After months of acrimony and little progress, MLB owners and the MLBPA union finally agreed on a new collective bargaining agreement late last week. While the most basic result is simply that we finally have major league baseball again, with a wild combination of free agency, spring training, and logistical madness, there are plenty of changes to the rules that should be interesting to watch play out. In any agreement of this scale, their are intentions on both sides, and unintended consequences as well. We think we know the likely results as intended, but a whole host of issues around the periphery will bear watching this season.
Much like parents threatening to turn the car around on a family vacation, MLB will still play a full 162 game season, despite announcing they had cancelled series that would not be rescheduled…twice. To accomplish this, the regular season will run a few days longer, with the first two originally scheduled series being played in the extended time or with double-headers.
Speaking of double-headers, MLB will revert to the usual nine inning format, and we will no longer need to worry about debating whether pitchers who throw seven innings of baseball without allowing a batter to reach via a hit deserve to be credited with a “no hitter” (they should). Also, of relief to many fans, extra innings will no longer feature the Manfred Runner on second base to start the 10th inning.
In addition, and perhaps to the delight or dislike of fans, depending on their views, there will now be 12 playoff spots up for grabs among the 30 major league teams. In theory this should create a bit more incentive for teams, particularly teams seen as on the cusp of being a contender, to make a stronger push to bolster their rosters both in the next few weeks and at the trade deadline. This may be counterbalanced by big spending powerhouses feeling more comfortable in their ability to get into the tournament every year without going crazy in free agency, however.
The new playoff format gives the top two division winning teams in each league a first round bye, while the other remaining division winner will face the lowest wild card team. It remains to be seen how much top teams will value the appeal of a first round bye to see if they too will look to further bolster their rosters. In a blow to #TeamChaos fans, there will no longer be a game 163 at the end of the season for teams tied for playoff positions. Instead, all ties will be settled in NFL style tiebreaker rules. The bottom line, winning your own division just got a whole lot more important.
On #TeamChaos’s side, is the fact that instead of two exciting winner-take-all games, there will now be four short three-game series that could each feature back-to-back elimination games when the stars align. That should be pretty fun.
As has been widely reported, there will be a universal DH in place going forward. Personally, this change was long overdue as the nuance of having pitchers bat had long since become stale and tarnished as the batting skill of pitchers have faded over the years, and the game’s offensive profile has changed. It’s just not entertaining to see a manager put hitters on base to bring up a sure out despite the intrigue of double-switches and deep bench advantages. This will now open up a highly expanded market for defensively challenged sluggers like Nelson Cruz, and there could be some very familiar names to American League fans crossing over to National League teams now or at the trade deadline.
Speaking of the trade deadline, there is a curious fact that might have an impact on the deadline. As a resolution to moving negotiations forward, the players and the league agreed to set a deadline of July 25th to reach a decision about whether to implement an international draft. Tied to the plan of whether or not to adopt this draft is the issue of Qualifying Offers. A player with less than one year left on their contract that is traded at the deadline cannot be given a QO. Otherwise, a player that reaches free agency at the end of the season can be offered a QO by their former team, and if rejected and the player signs elsewhere, the former team receives a compensation pick. This draft pick holds some weight to teams at the trade deadline.
If the draft is adopted by July 25th, the QO system is eliminated. If it is not adopted by then, the QO system remains in place. Depending on how the negotiations go on this issue, we could see teams waiting to trade some of the bigger stars until a clear direction is determined that could be factored into trade valuations late in the game. Additionally, the trade deadline date could be anywhere between July 28th and August 3rd. This creates the possibility of a more compressed and intense run-up to the trade deadline.
One of the bigger “wins” for players in the negotiations was the implementation of countermeasures against teams manipulating service time of top prospects. For years, it was common knowledge that teams would delay the promotion of a star player on the cusp of the major leagues till after a few weeks had passed, citing the need for additional “development”. What teams were actually doing was ensuring the player would not accrue a full year’s worth of service time in their first season, thus gaining their team an extra year of control before they were eligible for free agency. This was long a thorn in the side of the players union and now there is set to be at least some level of incentives for teams to promote their younger stars by Opening Day.
