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Baseball Is Back! But What Did It Take to Get Here?

On Thursday, MLB and the players union ratified a CBA that ends the lockout. But what is in that agreement? And how will it affect the on-field product, the playoffs, and the sport at large?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Just after 3 p.m. ET Thursday, after nearly 100 days of conflict between MLB and the MLBPA, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that the two sides had reached a tentative agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement. The comprehensive five-year labor deal was ratified shortly thereafter, and spring training camps can open as soon as Friday.

The twists and turns of MLB’s first lockout of the 21st century have been unpredictable (and strange), but they’ve followed a course of appropriate, almost literary absurdity. On Thursday morning, Passan broke news that the league and the union had come to a compromise on one of the few line-in-the-sand issues still at stake: the international amateur draft. (More accurately, they’ve agreed not to come to a compromise for a while, but more on that later.) And in between that announcement and breaking news of the full CBA, Passan, one of the most trusted reporters in the sport, had his Twitter account hacked by cryptocurrency grifters. Baseball is back—but not before our regularly scheduled programming is interrupted by some weird scam.

Regardless, with this agreement, each team will play 162 games this season, which seemed like a pipe dream just a few days ago. Opening Day is now April 7, and the season will be stretched by three days and peppered with double-headers to accommodate rescheduled games. But there will be no doomsday scenario, no lost or truncated season that could threaten the future viability of the sport. In all likelihood, this lockout will feel like a distant memory by Memorial Day.

So where do things stand, after three months and change of staring across a conference table?

1. Both sides have a lot to be unhappy about, but the owners are going to get much richer.

Both parties have plenty of reasons to dislike this deal. The owners didn’t get a 14-team postseason, they didn’t get an international draft (at least not yet), and they didn’t flatten the competitive balance tax threshold to squash free agent spending. But the players also couldn’t manage to expand Super Two eligibility, shorten the path to free agency, or tweak revenue-sharing rules to create a greater financial incentive for all 30 teams to compete.

The MLBPA was richly rewarded for holding firm against the threat to cancel games a week ago, as the CBT threshold and pre-arbitration bonus pool they ended up with are much better than what they had when talks heated up properly in February. But the players will probably continue to see their share of revenue shrink precipitously, if not by as much as it could have.

The minimum salary will jump from $570,500 in 2021 to $700,000 in 2022, which is about the midpoint between the league’s and union’s respective positions a few weeks ago. From there, it will increase by $20,000 in each of the next four years. The competitive balance tax threshold, subject of much consternation over the winter, will start at $230 million and increase over the life of the contract to $244 million. The players avoided the more draconian CBT penalties but allowed the league to create a new fourth level of tax penalty starting at $290 million; according to Evan Drellich of The Athletic, some within the industry refer to the new surcharge as “the Steve Cohen tax.”

The biggest win for the players is a new structure called a pre-arbitration bonus pool. This sets aside $50 million per year to be handed out to high-performing players who have less than three years of service time, according to a statistical formula developed jointly by the league and the MLBPA. (Whatever that formula is, it’ll probably be weird and arbitrary, but at least the union will have a say in creating it.) That’s a long way from getting the likes of Wander Franco and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. paid what they deserve, but even a piece of that windfall will make a huge difference to a player making the league minimum.

These numbers are better than they could have been, but they still underwhelm when you consider inflation and exploding revenues—from both the annual growth we’ve come to expect from baseball in the past 20 years, and new advertisements on uniforms and online broadcast contracts. (For example: The day before the lockout ended, two new national streaming deals worth a combined $115 million a year came to light.)

As part of the deal, the union agreed to drop a standing $500 million grievance that alleged the league unnecessarily truncated the 2020 season, but did not agree to drop a second grievance that claimed four teams did not use their revenue-sharing funds appropriately. The latter claim could snowball into a precedent-setting decision similar to the collusion cases of the late 1980s, delivering financial compensation for the players and new legal obligations for the teams. And by holding off on an international draft and 14-team playoff for the time being, the union retained two of its major points of leverage for the next round of CBA negotiations, five years from now.

The fact that the MLBPA approved this deal by a vote of 26-12, with all eight members of the executive subcommittee voting to reject it, is evidence of ambivalence, even within the players’ camp. It’s not a good deal for the players, but it might be the best they could have done without tearing the entire system down.

2. The competitive issues aren’t going away.

Increased competitiveness was not only a major stated goal of the union, but also the most important piece of the puzzle for fans, who want their favorite teams to try to win. That’s the bad news. This new CBA will do absolutely zilch to curb service-time manipulation, capital strikes in free agency, or the propensity of certain clubs to treat the on-field product as an inconvenient vestige of their real estate empire.

In many respects, this deal continues the framework of the previous CBA, which I was (perhaps naively) fairly bullish on when it was announced in November 2016. That’s because this system works when it’s being operated as designed: 30 teams all making an honest attempt to win. But when some of those opposing forces go slack, the whole system is subject to collapse. That’s what we’ve seen for the past five years.

The new system rewards the top two finishers in Rookie of the Year voting in each league with a full year of service time, regardless of when they’re called up. This provision—which isn’t being called the Kris Bryant rule yet but probably should be—creates a number of perverse incentives. Under this rule, Baltimore might as well hold down catcher Adley Rutschman, who by all rights should’ve been called up two seasons ago, until August instead of mid-April in order to prevent him from piling up Rookie of the Year–caliber stats. Additional conditions give draft pick compensation to teams that call up players on Opening Day, provided said players finish high in MVP or Cy Young voting.

