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Be skeptical of talk of a work stoppage

Tony Clark

There was a story last night from Ken Rosenthal about how, contrary to all of the recent talk of an uneventful collective bargaining season, there is the distinct possibility of the owners locking out the players come December 1.

With the acknowledgement that anything can happen in a negotiation and that the only people who are truly in the know are behind the closed doors of a conference room, I’m skeptical that there will be a work stoppage of any kind. And I suspect that this is merely an instance of saber-rattling as the sides approach a conclusion.

The reason I think this: the issue Rosenthal’s source says is the primary sticking point -- the owners want an international draft and the players are pushing back hard -- does not seem to present the sort of existential threat to either side such that they’d reasonably be willing to endure the costs of a work stoppage.

Yes, the owners want an international draft to contain costs, but they are not excessive costs as a opposed to annoying ones. Indeed, a moderately-priced free agent relief pitcher often costs a club more than their entire international signing budget does. Sure, they’d like those costs to be cheaper, but the owners have never portrayed them as a huge matter.

Yes, the players are reportedly -- and admirably -- taking a principled stand on the matter of the draft, but it seems odd that after several consecutive CBAs and mid-deal alterations to the CBA which sold out minor league players and international free agents with things like bonus pools and signing bonus slotting that the MLBPA now, suddenly, is willing to go to the mat for guys who, largely, will never become union members and those who do won’t for many, many years.

Contrast this with the last work stoppage, in 1994. There the owners wanted to impose a salary cap, which represented a radical departure from the status quo and which would have hurt every single major league player. Likewise, compare this with the last contentious negotiation, in 2002, which nearly led to a strike. Things were tense then, as the parties had been playing the season with the previous deal having already expired months ago. The issues on the table were likewise major ones: MLB wanted to contract at least two teams, drastically increase revenue sharing and the luxury tax, and implement PED testing which, at that time, had not been ever seriously discussed and, rather, was an early reaction to Jose Canseco saying he’d write a book.

The sense in both 1994 and 2002 was that the owners were lying, that they were not taking the union seriously, that the owners were fighting amongst themselves and that the negotiations were being conducted in bad faith. Compare this to the present where there is broad agreement on things like the luxury tax, revenue sharing and PED testing. Rather than the doomsday feeling that pervaded the CBA negotiations in previous times of hostility, the parties now openly talk of the great prosperity in the game.

Mostly, though, my belief that there will be no work stoppage is based on simple tactics and public relations considerations. Both sides are well aware of how poorly a work stoppage would play with the public and neither side wants to be seen as the party responsible for it. As such, if the international draft were a hill either side was truly willing to die on, they would have been casting it as such for months in the leadup to these negotiations. Either directly or via plants with sympathetic members of the press. Neither side has. Indeed, apart from people intimately familiar with the international market like Baseball America’s Ben Badler and lefty, pro-labor kooks like me, no one has been talking about it at all. If anyone was willing to lock out or walk out on this matter, it would’ve been signaled long ago.

What I suspect is happening is that the players are trying to extract a few more concessions for that international draft than the owners thought they would and that it’s making the owners cranky. They’ve had a pretty smooth relationship with Tony Clark and the MLBPA in recent years -- too smooth, if you ask me -- and I suspect they’re a bit shocked and somewhat annoyed that they’re actually getting some pushback. As a result, an owner or two was sent to the reporter with the highest profile in the business, Rosenthal, to rattle those sabers. Thus we get last night’s story. By the same token, it would not shock me at all if a reporter who is more plugged in to the agent/labor side of things has a competing story today from the union’s perspective.

The only thing that gives me a even a bit of pause with respect to all of this has more to do with historic parallel than it does the actual facts on the ground. It’s been a while since the owners and the union truly fought. As such, there is scant, fading institutional memory of the 1994 strike. Part of me wonders if, like European powers in 1914 who had not seen a major war on their soil in 40 years, they are approaching all of this as a bit of consequence-free folly, having either forgotten the pain of the past war or believing that they are far too smart and powerful now to do anything put painlessly prevail. I think Rob Manfred is smarter than any of those kaisers and kings, however, so this doesn’t seem likely, but then again I didn’t think we’d be talking about actual Nazis in 2016, and here we are.

That little bit of fear notwithstanding, I am pretty confident that this is all a bluff. So I say again, while anything could happen, I don’t think there will be a work stoppage. I think a deal will be reached by the December 1 CBA expiration date.

And if I’m wrong? Hey, things will be so horrible and dreary that you all will have way better things to do than shove this post in my face and tell me how wrong I was.

Follow @craigcalcaterra