What happens now that the lockout has begun?

And so we have entered uncharted territory. Uncharted, that is, for the last 27 years.

For the first time since the infamous 1994-95 strike, Major League Baseball is now officially in a work stoppage. When the collective bargaining agreement expired at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday with no new deal in place, owners enforced a lockout of players.

How long will it last? What are they fighting over? What does this mean for the Nationals the rest of the winter? Let’s try to address as much of this as we can, in terms that hopefully make sense to everyone ...

Q: Why did this happen?

A: The short answer is: A professional sports league that employs players who are part of a labor union cannot operate without a CBA. And the previous CBA, a five-year agreement made late in 2016, expired Wednesday night. Owners and players could’ve worked out a new deal before midnight and continued operations without any disruption, but despite a handful of negotiating meetings in Dallas the last few days, they never appeared to make any real progress toward a deal. So once the old agreement no longer applied, MLB had the right to declare a lockout and did at midnight.

Nationals-Park-Closed-Gates-Sidebar.jpgQ: What does that mean in practical terms? What can or can’t take place now?
A: It means there’s going to be a freeze on all major league transactions until a new CBA is ratified. So, no free agent signings. No trades. No contract extensions. No arbitration hearings. It also means no Winter Meetings (which were scheduled to take place next week in Orlando) and no Rule 5 draft (for now). But keep in mind, this only applies to players on 40-man rosters, who are members of the MLB Players Association. Minor leaguers are not subject to the lockout, so there could still be transactions involving them.

Q: What’s in dispute? What prevented a new deal from being struck already?
A: You know, what’s funny here is that, unlike many labor battles and work stoppages, this one isn’t necessarily defined by one central disagreement. The 1994 strike basically happened because the owners wanted to institute a salary cap and the players refused to agree and decided to walk out in midseason. This debate can’t really be boiled down to one issue like that. Rather, this has been brewing for several years, and encompasses a lot of disagreements on a lot of issues, both on and off the field.

Players want more teams to spend more money on players and not take advantage of a system that at times doesn’t incentivize winning as much as they’d like. They want younger players to make more money than they do under the current system that prevents players with fewer than three years of service time from making more than a trivial amount beyond the league minimum, then keeps them from becoming free agents until they’ve reached six years of service time. And they want to put a stop to service time manipulation (i.e. teams keeping prospects in the minors longer than they should to delay their ability to become free agents).

Owners want to maintain the luxury tax system, while also adding a salary floor that would require all clubs to spend a minimum amount of dollars on payroll. They also want to expand the postseason, creating more revenue. And they’d like to institute some on-field changes that might make the product more appealing to fans, especially younger fans, like adding a pitch clock, a universal DH and possibly other rule changes to encourage more action and fewer strikeouts and walks.

Q: Is it really a work stoppage when it takes place during the offseason? Doesn’t it have to involve games being canceled?
A: No, technically speaking, this is still a work stoppage, because of the freeze on all transactions as listed above. But, yes, this really isn’t the same thing as an in-season lockout or strike. If anything, this feels less damaging to everyone because it’s not resulting in the cancellation of games or the loss of salary. Yet.

Q: Will it eventually result in the cancellation of games or the loss of salary?
A: We sure hope not, right? That would be the nightmare scenario, the one that truly inflicts lasting damage on the sport. The good news is that they’ve got 2 1/2 months to work something out before the start of spring training is jeopardized, and another 1 1/2 months beyond that before opening day. So there’s ample time to work through their differences, find some common ground and strike a deal.

Q: What are the chances it gets done well before mid-February?
A: That’s where it starts to get a little dicey. On the bright side, there’s plenty of time between now and then. On the down side, that means there’s less motivation for either party to get serious about negotiations for a while. That’s why there were no down-to-the-wire talks Wednesday night. Neither side was that concerned about the CBA expiring, because practically speaking it’s not that damaging to anyone yet. As the calendar shifts from December to January, then to February, that’s when you should start to see folks get more motivated to really talk. These things only tend to get done when there’s a hard deadline approaching. And in this case, the first hard deadline is going to be the start of spring training. The hundreds of remaining free agents are going to want to know where they’re going to be playing in 2022, and how much money they’re going to be making. And clubs are going to want to know what their rosters are going to look like. And even though spring training games don’t generate as much revenue as regular season games, they do generate revenue. Given what has transpired over the last two seasons, nobody’s going to want to give up revenue from any games lost.

Q: What do the players do between now and then? Can they still work out and prepare for spring training?
A: Yes, they just have to do it on their own, not at team facilities. It will probably bear some resemblance to the four-month shutdown from March-June 2020 due to the pandemic, when players found their own various ways to stay in shape or work out at local fields solo or in small groups. One key exception here: Players who are rehabbing from baseball injuries are allowed to use team facilities, provided they were injured while playing for that team. So, Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross, for example, are allowed to work out at Nationals Park in D.C. or the spring training complex in West Palm Beach.

Q: What kind of shape are the Nats in as this lockout begins?
A: Well, they’ve signed only two free agents to major league contracts so far this offseason: Alcides Escobar, who re-signed for $1 million a couple days after the season ended, and César Hernández, who agreed to a one-year, $4 million deal Tuesday night. That’s it so far. They non-tendered Wander Suero and Ryne Harper off the major league roster. And they’ve signed a few players to minor league contracts to provide organizational depth. But there’s still a lot to be done before they take the field in the spring. Whenever this work stoppage ends, they should be quite active in trying to address their remaining roster needs. But, as noted earlier, there will be no shortage of players out there looking for jobs.

Q: Most importantly, what are YOU going to do during the lockout?
A: The same thing I do every day: Write about the Nationals and baseball in general. Though there may not be nearly as much news and speculation as there normally is during the winter, I’m still going to be producing daily copy for you all to read. I suppose the good news is, I already had to come up with four months’ worth of material when nothing was happening last year, so this won’t be totally foreign to me. But don’t be surprised if we go off-topic quite a bit and come up with some off-the-wall story ideas.

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