‘Heated’ labor talks put start of MLB spring training in jeopardy

February came in like a lion for Major League Baseball. If it goes out the same way, Opening Day will get devoured like a sickly antelope.

A bargaining session Tuesday, held at MLB’s Manhattan headquarters, did nothing to dispel the common-sense conclusion that spring training will not start on time. To the contrary, the 90-minute-or-so get-together, characterized by one industry source as “heated,” accomplished little. The players moved on a few ideas without gaining any major ground, leaving both the players and owners frustrated.

Don’t expect an imminent announcement from MLB about the delay of spring training — which is scheduled to begin on Feb. 16, with the first Grapefruit and Cactus League contests set for Feb. 26. Yet the calendar is the calendar, and reality bites. Commissioner Rob Manfred, who declared a lockout on Dec. 2, plans to hold a news conference on Feb. 10, at the conclusion of the owners’ meetings in Orlando, Fla. He will have to address the situation then unless, by some miracle, the two sides sign off on a new collective bargaining agreement beforehand.

So much work remains to be done on this deal — with major disagreements centered around arbitration eligibility, service-time manipulation, revenue sharing, tanking and the luxury-tax threshold. The players, not shy in their desire to get a bigger piece of the pie, believe they’re creating a bigger pie by signing off on notions like an expanded postseason (though they want 12 teams and the owners desire 14) and advertising patches on the uniforms. The owners, in the wake of their decisive victory over the players in the CBA negotiated during the 2016-17 offseason, oppose radical change to the sport’s economic foundation and assert they’re giving in on a couple of historic alterations — the lack of direct compensation for signing top free agents and the institution of the universal designated hitter — and are agreeable to tweaks around the margins on areas such as tanking, service-time manipulation and increased pay for younger players.

The start of spring training could be in jeopardy with the lock of progress in MLB labor negotiations.
The start of spring training could be in jeopardy with the lock of progress in MLB labor negotiations.
Corey Sipkin, AP

They must bridge these sizable gaps by, probably, the end of this month in order to honor the slated March 31 Opening Day. That the players suspect many owners wouldn’t be heartbroken to see the number of games drop to around 140 — given the poor attendance and chilly weather that typically characterize April games — enhances the agita, although many players don’t love April games, either.

On Tuesday, the players’ bargaining contingent, headed by senior director Bruce Meyer, offered to lower the money for the pre-arbitration bonuses from $105 million to $100 million. The owners were as underwhelmed by that as the players were by the owners’ original counterproposal of $10 million. Furthermore, the players’ conceived pool would include those between zero and two years’ service, while the owners’ group would expand into those between two and three years’ service who don’t qualify as “Super 2” (the top 22 percent of the class), further devaluing their offer.

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Rob Manfred

The players also adjusted a proposal that would award a full year of service to high-achieving rookies who didn’t accrue the actual 187 days. Whereas the players’ initial idea granted such a treat to infielders and catchers who finished in the top 10 in wins above replacement for their position, and pitchers and outfielders in the top 30, the players scaled that back to the top seven for the first group and the top 20 for the second group. The players also signed on to the owners’ suggestion that draft picks be rewarded to clubs that promote high-ranking prospects on Opening Day who thrive before they become eligible for arbitration, a development that pleased the owners, except they think two remedies for service-time manipulation constitutes one too many.

The two sides planned to meet in a smaller group Wednesday to discuss non-core economic issues. It now will become the owners’ turn to respond on the economic landscape. The union already has begun dipping into its reserve and distributing $5,000 checks to members who desire them.

The storm continues around this sport, the calm barely visible.

Artmotion U.S.A

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