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How the end of the MLB lockout changes the future of baseball

The lockout is finally over. Now it’s time to look towards what the next few years may have in store for Major League Baseball.

Division Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v San Francisco Giants - Game One Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

After nearly 100 days of having its doors locked to the players, Major League Baseball’s lockout has finally come to an end after the owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association came to an agreement on Thursday afternoon. Our long, national nightmare is over and by the time April 7 rolls around, bats are going to be cracking and mitts will be popping for Opening Day. On top of that, baseball’s first labor stoppage since the strike in 1994 and the second-longest work stoppage in MLB history will result in zero regular season games lost.

That’s objectively a good thing for everybody involved — hardcore baseball fans get to keep enjoying the highest level of the sport, the players made some actual progress in a collective bargaining agreement for the first time in ages, and the owners get to keep MLB’s continued financial success going without the “disastrous” result of cancelled games. Ultimately, all involved parties should immediately come out of this lockout in a better position. We could talk about how this nonsensical brinkmanship could’ve been avoided had the owners not waited 43 days to even consider negotiating, but that’s another story for another day.

There are some things in this deal that won’t go into effect until at least 2023, which includes a lot of the rules changes that were bandied about during discussions. So if you’re looking forward to such exciting developments as larger bases, a pitch clock, the shift getting banned, and robot umps, then all of those new rules still have to cross the hurdle of being refined by a committee consisting of a handful of players, MLB officials, and an umpire. Fortunately, you won’t have to wait for the designated hitter to permanently arrive to the National League. That’s going into effect this year. While I may be a fan of an NL team, I’m not going to miss seeing pitchers hit at all.

The owners got the playoff expansion they wanted, and the players found a way to deter tanking

Another thing you won’t have to wait for is playoff expansion. Starting this season, the postseason field is going to be 12 teams with the top two teams in each league getting a bye. The other four will have to do battle in the Wild Card Series and in order to make sure that the first round starts on time, tiebreaker games have been eliminated. Instead, MLB is reportedly moving toward NFL-style tiebreakers. Run differential could potentially play a huge role in baseball and perhaps this now means that we won’t have to hear about why swinging for the fences with a 3-0 count in the middle of a blowout is a cardinal sin against the unwritten rules of baseball.

For the teams who don’t make the postseason, there’s been one piece of legislation that’s meant to deter tanking. MLB will now have a draft lottery where the 18 teams who missed the postseason will be eligible to have a chance at getting any one of the top six draft picks. Whether or not a team is a revenue sharing payee will affect that team’s lottery eligibility, but this does now introduce a scenario to baseball where the perpetually five-games-away-from-the-postseason Phillies could go 81-81, get a lucky bounce in the lottery, and wind up with the first overall pick. I’d imagine that some teams are still going to take their chances by tanking for the lottery but at least now it’s not a completely sure-fire way to stockpile minor league talent by keeping the roster barebones at the major league level.

MLB: AUG 17 Padres at Rangers
Swing away, Fernando.
Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Minimum salaries are going up, and so is the ‘luxury tax’

While there’s still no salary floor to keep teams — such as, say, the Athletics, Marlins, Pirates and Rays — from putting out absurdly cheap rosters, the good news for the players is that minimum salaries will be going up. The minimum in 2021 was $570,500 and in 2022 it’ll be $700K. That number will go up every season during this new CBA, with the minimum eventually landing at $780K by 2026. MLB made sure to note that the increase from 2021 to 2022 is the largest single-year increase in baseball history and it’s a pretty solid win for players who aren’t signing the headline-grabbing deals. There’s still a need for MLB to finally do right by minor leaguers by paying them a living wage (at the very least) but at least now the players who do make it to The Show have a little bit more money to look forward to.

Then there’s the Competitive Balance Tax, which was one of the most contentious parts of negotiations between the players and the owners. Eventually, the two groups settled on this year’s initial threshold being $230 million, with it capping out at $244 million in 2026. They also added a fourth level to the luxury tax to deal with “runaway spenders.” If you’re wondering why the New York Mets were included in this group of four teams (Astros, Cardinals, Mets and Yankees) whose players’ reps voted against the deal, this may be the reason. As of right now, the Mets are the only team that figures to come close to clearing the highest threshold. Don’t be surprised if this is referred to as The Steven Cohen Rule going forward.

San Francisco Giants v Chicago Cubs
Kris Bryant had to wait longer than he should’ve to finally enter free agency.
Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

MLBPA made gains for pre-arbitration players

One of the stranger portions of this agreement has to do with awards suddenly being very important when it comes to players potentially making more money. There is now a $50 million pre-arbitration bonus pool in which the top 100 players (as determined by a soon-to-be-calculated formula by MLB and MLBPA) will receive bonuses based on stats and awards from the previous season. The top two prospects in each league’s Rookie of the Year voting will receive a full year of service time and teams could receive draft picks if they promote prospects to the main roster on Opening Day and they end up either finishing in top 3 in Rookie of the Year voting or top 5 when it comes to the MVP and/or Cy Young voting.

It’s a decent attempt at trying to incentivize teams to be honest about their prospects and service time, but there’s nothing here that will deter a team from continuing the same service time manipulation that’s been going on for a while. This will probably be one of the more fascinating facets of the new CBA to keep an eye on going forward. If it works as intended, then that’s great! If we end up having someone follow in Kris Bryant’s footsteps, then that’ll likely be one of the major sticking points when they start negotiating all over again in a few years.

Baseball being back is a win for everyone

While that’s not everything there is to cover when it comes to the new CBA, those are probably the most important factors here. One good facet is that there’s now a limit on the number of times a player can be sent down in one season. A bad facet for uniform fans is that the Nike Swoosh will soon be joined by other advertising patches as both parties agreed to join the NBA and NHL when it comes to that. The ugliest part of this deal is that there won’t be a Rule 5 Draft this year, which is a huge bummer for a group of minor leaguers who would’ve seen a massive pay rise from getting selected. The issue of the International Draft has been kicked down the road and the players and owners will talk about that in the middle of this season. You better believe that it’s going to be an intense discussion, as well.

It’ll take some time to really see if this agreement will be a boon to baseball or if it’ll just cause more chaos down the road. For now, it’s a cause for celebration. The loss of games in 1994 did incredible harm to the game and it took a chemically-infused offensive revolution in order to bring it back in the late-1990s. This time around, baseball simply staying active and in the daily sports conversation is a win for both MLB and the MLBPA. There’s still plenty to be fixed with the sport, but at least now the best part of the sport will be able to have all of their talents on display during this spring, summer, and fall.