Highlighting the major issues that could hang over the next labor deal

Rob Manfred, left, and Tony Clark will be heavily involved in baseball's next labor negotiation. AP Photo

Here's something you can be thankful for as you chomp on your turkey and stuffing: Since the last baseball work stoppage -- and that's now 20 years ago, if you're scoring at home -- the three other major North American sports have had six of them.

So how 'bout that. Baseball. The sports world's new bastion of labor peace. It's safe to say Marvin Miller, Bowie Kuhn and Curt Flood never saw that coming.

But in sports, nothing lasts forever. Not even World Series droughts on the North Side of Chicago (theoretically). So it's hard not to wonder. How long can this golden era of baseball kumbaya-hood last?

It's a question worth asking now because the expiration date on baseball's current labor deal will be upon us in a year and six days, on Dec. 1, 2016. It's a question worth asking because this winter, sometime after the first of the year, negotiations will begin on the next labor deal.

It's a question worth asking because so much has changed since the last deal was hammered out in November 2011. Rob Manfred negotiated the last one on the owners' side. He's the commissioner now. Michael Weiner negotiated the last one on the players' side. Tragically, he died of cancer, way too young, only two years later.

So because it's a question worth asking, we've asked it repeatedly over the last few weeks, of a dozen people on both sides. And we have to admit we're relieved by the optimistic answers we've received.

"It's a 9-and-a-half-billion dollar industry," was the response we got from one of the folks we surveyed. "Nobody is going to want to blow it up."

Fortunately, we heard sentiments to that effect over and over. That's the good news. But just because there won't be a war doesn't mean there won't be a battlefield. That's the bad news.

So what are the issues that could hang over these talks -- and potentially change the face of this sport? Here are just some of the big ones, in no particular order:


The Chicago Cubs have been accused of it. The Houston Astros have all but admitted it. The Atlanta Braves have denied they're in the midst of it. But if there's even a chance tanking can turn into the new genius, this sport has to address it.

There are plenty of people spinning this as nothing new, just a variation on the strip-it-down-then-build-it-up renovations teams have been doing for years. But there are others who recognize that some really smart front offices have figured out it's a way to manipulate the current system, by stocking up on high draft picks and the bonus pool that comes with them.

What's the answer?: We've never heard more talk about a draft lottery than we've heard lately. But it would make sense that an NBA-type issue could produce an NBA-type solution. Here's another idea, however, that could even be more effective: No team would be allowed to pick in, say, the top five of the draft in back-to-back years. Think of the impact. The Astros had the first pick in three straight drafts. The Cubs grabbed Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber with the second and fourth picks in consecutive drafts. Should that be OK with the powers that be? It's possible we're about to find out.

Qualifying offers and compensation picks

We're now four years into a system that has seen 54 free agents have the option to accept a qualifying offer that would have paid them between $13.3 million (the 2012 figure) and $15.8 million (the 2015 figure) -- but for only one year. Precisely three of those 54 have accepted (all three this month).

So here's the question: If you have an issue affecting so few players, does it constitute some sort of crisis needing to be fixed? Well, Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales would vote yes. There are a whole lot of people on the other side who would vote no. So let the debate begin.

What's the answer?: The ideas are already flying. The union could push for a system that would give teams that lose one of these free agents a bonus pick -- but not force the team signing them to lose a pick. Or there could be flexibility built into those qualifying offers. Maybe teams could be allowed to make a two-year qualifying offer. Maybe players who accept a qualifying offer could be given a 30-day or 45-day window to negotiate a longer deal with their old team. Or maybe this winter was proof that, once a few players actually accepted those offers, the system would just correct itself -- and nothing needs changing. Stay tuned.

Luxury tax thresholds and revenue sharing

If there's any one issue that could turn explosive in the next year, this is it. It just happens to be an issue that's mostly an internal, ownership-only wrestling match waiting to happen.

