ORLANDO, Fla. -- Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred called the possibility of missing regular-season games amid the league's lockout of players "a disastrous outcome" but called himself an "optimist" and said, "I believe we will have an agreement in time to play our regular schedule."
Speaking Thursday at the end of the quarterly owners meetings at the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, Manfred declined to officially postpone the beginning of spring training despite the large chasm between the league and players on a new collective bargaining agreement that almost ensures pitchers and catchers won't report to camps next week.
MLB plans to make a proposal to the MLB Players Association on Saturday when the sides meet in New York for the fifth time since Manfred locked out the players Dec. 2.
"You're always one breakthrough away from making an agreement," Manfred said. "That's the art of this process. Somebody makes a move. And that's why we'll make additional moves on Saturday that creates flexibility on the other side and what seemed like a big gap on this topic or that topic isn't such a big gap anymore."
Baseball is 70 days into its first work stoppage in more than a quarter century. While it's the second-longest stoppage in baseball history in time elapsed -- behind only the 232-day strike that prompted the cancellation of the 1994 World Series -- no regular-season games have been lost on account of it.
The fear of missing games -- and the fallout from such a scenario -- is the likeliest factor to expedite talks between the league and union. If the parties can't agree to a new CBA by early next month, it could threaten the scheduled March 31 Opening Day.
Talks between the sides have been few and far between since the lockout began. Forty-three days lapsed between the final pre-lockout proposal by the union and MLB's response. Three bargaining sessions on core economics have taken place since, the last on Feb. 1. Following the union's proposal that day, MLB sought assistance from a federal mediator to help bridge what remains a sizable gap between the parties on a number of key issues. The MLBPA rejected using a mediator, urging the league instead to return to the negotiating table.
"You're always one breakthrough away from making an agreement. That's the art of this process. Somebody makes a move. And that's why we'll make additional moves on Saturday that creates flexibility on the other side and what seemed like a big gap on this topic or that topic isn't such a big gap anymore." Rob Manfred
Once they do, the principals -- deputy commissioner Dan Halem and union chief negotiator Bruce Meyer -- will have manifold obstacles to navigate. Player leadership, in social media posts and interviews, has said getting players paid younger, stopping service-time manipulation and disincentivizing tanking are the union's top priorities. After making significant gains in recent years, the league is seeking a deal closer to the status quo.
During the three days the owners met, the union held its own get-togethers: a group of more than 100 players in Phoenix on Tuesday followed by sessions in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Wednesday and one scheduled for Thursday in Tampa. Players, increasingly speaking out publicly, have taken aim at Manfred and the league as not being reasonable in negotiations, pointing to skyrocketing franchise values as an indication that salaries should likewise increase, not go backward as they have four consecutive years.
Asked Thursday about whether owning a baseball team is a good investment, Manfred said: "If you look at the purchase price of franchises, the cash that's put in during the period of ownership and then what they've sold for, historically, the return on those investments is below what you get in the stock market -- what you expect to get in the stock market -- with a lot more risk."
Over the past 20 years, according to Statista, MLB franchise values have grown at nearly twice the rate of the S&P 500.
The union is seeking a minimum salary of $775,000, a $100 million bonus pool for pre-arbitration players, the ability for high-achieving rookies to earn a full year of service time even if they don't spend an entire season on a major league roster and an eight-pick draft lottery for nonplayoff teams. The league has proposed a $615,000 minimum, a $10 million bonus pool, a system that rewards teams with draft picks for high-achieving rookies who appear on Opening Day rosters and a three-pick lottery.
Other issues remain unresolved. The union has sought salary arbitration for all players with at least two years of service -- the current threshold is three years, with an exception for a small group of two-plus players -- and wants the league to lessen its revenue-sharing distribution by $30 million. MLB has rejected changing arbitration or revenue sharing -- its desire to take those issues off the table entirely on the day of the lockout led to the infamous seven-minute meeting that ended those talks -- and is seeking playoff expansion to 14 teams. The union has countered with 12.
Perhaps the most important issue, the competitive-balance tax, has not been discussed since the players dropped their proposal on the threshold from $248 million to $245 million on Dec. 1. The league had proposed a bump from the current $210 million to $214 million, though its version includes more onerous penalties for exceeding it. Movement on the CBT could foretell the next phase of negotiations.
Those are expected to begin Saturday, as the league caucused with owners and prepared its strategy for the most important point yet in negotiations that have lasted nearly a year: the one in which Opening Day is threatened.
"In the history of baseball, the only person who has made a labor agreement without a dispute -- and I did four of them -- was me," Manfred said. "Somehow during those four negotiations, players and union representatives figured out a way to trust me enough to make a deal. I'm the same person today as I was in 1998."