CHICAGO — Free advice to Billy Eppler:
Don’t worry for a second about a manager, not for a millisecond about coaches, once you officially take over the Mets’ baseball operations. The Hot Stove League is cooking and the Mets need players as badly as Bonnie Tyler needs a hero.
Most important, this feeding frenzy features a likely expiration date of Dec. 1, at which point Eppler should have more than enough time to determine his field staff.
Commissioner Rob Manfred spoke Thursday at the conclusion of the Major League Baseball owners’ meetings, and he made clear that while his owners would love to sign off on a new collective bargaining agreement by the end of the current deal (11:59 p.m. on Dec. 1) and haven’t made any official decisions, they also view a lockout of the players as a viable path to avoiding the sort of work stoppage that really stings, that being an actual stoppage of work during the scheduled season.
“Honestly I can’t believe there’s a single fan in the world who doesn’t understand that an offseason lockout that moves the process forward is different than a labor dispute that costs games,” said Manfred, who might be overestimating the species.
The phrase “moves the process forward” reflects the owners’ thinking on this: If they can’t find common ground in time, then perhaps the best avenue to a 162-game season involves shutting down the sport — putting the squeeze, realistically, not only on the unemployed free agents and signed players who don’t want to lose 2022 pay but also on owners anxious about ticket sales and ancillary revenue. Especially when all sides took a gigantic hit during the COVID-shortened 2020 schedule and the teams, while faring better last season than they feared thanks to an expedited return of full-capacity attendance, still suffered through those early contests with limited crowds.
Manfred acknowledged, “We understand, I understand, that time is becoming an issue,” and while bargaining sessions between MLB and the MLB Players Association occur regularly, you won’t find a soul in the industry who thinks that the two sides will meet the deadline. The players, who turned sour on the previous Basic Agreement (signed five years ago) roughly 12 hours after ratifying it, want to eradicate service-time manipulation, increase pay for younger players if older players find themselves actuaried out of the game and de-incentivize losing for teams by restructuring the amateur draft, all noble goals. They might have to prioritize at some juncture.
The owners’ desire for change tends to focus more on the game itself; Manfred again touted the success of the 15-second pitch clock that currently governs the Arizona Fall League. This, too, is noble, although the owners don’t seem to adore such time-savers so much as to horse-trade economic concessions for them.
The biggest concern surrounding these talks might be the clear animosity between the two sides that turned quite public last year. Manfred, however, asserted, “The focus on 2020, I think, has been excessive” and “We never let personalities or what has happened in the past affect our pursuit of the fundamental goal. That is to make an agreement.” Asked whether he held concerns about the MLBPA’s competence, Manfred said, “No. I have great respect for players. I assume the players selected people they believe are competent to represent them in the negotiations.”
The big early paydays for the likes of Eduardo Rodriguez, Noah Syndergaard and Justin Verlander hardly portray a sport in peril. The two sides just have to figure this all out in time to hold a 162-game season next season, which probably means by around Feb. 15 (spring training could be curtailed). If that doesn’t happen? Keep an eye on the 140-game benchmark, a generally recognized pressure point.
No one would mind a Mets managerial search amid a lockout to fill the news void. It sure makes for more compelling reading (and reporting) than incremental progress or lack thereof in the labor talks. So start shopping, Billy (and Steve, naturally). It’s Black Friday in the baseball world, and soon it will likely just go dark.