As MLB lockout begins, Detroit Tigers promise to 'be prepared for when it's over'
The collective bargaining agreement between Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association expired at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, just seven hours after Detroit Tigers shortstop Javier Baez, who signed a six-year, $140 million contract, expressed his readiness "to play" for his new organization.
Two minutes after the CBA's expiration, MLB officially implemented a lockout.
It's the ninth work stoppage (and the first since 1994-95) and the fourth lockout (and the first since 1990) for baseball. During the previous three lockouts, no games were missed. Those lockouts lasted 18 days in February 1973, 16 days in February-March 1976 and 32 days in February-March 1990.
"There's a few things that we can do to make the team better," Tigers general manager Al Avila said Wednesday. "If there is a lockout, we will be prepared for when it's over. Truth be told, when we get done with this press conference, we still have work to do. We'll continue working tonight."
By locking out the players, the owners aim to motivate the union to progress toward a new labor contract. Negotiations about the economics of the game are at a standstill. The last CBA between MLB and the MLBPA was negotiated and implemented in 2016 and ended this week.
Now that there's a lockout, all MLB player activity is frozen.
This means no free-agent signings, no trades, no use of team facilities and no contact between the team and its players on the 40-man roster. (For example, Tigers manager AJ Hinch isn't allowed to speak to Casey Mize, Miguel Cabrera and the rest of the crew.) The MLB portion of the winter meetings, originally scheduled for next week in Orlando, are canceled.
"This defensive lockout was necessary because the Players Association’s vision for Major League Baseball would threaten the ability of most teams to be competitive," commissioner Rob Manfred said Thursday in a statement. "It’s simply not a viable option. From the beginning, the MLBPA has been unwilling to move from their starting position, compromise, or collaborate on solutions.
"Regrettably, it appears the Players Association came to the bargaining table with a strategy of confrontation over compromise. They never wavered from collectively the most extreme set of proposals in their history, including significant cuts to the revenue-sharing system, a weakening of the competitive balance tax and shortening the period of time that players play for their teams. All of these changes would make our game less competitive, not more."
Tony Clark, a former Tiger and now the executive director of the MLBPA, countered in his Thursday statement: "This shutdown is a dramatic measure, regardless of the timing. It is not required by law or for any other reason. It was the owners' choice, plain and simple, specifically calculated to pressure players into relinquishing rights and benefits, and abandoning good faith bargaining proposals that will benefit not just the players, but the game and industry as a whole."
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What lockout means for Tigers
Over the past month, MLB teams have committed more than $1.7 billion in free-agent signings, even as Carlos Correa, Kris Bryant, Freddie Freeman, Trevor Story, Nick Castellanos and a slew of top-tier players remain on the market.
Many teams and free agents, assuming a lockout was coming, rushed to complete deals in the days ahead of the work stoppage. Six players agreed to nine-figure contracts, totaling $995 million: Corey Seager (10 years, $325 million), Marcus Semien (seven years, $175 million), Javier Baez (six years, $140 million), Max Scherzer (three years, $140 million), Robbie Ray (five years, $115 million) and Kevin Gausman (five years, $110 million).
"I can't say that we made an adjustment," Avila said. "I think we were very well prepared from the get-go once the World Series was over. We were very aggressive at the GM meetings. When I say aggressive, I mean we had multiple meetings every day with different agents and other teams. ... We worked from the very beginning at the same pace, which was pretty fast and pretty hard. It just all kind of came to fruition here at the end."
The Tigers have committed a combined $217 million in free agency to Baez and left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez, less than the Texas Rangers ($561.2 million) and New York Mets ($254.5 million) but more than the other 27 teams.
On Nov. 15, Rodriguez inked a five-year, $77 million contract. The Tigers also picked up catcher Tucker Barnhart's $7.5 million team option after making a trade with the Cincinnati Reds on the first day of the offseason.
"To be honest, it was 50-50," Baez, who agreed to terms with the Tigers on Tuesday, said about his decision to sign before the CBA's expiration. "We don't know what's going to happen on the other side when the deadline comes."
Here's how Avila approached the situation: "It was our preference to make a deal earlier than later. It was our preference. But I can't say we did it because we felt we had to do it. If it didn't come to this (contract), we would have waited. Even Javy mentioned that. If he didn't feel the deal was good for him, he would have waited. If we didn't think the deal was good for us, we would have waited. At the end of the day, both parties — player and team — felt this was a good fit, a good deal and fair for both sides. We're both extremely happy about it, so that's what made it happen."
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Signing Baez for $140 million — the franchise's largest deal for a free agent since adding slugger Prince Fielder in 2012 — signified the completion of the Tigers' most important offseason moves. They finished with a 77-85 record in 2021 — third place in the American League Central — and needed to upgrade the catcher, starting pitcher and shortstop positions.
"I think this is a turning point," Tigers owner Christopher Ilitch said. "Whether it's the turning point, we'll see. But it is a turning point for the Tigers. And there could be more turning points as we go forward. ... Al has a clear plan on what he'd like to accomplish the rest of the offseason and into the coming years."
Well, Avila said he's not done spending.
Whenever the lockout ends, the Tigers want to add another starting pitcher.
The market for starters, though, has become thin in recent days. It's unclear what caliber pitcher the Tigers want to sign, but a Tyler Anderson-type makes sense to fill the fifth spot in the rotation. Other options include Zack Greinke, Yusei Kikuchi, Michael Pineda, Kwang Hyun Kim and Brett Anderson.
"There's a few things that we can do, and we're going to continue to work on it," Avila said. "Even when spring training starts, you work through spring training and make some moves there. Maybe through the season, you can make some adjustments. It's ongoing. It doesn't stop with this move here."