But do the math. This in an industry now estimated by outsiders to be sharing close to $400 million in revenue. Just a handful of teams are bankrolling most of that. So there could be a fascinating donnybrook coming over who's paying, who's receiving what and how that money should be spent. Also in play is where the luxury-tax threshold is heading. Four years ago, only 12 teams had $100-million payrolls. This year it was 22. So the threshold, now at $189 million, seems certain to rise. But how high? And which teams would it impact? Major issues.

What's the answer?: Are we finally going to see requirements that teams which cash massive revenue-sharing checks have to spend that money on major-league payroll? Excellent question. The union is philosophically opposed to a salary cap, so it feels it has no choice but to resist an official payroll floor. But on the other side, the frustration is said to be building among the teams that are writing those checks. They could insist on a formula that says: "If you're getting this money, you have to spend X percent on payroll and player development -- and prove it." We heard predictions that ranged from a dramatic overhaul of the revenue-sharing system to not much more than a "tune-up." But in a sport in which the commissioner is predicting $15 billion in revenues down the road, the battle over what happens to those revenues feels more likely to be monumental than minor.

Shortening the season

It's amazing how many people now understand that cramming 162 baseball games into a 26-week season is insane. So you'd think those same people would agree that cutting the season to 154 games, or something like that, is the way to go. Oh really? Guess again.

The response from most owners goes exactly the way it has gone for years: If the players want to roll back their salaries to make up all that lost revenue, the owners would be happy to talk. If not, good luck. But there are wise men on both sides who see beyond that logic. Stop running the players into the ground, they say, and maybe the disabled list wouldn't have more names on it than the lineup card. And if you don't think health can also mean wealth, you're not viewing life through a wide-angle lens. More than a half-billion dollars was wasted this year on players who were on the DL, not on the field. That's a gigantic area of potential savings.

What's the answer?: Ask players about this, and they'd love to see even fewer games -- 150, 152, whatever number would fly. But on the other side, the only number anyone seems to believe is feasible is 158. And mustering enough votes for even a cut that small would be a long shot. But finding ways to create more days off, in a post-amphetamines age, is going to be a major topic. Would a monthly, or even an annual, Ernie Banks Doubleheader Day be an option? Sadly, there's not much enthusiasm for any Let's Play Two brainstorms. One possibility we've heard a lot of speculation about: Shortening spring training, to allow the season to start a week earlier. That could add an extra day off a month, or allow the postseason to start (and end) earlier. Or maybe both, with an adjustment to both the start and end dates of spring training.

Fixing the schedule

And now a related development. Travel. Scheduling. Start times. Whether or not baseball finds a way to create more days off, it has to figure out how to make the schedule less grueling. For everyone. There might be no more important issue for the players' side than more humane game times on getaway days. And if there's a way to reduce the ridiculous number of multi-time-zone road trips, especially for West Coast teams, someone needs to find it.

But you may be startled to learn this isn't as easy as it sounds. A significant reduction in prime-time start times could translate into less TV money. And there's still that pesky ESPN Sunday Night Baseball, which provides the only regular, exclusive, prime-time national showcase for this sport every week of the season, but also can create brutal travel times. That's not going away.

What's the answer?: Every indication we get is players are ready to fight for those earlier getaway-day start times. And it's hard to envision them accepting anything that would cause their travel demands to get even crazier. Could they use a pushback against regular-season games outside North America for leverage? Wouldn't shock us.

Roster size

Here's one more area both sides could explore to help players survive the season. Does the 25-man roster still make sense? There seems to be real sentiment for increasing that limit from April through August, then taking a hard look at the havoc that's often being wreaked by 40-man rosters in September. And it's about time.

What's the answer?: We've heard proposals for expanding rosters to 27 or 28 players during the season, but designating a 25-man "active" roster for each game. That could be a potential cure for relief-pitcher abuse, if nothing else. There's also a related proposal floating around that would automatically make any reliever ineligible for that nightly roster if he'd pitched three days in a row. Good idea. And in September, that 25-man "active" roster would still apply, no matter how many minor-league call-ups a team makes. That's one more excellent concept that has been out there for years. But now, its time might finally come.

