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MLB CBA 2021: How Oakland A’s are affected by potential lockout

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What’s the latest news, and how might it affect the A’s?

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Houston Astros v Oakland Athletics Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

Major League Baseball might go into a lockout this week. The latest reports suggest it’s more likely than not.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and players expires at the end of Wednesday, and the two sides aren’t expected to reach a deal in time. If they don’t, then the league will probably implement a lockout until a new CBA is agreed to, effectively putting a freeze on the offseason by preventing trades and free agent signings.

The issues at hand involve the financial structure of the league, but the specifics of the discussions aren’t clear. In stark contrast to the summer of 2020, when the owners and union engaged in a bitter feud openly in the media, negotiations have been more private this time around. That means far fewer details and rumors have spilled out, leaving us with only some big-picture ideas to speculate about while we wait to hear the final decisions.

The union outlined their general objectives over the weekend, and Patrick OKennedy of Bless You Boys has a great breakdown. Pitcher Max Scherzer, one of the leaders of the players union, offered a couple of his goals, via Evan Drellich of The Athletic:

“Unless this CBA completely addresses the competition (issues) and younger players getting paid, that’s the only way I’m going to put my name on it,” Scherzer said.

Those concepts could take many forms, but a couple ideas have been tossed around in the rumor mill. To increase competition and avoid tanking, a salary floor could be used to force teams to spend at least a minimum amount on payroll. On the topic of younger players getting paid, the arbitration system could be adjusted to allow salary increases earlier in their careers, and also to end service-time manipulation by teams.

For now those are just proposals on a chalkboard, and the salary floor in particular would be an ambitious project that would require a lot of other changes, but for now they give us something to talk about. In particular, how would these ideas, and the threat of a lockout itself, affect the Oakland A’s?

Lockout

A lockout would halt the offseason indefinitely. Teams wouldn’t be able to trade major leaguers, and free agents wouldn’t be able to sign. Theoretically if could threaten the start of the 2022 season if the holdout lasted long enough.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t going to be a pleasant winter for the A’s anyway. They’re cutting payroll, letting go of most or all of their free agents, and presumably trading several stars for the next wave of prospects. That’s all important, and you have to get the job done right for the rebuild to bear fruit, but it’s a different kind of urgency than gearing up for a time-sensitive win-now season.

The priority this year isn’t finding the perfect missing pieces for a contending roster, but rather just maximizing value overall. If they have to wait a bit longer to make their trades then fine, and perhaps a bit of chaos in the market could even end up helping if clubs get desperate to make up for missed time after the freeze. When it comes to free agency, Oakland would probably have waited until the last minute anyway to go hunting for bargains, like they did last year.

An offseason lockout of any length might slightly affect the A’s fortunes for better or worse, but not their plans. The roster is coming down, it’s just a question of whether it happens in December or February or whenever, and how much they manage to acquire in return.

And if the stoppage extends long enough to delay the season and cancel some games? That would stink and it would be bad for the sport’s long-term health, and watching a losing team is still better than no baseball at all, buuuut at least it won’t cost us a playoff spot next summer.

Arbitration

On the other hand, this part could potentially have a significant effect on Oakland. Their entire game plan is based around producing young stars, keeping them through the cheap years of their early careers, and then either trading them away or letting them walk when they get expensive. Adjusting the arbitration system to increase salaries earlier would bust that whole strategy.

Even under the current rules, the A’s have incredibly tight windows of contention opportunity. Players can become free agents after six full seasons, and the top stars get cost-prohibitive sooner than that in arbitration. If those arby paydays got pushed up a year or two, then it would be virtually impossible for Oakland to put together a winning squad in time before pricing out the roster and needing to reset.

Of course, any such change would have ripple effects. If young players get paid more, then older players would get less of the pie, and that might open up new bargain opportunities. Perhaps the A’s would shift their focus even more toward veterans who had now become undervalued due to age. Or maybe they’d lean into the curve and go full-throttle like the Rays, with an even more rapid turnstile of transactions and constant cost-cutting turnover to keep pace with shorter service-time clocks.

Arbitration reform is a necessary step for the league, but it could force Oakland to adjust their strategies. Fortunately, they’ve got a reputation for finding creative new ways to succeed.

Salary floor

Adding a salary floor for team payrolls might be a long shot, but if it did happen then it would obviously have a big effect on the A’s. They are perpetually one of the lowest-budget teams in the majors, so they would be one of the primary targets in order for a minimum to have any purpose.

The severity of the impact would depend on the level of the floor. If it was set around $60 million then it would avoid only the deepest tank jobs, and maybe this winter Oakland would need to sign one extra free agent as a token gesture. But if it was something serious like $100 million, it would force them to rethink how they do business, even if it might be too late to avoid this winter’s rebuild.

Beyond that there would be other factors, since a floor would never just show up in a vacuum. The owners would never agree to it without an accompanying salary cap, and the players have never budged on rejecting that idea. Even if the floor and cap did somehow happen, who knows how it would all shake out and what the new system would look like.

The only real question is this: How high would the salary floor have to go to convince John Fisher to give up and sell the A’s to a better owner? Let’s advocate for that number.