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Sources — MLB makes first labor proposal since lockout, awaits union’s counter as threat of postponed spring training looms

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Major League Baseball on Thursday made its first labor proposal since locking out players Dec. 2, focusing on a narrow set of issues that did little to encourage players and heightened the likelihood of spring training being postponed, sources familiar with the situation told ESPN.

During the sides’ first meeting that discussed core economic issues in 43 days, the league proposed changes to the arbitration system for players with two-plus years of service, tweaked its proposed draft lottery and offered the ability for teams to earn draft picks if top prospects find early success in the major leagues, according to sources.

MLB hoped the proposal would spur discussion with the union after the sides’ failed negotiations leading up to the lockout led to six weeks of inaction.

Topics not discussed Thursday that have been in the players’ suite of asks included changes to the competitive-balance tax and raising the minimum salary.

While the league indicated before the lockout that it was not open to considering free agency before six years or changes to the current revenue-sharing plan, the union could include both in a counterproposal.

The timing of the union’s rejoinder could be paramount to salvaging the mid-February reporting date for pitchers and catchers, though multiple sources fear that negotiations will pick up closer to the end of the month, when the threat of losing regular-season games becomes more realistic.

The disappointment from players in the league’s proposal Thursday wasn’t altogether unexpected. MLB offered a significant revamping of its system in paying players with between two and three years of major league service time, offering an increase in money going to those players through a formula that would determine their pay.

Currently, the salaries of two-plus players are bifurcated. The top 22% of players in the class who have the most service time are designated as “Super 2s” — and receive an extra year of arbitration eligibility, during which they are allowed to negotiate their salaries. The other 78%, regardless of performance, can be renewed by teams at just above the minimum salary. While MLB’s proposal would eliminate Super 2s in the future, sources said, players who currently have one day of service would be able to choose between the current system that includes Super 2s and the performance-based proposal.

MLB’s proposal, sources said, would eliminate Super 2s. Between that and the implementation of a formula — which MLB previously proposed for all arbitration-eligible players — the immediate reaction from players, sources said, was negative, with fears that implementing a scale for two-plus players would at some point open the door to the same in other arbitration-eligible players.

Currently, arbitration salaries are determined by a precedent-based system in which players compare their statistics to past players’ and negotiate their salaries. The league’s attempt Thursday to address service-time manipulation — a practice in which teams keep players in the minor leagues in attempts to gain an extra year before they reach free agency or keep them from reaching Super 2 status — came via rewarding teams that promote top prospects who find success, according to sources.

MLB proposed awarding a draft pick if a team places a Top 100 prospect on its opening day roster, then the player wins Rookie of the Year or finishes in the top 3 of MVP or Cy Young voting within his first three seasons, sources said. The offer included the possibility of a pick in an international draft, sources said, indicating that the league is continuing to push for a change in the signing of non-domestic amateurs. A team, sources said, could reap only one pick per player, meaning if he won Rookie of the Year and then MVP, the second award would not lead to a second pick.

Players’ skepticism toward the idea mirrored that of when the league proposed using the Wins Above Replacement system from FanGraphs to replace the arbitration system. While the idea of incentivizing teams to break camp with their best 26 players is a goal of players, doing so through the opinions of outsiders — in this case the baseball writers who have turned prospect lists into a successful industry — did not appeal to them, sources said.

The third leg of the league’s proposal included a tweak to its draft lottery, which it had previously proposed with three teams, to which the union countered asking for eight. MLB stuck with three teams but offered for a team to be ineligible for the lottery in three consecutive seasons, according to sources.

MLB also continued to push for a 14-team playoff, as opposed to the 12-team version the union proposed, and offered a universal designated hitter, sources said.

Previous discussions stalled without much movement toward a deal. The league had offered to eliminate direct draft-pick compensation — which penalizes teams that sign top free agents — while the union had accepted expanded playoffs.

MLB proposed to increase the Competitive Balance Threshold (CBT) from $210 million to $214 million but added penalties for teams that exceed it, while the union said it would allow teams to place advertising patches on uniforms.

A chasm remains with most of the core economic issues. The players had proposed reaching free agency and arbitration earlier, hiking the CBT threshold to $245 million and amending revenue sharing. Which of those, if any, are the union’s greatest priority could become clearer in its next offer.

And that may offer a greater sense of whether the game’s first work stoppage in more than a quarter century takes the early days of spring training as its only casualty or continues into the regular season.

