If There's A MLB Lockout In 2022, What Happens To The Minors Leagues?
A question for you that might have an obvious answer, but one that I’m not sure about. If MLB and MLBPA negotiations on the CBA force a work stoppage next season, does that also mean no minor league games? Obviously minor leaguers aren’t a part of the MLBPA but it feels like a bit of a gray area.
-- Greg Huss, @OutOfTheVines
As baseball edges ever closer to the one-month mark until the expiration of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, there are a series of questions we keep hearing at Baseball America.
What happens to the minor leagues, Rule 5 draft, free agency and everything else that normally occurs during the offseason if there is a work stoppage come Dec. 1?
If past history is any indication, if the 2022 MLB season is delayed by a work stoppage, the minor leagues should roll along largely as normal.
Thankfully, there is now a generation of baseball fans who do not remember the work stoppages that were a normal feature of CBA negotiations from the 1970s through 1990s. So understandably there are now many baseball fans who don’t remember how baseball worked (and didn’t work) during past work stoppages—whether player strikes or owner lockouts.
How it worked was simple—the minor leagues were largely unaffected by any MLB work stoppages. The only real effect that the minors saw was increased attention, because without MLB games to air, the minors got some games broadcast nationally, much like the Korean major league did in 2020 during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
In the past, when MLB has either locked out the players or the players have struck, Minor League Baseball continued to play. The vast majority of minor league players are not members of the MLB Players Association, and there is no CBA in the minors—rules are simply decreed by MLB without any negotiations with the players.
So any work stoppage at the MLB level does not impact the minor leagues—with one big exception. Players on 40-man rosters are MLBPA union members, and as such are expected to honor a picket line (in case of a strike) or are part of the group that is locked out by owners.
And that can cause some difficult situations. In 1995, MLB teams (with the exception of the Orioles) put together teams of non-union replacement players during spring training. All 40-man roster players were sitting at home, but any prospects who were not on 40-man rosters and had big league spring training invites were still part of MLB spring training.
Unlike the MLB replacement players, who drew scorn from the players' union and MLB players, the minor leaguers were not seen as breaking a picket line. They were simply not party to the labor dispute.
At Baseball America, we wrote about numerous such examples that spring. Two of the Cardinals' top pitching prospects were Alan Benes and Brian Barber. Benes, not on the 40-man roster, was in spring training, getting work in front of the big league staff, while Barber, a part of the Cardinals’ 40-man roster, sat at home.
Similarly, Phil Nevin was in camp with the Astros while fellow top prospect Brian Hunter was not. Ruben Rivera was not at spring training for the Yankees, but Derek Jeter wasn’t on the Yankees’ 40-man roster yet, so he gave the Yankees’ front office a sneak peek that that he would be ready before long. The Yankees called him up for 15 games that season.
The timing of the CBA expiration on Dec. 1 means that tendering contracts and 40-man roster protection decisions will likely occur as usual near the end of November. But if no new CBA agreement has been reached by Dec. 1, it is likely that MLB free agency would be delayed until a new agreement is reached. That's because the very structure of that free agency could change under a new agreement.
It’s also possible that the Jan. 15 international signing period could be pushed back, especially if the rules for international amateur talent acquisition are changed as part of a new CBA.
But there is precedent for the Rule 5 draft to roll along, new CBA or not. In 1994, there was still a Rule 5 draft even though the owners and players were in the middle of a strike. Baseball America’s story about that year’s Rule 5 draft described it this way:
“The confused and troubled state of baseball’s unresolved labor dispute had a profound effect on the annual Rule 5 draft. Traditionally one of the staples of baseball’s Winter Meetings, this year the draft was rescheduled twice by Major League Baseball before an awkward conference call was held Dec. 5. Farm and scouting directors and other player development officials—but no general managers—called the shots for those clubs who had representatives in Dallas.”
In the latter part of the 20th century, new CBAs were never reached before the old ones expired. In the 21st century, the new CBA agreements have always been reached without the two sides resorting to a work stoppage. But whether there is a work stoppage or not, it likely would have minimal effect on the minor leagues.