Recreation & Sports

MLB lockout set to end as players and team owners agree to new contract terms

The Major League Baseball lockout is ending, with players and team owners agreeing in principle Thursday to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement. Opening Day is tentatively set for April 7.

Better late than never: Play ball!

Was last year’s epic pennant race between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants a one-time classic, or the start of another stellar chapter in the storied rivalry? Baseball fans will soon get to find out.

A long winter reduced to debates about tax rates and bonus pools has ended, and baseball’s spring finally has dawned. Three months after major league owners locked out players and declared not another game would be played without a new collective bargaining agreement, the league and the players’ union agreed Thursday on the outline of a five-year deal.

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The deal includes a full 162-game season this year, starting April 7.

The deal was ratified by the players and still must be by owners, but the news sparked an immediate scramble for teams to open training camps and players to get there. Major league camps had been set to open the week of Feb. 14, and exhibition games had been scheduled to start Feb. 26.

The players who show up in camp in coming days do not figure to include all the ones who will break camp with teams. Clayton Kershaw, Freddie Freeman and Carlos Correa headline the group of about 200 remaining major league free agents — that is, more than six free agents for every team. Many will be left with a minor league contract to get into camp this year, and hope for a guaranteed deal next year.

All the trade talk put on hold when the lockout hit can resume. The Oakland Athletics, for instance, could cut costs by trading a raft of core players, including first baseman Matt Olson, third baseman Matt Chapman and pitchers Chris Bassitt, Sean Manaea and Frankie Montas. The Cincinnati Reds have dangled pitchers Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray.

Since 1995, when owners surrendered on the pursuit of a salary cap, baseball had enjoyed labor peace. However, the rise of analytics and the failure of the union to react accordingly in negotiations for the previous labor agreement set up a confrontation when time came to negotiate a new deal.

Revenues had risen, but salaries had not. Analytics showed the prudence of paying a player for what he was projected to do in coming years rather than for what he had done in past years, encouraging owners to emphasize younger, cheaper players. The vast majority of owners treated the luxury tax threshold as a de facto salary cap, even as players agreed to cost controls for draftees and international signees.

The owners, of course, were content with the old system. The players demanded major change: more money to the younger players that provided owners with the greatest value, and relaxation of the threshold so teams could not routinely cite the luxury tax as an obstacle to acquiring talent.

Initially, the players asked owners to lower eligibility for salary arbitration from three years to two, and for free agency from six years to five.

The owners flatly denied those requests. They did agree to pay more to players not yet eligible for arbitration, and to allow teams to spend as much as $20 million more on payroll this year without paying the luxury tax.

Labor law allows employers and employees to continue negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement while working under the terms of the old one, but the owners locked out the players as soon as the old agreement expired. Better to have a labor dispute in the offseason, the owners said. The timing also reflected financial considerations: In the absence of a lockout, and if negotiations sputtered, owners feared players might strike during the season, putting the owners’ substantial postseason television revenue in jeopardy.

“We hope that the lockout will jumpstart the negotiations,” commissioner Rob Manfred wrote in a letter to fans Dec. 2.

Instead, the owners did not make another proposal to the players until Jan. 13. The two sides met sporadically thereafter. On Feb. 21 — one week after players were scheduled to report to spring training, and four days after the league called off the first week of exhibition games — owners and players launched daily negotiations.

Those collapsed, and Manfred said the first week of the regular season would be called off too. However, the league plans to reschedule the games originally set for the first week.

The end result: labor peace restored through 2026, but a winter devoid of baseball buzz, and the second-longest work stoppage in MLB history.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.