Leaving aside the possibility that the Baseball Writers’ Association of America could balk at participating in awards voting that directly influences pay, tinkering with the draft is not going to influence competition, either in compensation or the new six-team draft lottery. (More details on the lottery below.) The NBA, which has the oldest draft lottery of any major sports league, has also had the biggest problem with tanking for draft position—and the no. 1 pick in baseball is only a fraction as valuable in baseball as it is in basketball.

The union could have made loftier initial asks, or slowed their pace of compromise, but there’s nothing the players can do within the current system to force ownership to give a damn about winning. A more extreme position could have cost the entire season, with no guarantee that comprehensive reforms would be more likely than an industry-leveling defeat. That reckoning is still coming, either when this deal expires in five years or when the cable bubble bursts or some other time down the line. But for now, they’ve managed to put it off.

3. The playoffs are getting bigger.

A 12-team postseason is smaller than the 14-team affair MLB wanted, but on the plus side, now nobody has to go around explaining what a “ghost win” is. So that’s a positive. From 2022 on, the two best division winners in each league will receive a first-round bye, which should incentivize clubs not just to try to win 88 games and sneak into the playoffs, but to win 100 games and advance straight to the division series.

An unfortunate casualty of the new format is the tiebreaker game. For its entire history, MLB has broken regular-season ties with one- or three-game playoffs. It was in these playoffs that Bobby Thomson hit the Shot Heard Round the World, Bucky Dent made his name into an epithet in New England, and Matt Holliday may or may not have touched home plate. These games are now a thing of the past, and regular-season ties will be broken using NFL-type rules—most likely head-to-head record and things of that nature.

4. The NL is getting the designated hitter.

For the first time, National League pitchers won’t bat for themselves. What a disgrace. It’s a slap in the face to traditionalists everywhere but was probably always inevitable. At least they’re getting rid of seven-inning double-headers and the runner on second in extra innings.

5. The international draft conversation isn’t over.

As the two sides inched their way toward an agreement, MLB ramped up its concern about an international draft at the 11th hour, making an agreement on the issue a precondition for further talks. That was enough to break up talks on Wednesday, but on Thursday morning, the union and the league agreed to a framework under which the union has until July 25 to accept an international draft in exchange for the league eliminating the qualifying offer system for top free agents. If the union turns that deal down, the status quo remains in force.

And the union will likely turn it down. MLB has cited a draft as a necessary corrective for a Latin American developmental system that’s rife with corruption, coercion, and PED use by underage players—never mind that these abuses are the direct result of the league’s refusal to enforce its own rules on international recruitment. And it’s no coincidence that the proposed start year, 2024, is far enough in the future that the 30 teams could work through the backlog of existing illegal, under-the-table commitments to players as young as 13.

But forcing players into a draft system a generation ago all but killed amateur baseball in Puerto Rico. The top Latin American players in the union, including but not limited to Francisco Lindor and Fernando Tatis Jr., believe it would have a similar effect in other countries—and for that reason view a draft as a nonstarter. Even if they didn’t, a system that would affect young players for … well, North American players have been subject to a draft for 57 years, and that’s not going anywhere anytime soon … is a lot to give up for a compensation system that affects only a handful of top earners a year. The MLBPA would be unwise to make that trade, now or in July.

6. Minor rule changes are already here, and more are coming.

The universal DH is in for this year, while further rule changes—like bigger bases and a pitch clock—will follow a new implementation process. Previously, either the league and union could agree on an immediate rule change, or the commissioner could implement a rule change unilaterally with one year’s advance notice.

Starting in 2023, rules changes will be the purview of a special 11-person committee made up of players, league appointees, and one umpire. The commissioner has the right to appoint a majority of the members, which might make the committee itself a bit of a rubber-stamp operation, but at least the people who’ll have to live with the changes now have a formal role in creating them.

Because the league lost three months of productive offseason, the Rule 5 draft is canceled for the year, and arbitration cases will be heard during the season, which is sure to be a collar-tugging moment for any player who doesn’t settle beforehand.

One of the more unambiguously positive changes, even if it’s under the radar, is a restriction on player options. Under the old CBA, players could be optioned to the minors in three seasons before they were subject to waivers, but there was no restriction on how many times a player could be called up and sent down within a year. Poor Louis Head, for instance, made double-digit trips from Tampa Bay to Triple-A Durham in 2021. Now, players can be optioned to the minors only five times in one year.

And while the draft lottery won’t do a thing to make the game more competitive, you will notice it. The top six picks will be doled out by random drawing, with the bottom three clubs all having an equal 16.5 percent chance of getting the top pick. And unlike the NBA, where bad teams (read: the Kings) enter the lottery every year, teams that don’t pay into revenue sharing (rich teams, in other words, the number isn’t fixed) would not be able to enter the lottery in consecutive years, while paying teams could get a lottery pick only two years in a row.

As for the draft itself, that’s been shortened to 20 rounds. MLB will invite up to 300 prospects to a combine, and top prospects who take a pre-draft physical will be guaranteed at least 75 percent of their draft slot value—the so-called “Kumar Rocker Rule,” after the Vanderbilt pitcher who was snubbed by the Mets last summer.

But all of this seems incredibly abstruse compared to the biggest headline item: The lockout is over. Spring training proper is hours away, and free agents are about to sign in a flurry that might dwarf what we saw three months ago. Kris Bryant to the Mariners? Trevor Story to the Yankees? Clayton Kershaw to the Rangers? We’ll probably find out in the next few days—and that alone is incredibly exciting.