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MLB Players Association to make counteroffer to league in Monday meeting

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The Major League Baseball Players Association plans to make an in-person labor proposal to the league on Monday, sources told ESPN, countering MLB’s offer last week that did little to loosen the gridlock that has gripped the sport after the league locked out the players Dec. 2.

Should the players’ offer do little to advance the negotiations that thus far haven’t yielded any substantive progress, the scheduled start to spring training in mid-February will grow that much unlikelier. And the longer discussions on a new collective-bargaining agreement last, the more they jeopardize Opening Day on March 31.

The gap between the players and league remains significant, with the union seeking major financial gains in a number of areas and owners trying to hold firm with what they currently pay in salaries. Other issues players have said remain a priority include anti-tanking measures and fixing service-time manipulation.

Any concessions players make in their offer could provide a roadmap to the negotiations. Before implementing the lockout, the league asked the union to drop three areas of discussion: earlier free agency for players, salary arbitration after two years instead of three and changes to the revenue-sharing plan. The union did not agree to the condition when presented with it Dec. 1, and the league left the bargaining table, locking out the players hours later.

Forty-three days later, the league returned to the union with an offer that included paying players with two to three years of service based on a formula, slight modifications to the draft lottery it previously had proposed and a mechanism that would reward teams with draft picks when top prospects who started on opening day rosters win awards.

The proposal did little to entice players, who after losing financial ground during the previous labor agreement want to make gains this time around.

News of the MLBPA’s expected counterproposal was first reported by The Associated Press

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Robot umpires at home plate moving up to Triple-A for 2022, one step away from major league baseball

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NEW YORK — Robot umpires have been given a promotion and will be just one step from the major leagues this season. Major League Baseball is expanding its automated strike zone experiment to Triple-A, the highest level of the minor leagues.

MLB’s website posted a hiring notice seeking seasonal employees to operate the Automated Ball-Strike system. MLB said it is recruiting employees to operate the system for the Albuquerque Isotopes, Charlotte Knights, El Paso Chihuahuas, Las Vegas Aviators, Oklahoma City Dodgers, Reno Aces, Round Rock Express, Sacramento River Cats, Salt Lake Bees, Sugar Land Skeeters and Tacoma Rainiers.

The independent Atlantic League became the first American professional league to let a computer call balls and strikes at its All-Star Game in July 2019 and experimented with ABS during the second half of that season. The system also was used in the Arizona Fall League for top prospects in 2019, drawing complaints of its calls on breaking balls.

There were no minor leagues in 2020 because of the pandemic, and robot umps were used last season in eight of nine ballparks at the Low-A Southeast League.

The Major League Baseball Umpires Association agreed in its labor contract that started in 2020 to cooperate and assist if commissioner Rob Manfred decides to use the system at the major league level.

“It’s hard to handicap if, when or how it might be employed at the major league level, because it is a pretty substantial difference from the way the game is called today,” Chris Marinak, MLB’s chief operations and strategy officer, said last March.

MLB said the robot umpires will be used at some spring training ballparks in Florida, will remain at Low A Southeast and could be used at non-MLB venues.

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Tampa Bay Rays say split-season plan with Montreal rejected by MLB

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Rays‘ proposed plan to split the season between Florida and Montreal has been rejected by Major League Baseball.

Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg announced the news on Thursday.

“Today’s news is flat-out deflating,” Sternberg said.

The idea of playing in both the Tampa Bay area and Montreal has been discussed over the past several years after attempts to build a new full-time ballpark locally failed.

Montreal had a big league team from 1969, when the expansion Expos began play, through 2004. The Expos moved to Washington and became the Nationals for the 2005 season.

The Rays’ lease at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, where the team has played since its inaugural season in 1998, expires after the 2027 season.

Since Sternberg took control in October 2005, the once-struggling franchise has been a success on the field but not at the box office.

Despite reaching the World Series in 2008 and 2020, the Rays have annually ranked near the bottom in attendance. The Rays averaged about 9,500 for home games last season, 28th in the majors and ahead of only Miami and Oakland.

St. Petersburg mayor Ken Welch feels a new stadium in his city remains a possibility. Governmental officials have been working on a redevelopment plan for the Tropicana Field site.

“We are working with our county partners and city council to put together the best plan possible, which will work in conjunction with my planned evolution of the Tropicana Field master development proposals,” Welch said in a statement. “With this collaborative approach, I am confident we can partner with the Tampa Bay Rays to create a new and iconic full-time home for Major League Baseball in St. Petersburg while also achieving historic equitable economic growth.”

Sternberg said the team will definitely explore options in the Tampa Bay area.

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