owners if there’s progress there. The wish to increase the minimum salary, increase the number of players eligible for arbitration, and decrease the power of luxury-tax penalties remain goals for the union and, to this point, obstacles for a deal.

The plan is for both sides to meet earlier Saturday.

They’ll likely stay later.

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