For one, the top two finishers in Rookie of the Year voting in each league are automatically awarded a full year of service, regardless of how much they actually accrued that year. Secondly, teams that promote top prospects to their Opening Day rosters will be awarded draft pick compensation should that player finish in the top 3 of Rookie of the Year Voting and/or Top 5 in Cy Young/MVP Voting. The details on the exact compensation are not yet released but there will be at least some draft pick incentives to encourage teams to put forth their true best team on Opening Day.
But it is not known if these measures will truly impact service time manipulation. Teams could put top prospects on their opening day roster and then quickly send them down to the minor leagues for an extended period of time should they struggle out of the gate. They might weight the diminished chance of the prospect winning an award against getting an extra year of control and be more quick to demote prospects instead of letting them figure it out in the majors. We shall see how this plays out. Probably things won’t be all that different, but their may be cases where we see a few more top prospects right out of the gate. If they struggle, you can always send them down for a tune-up. Whether this means we’ll see Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson on the Opening Day roster remains to be seen.
Looking into some more minor and speculative ways the season could be different, due to the shortened spring training schedule there is a possibility of expanded rosters early in the year. This is due to a concern about managing innings for pitchers as they work to stretch out to their full innings load, though pitchers have generally thrown fewer and fewer innings in recent years. There is precedent for this, as MLB allowed teams to have a 28-man roster during the pandemic shortened 2020 season. In the event rosters were expanded, it would likely only be a temporary expansion before a return to 26-man rosters. Additionally, the rule of a 13 pitcher limit will return for 2021. This was suspended in 2020 and 2021 but now teams will need to carefully plan out their innings workload for their starters and bullpens. And there is still another new rule they must work around.
Introduced in this CBA was a new limit on optioning players back and forth between the minor leagues. Under the new rule a team can only option a player five times throughout the year. An overall quality of life improvement for players, this will prevent teams from excessively refreshing their bullpens with “fresh” arms and sending relievers on a constant back and forth between the major league and AAA teams. Eight teams had players that were optioned more than five times in 2021, however the Tigers were not one of them. As such this shouldn’t be a major issue for the Tigers and pitching coach Chris Fetter. He was tasked with mapping out a safe innings load for the Tigers’ young pitchers and brilliantly maneuvered the ups and downs last year while keeping the innings load in check.
A potentially awkward situation to keep an eye on, and one that may affect the Tigers, is team arbitration cases. In a normal offseason, most arbitration hearings would have been well wrapped up by now. But due to a 99-day lockout, teams and players have a bit of catching up to do. As such, MLB has extended the deadline for teams and players to file their figures for arbitration to March 22nd. The problem is, with about 200 arbitration eligible players still not in agreement with their teams, though many of them should settle in the coming days, there will be a lot of cases to sort though. There’s a high likelihood that not all cases will be resolved until well into April. This will potentially create an awkward situation where a team will be trying to tear down a player in the hearing room one morning while asking him to suit up and play his best that night. The Tigers have historically been good at avoiding arbitration with their players, but their 17-year arbitration hearing free streak was snapped in 2019 when they went to a hearing with Michael Fulmer, who is in his final year of arbitration now.
Lastly, while many of the pre-pandemic rules have been lifted, such as reporters being allowed back in the clubhouses, there is still one issue of international significance that teams will need to navigate. In order to travel to Canada, players must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Any player not fully vaccinated will not be allowed entry and, per the CBA agreement, will not be paid or accrue service time for the missed games. Fortunately, barring any unforeseen news with new additions to the roster, this should not affect the Tigers, who were 100 percent vaccinated last year.
There will be major on-field rule changes coming in 2023, pitch clock, shift ban, larger bases, automatic strike zone, but the details of these changes still need to be worked out and they all may not happen but if they do, they will move through the approval process quickly, thanks to the new 45-day approval window granted to MLB in the CBA. We’ll touch on these more when the time arrives. For now, expect a more or less return to pre-pandemic rule baseball, with a few hopefully well received changes.