International draft

Once again four years ago, owners and players formed a committee to study the feasibility of an international draft. Once again, it turned out to be not really feasible. So instead, they implemented a new international signing pool for each team, with what they thought would be heavy penalties for clubs that went over their soft pool allotment. Four years later, pretty much everyone agrees that, hoo boy, did that ever not work.

Between huge bonuses for several Cuban players who were exempt from the pool, large-market teams that didn't view tax penalties as much of an impediment and even whispers of funny business by teams intent on circumventing the system, those rules didn't A) keep bonuses in line or B) make the international market any more equitable. So here we go again. Ready for another blue-ribbon committee to study that international draft? Here it comes, in 3-2-1.

What's the answer?: The commissioner is one of the biggest fans of an international draft. But it remains almost impossible to actually implement one, without creating more global drama than it's worth. So get ready for a push for a tougher slotting system, with penalties that will cost teams players, roster spots and/or draft picks. If there's one thing the last four years have proven, it's that, for some teams, money penalties represent no penalties at all.

Draft issues

It won't be just the world draft that will find its way to the bargaining table, of course. It will also be the June draft. Four years ago, baseball tried out a whole new system of slotting, bonus pools and rules that were supposed to make it more difficult to accumulate picks and manipulate the system. Instead, teams found new ways to accumulate picks and manipulate the system. Anybody think that'll come up?

What's the answer?: We mentioned earlier there's talk of a draft lottery. Beyond that, this could go in a zillion different directions. Harder slotting? A readjusted formula to calculate the pools? Moving the draft to Omaha during the College World Series, or even into July, to the site of the All-Star Game? Trading picks? Restricting the window for picks to sign? Revamping the heavily criticized Competitive Balance Lottery, which this year somehow bestowed a high pick on the St. Louis Cardinals but no pick at all on the Tampa Bay Rays? Way too early to tell where this discussion will end up.

Dividing the pie

It was just a couple of weeks ago that Scott Boras caused a major stir on this front at the general managers' meetings. All by claiming that when owners and players slice up their juicy revenue pie, 57 percent goes to the clubs and just 43 percent to the players. Just one minor problem with that description of life down at Boras' bake shop: Neither side agrees with his math. Multiple sources say the split is actually close to 50-50, depending on how you calculate benefits. And any comparisons between baseball and the other sports are irrelevant, because the sports with salary caps are dividing up "designated revenues," not the entire pie. So ...

What's the answer?: Um, never mind. Doesn't sound as if this is going to be an issue. And even if it is, players and agents can directly affect how the pie gets divided, in a cap-free market, with every contract they agree to.

What else is in play?

If you've ever seen an actual Collective Bargaining Agreement, all 311 pages of it, you know this is just the highlight reel of the many, many topics covered in it. We haven't even mentioned arbitration, the "Kris Bryant" service-time rules, PEDs, smokeless tobacco, replay, the World Baseball Classic, expansion, waivers, minimum salaries, meal money or hundreds of other issues that need to be agreed upon.

And one of the biggest bargaining issues of all, over the next year, won't ever appear in print. Will the owners spend the next year trying to push, prod and test the resolve of new union chief Tony Clark? What do you think? Will the players make a proposal, or two, or 20, designed to test how different life will be under the Rob Manfred administration than the Bud Selig administration? What do you think?

It's a different world now. It's a different sport. It's a different business. But it took a recent survey by the Sports Business Journal to spell out just how different.

Asked which major sport had the best chance of a work stoppage during its next labor negotiation, only 6 percent of 626 respondents answered: Major League Baseball. Two decades ago, it might have been 106 percent. But here in the 21st century, you know what we've learned? That peace in baseball is proving a lot more doable than peace on earth.