Will latest offer spark talks or leave them stagnant?

Nobody really expected Major League Baseball's latest offer to players to bring an immediate end to the lockout, but there was hope it would at least spark more aggressive negotiations between the two warring parties as the clock ticks down to the point of no return.

Based on the immediate reaction widely reported Saturday, it didn't achieve that goal. And that's only going to leave more people around the sport worried the season might not actually start on time.

We don't have to delve into the minute details of the league's new offer, except to say it included nominal movement on the luxury tax, the minimum salary, increased pay for players who qualify for salary arbitration and the issue of service time manipulation. It also reportedly introduced a new limit on the number of times a player can be optioned to the minors during a given season to five. (There has never been a limit on that before, aside from requiring players to spend 10 days in the minors before they can be recalled, unless they're replacing an injured teammate.)

Nats-Park-Dugout-Roof-sidebar.jpgNone of that appears to have fully satisfied the players, which shouldn't come as much surprise if you've been following this process from the beginning. Players want significant changes to the sport's economic structure. So far, they've only been offered modest changes.

The question, then, is this: How far is the MLB Players Association willing to go in search of what it truly wants?

If the union won't accept anything less than monumental change, it's going to have to take the league right down to the wire, and perhaps beyond. Is this worth the loss of regular season games? That's the fundamental question the players must ask themselves right now.

The owners, at the same time, must ask themselves: Are they willing to risk the loss of regular season games to avoid making significant concessions to the players?

The clock, as we've been saying, is beginning to run out. Commissioner Rob Manfred has refused to publicly declare the delay of spring training or name the drop-dead date for a new collective bargaining agreement to ensure opening day still takes place March 31 as scheduled. But pitchers and catchers obviously aren't reported to Arizona and Florida in the next few days as they were supposed to. And Manfred's statement Thursday that any spring training must be at least four weeks long to avoid the risk of injury suggests a deal needs to be struck within the next two weeks, or else opening day is going to be postponed.

So while players may have been "underwhelmed" - to use one commonly quoted reaction - by Saturday's proposal, the MLBPA can try to change the narrative by quickly producing a counteroffer that then leads to another counteroffer from MLB, and so and so forth, until the two sides finally meet somewhere in the middle and end the lockout.

If, however, both parties simply retreat to their respective corners and don't return to the negotiating table in the near future, we'll have our answer to the ultimate question, and for the second time in three years opening day won't take place as scheduled.

As always, all the rest of us can do is sit back and wait for the next move, hoping this time it comes with some sense of urgency.

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