When baseball’s seventh collective bargaining agreement expired on December 31, 1993, there was no fanfare. Murray Chass of the New York Times dropped it in this way, writing, “If negotiations for a new labor agreement ever begin — the old one expired uneventfully at midnight Friday — the owners will try to put salary arbitration in a time capsule and bury it deep underground, leaving it to be discovered by someone seeking the reason for the decline and fall of the business of baseball.” The expiration of the old agreement was basically an aside in Chass’ article about the owners’ desire to eliminate salary arbitration.
With the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire on December 1 this year, there’s an assumption a freeze will be placed on free agency and perhaps trades as well. Maybe that’s because we experienced a transaction freeze quite recently, spanning March 26-June 26 of 2020. But that was part of an agreement between MLB and the MLBPA, and it was triggered by a global pandemic that halted not just baseball, but life as we knew it.
So, the expiration of the CBA at the end of 1993 seems more instructive when trying to assess the possibility of a freeze this winter. In January 1994, the MLB offseason continued unabated, with seeming scant consideration for the lack of a collective bargaining agreement. The Padres agreed to a two-year, $8.5MM extension with star outfielder Tony Gwynn. The Mets and Royals exchanged problems in a swap of Vince Coleman and Kevin McReynolds. The Rockies inked free agent shortstop Walt Weiss to a two-year, $2.2MM deal. All the sorts of typical headlines you’d find on MLB Trade Rumors back in January ’94, had this site existed back then. None of these linked New York Times articles made mention of the just-expired CBA.
Of course, as Mark Armour and Dan Levitt of The Hardball Times put it, “in the summer of 1994, baseball’s owners and players were headed for the showdown to beat all showdowns.” MLBPA leader Donald Fehr correctly surmised in July, “We believe absent an agreement the owners will impose a salary cap sometime after the season. That leaves players with two choices — take what’s on the table or try to secure a new agreement by setting a strike date.” The owners followed by withholding the players’ $7.8MM pension payment, and the players soon followed through on their August 12 strike date.
With the 1994 World Series canceled and acrimony between the owners and players through the roof, it’d only be natural for ownership to implement a free agency freeze. Instead, they proposed a 45-day delay, which the union did not accept, and the 1994-95 offseason proceeded. It was far from a normal offseason, with Mets GM Joe McIlvaine saying things like, “We can’t do anything because we don’t know what the rules are.” Players like Jim Abbott and Jack McDowell were unsure if they had reached the six years of Major League service required for free agency, due to disagreement about whether service time was accrued during the strike. McDowell would eventually be traded to the Yankees despite that uncertainty. Other players were thought to be potential restricted free agents as four and five-year players, as part of the owners’ plan to eliminate salary arbitration.
Paradoxically, as Chass put it on October 28, “The business of baseball went on yesterday as if the strike did not exist.” Managers and GMs were hired and fired, sure, but clubs also continued doing big-money deals with players. On the eve of free agency, the Yankees and George Steinbrenner signed Paul O’Neill to a four-year, $19MM deal. A $1.2MM signing bonus included in the deal ran afoul of MLB recommendations, as they’d warned, “Clubs should keep in mind the payment of the bonus amounts to a decision by the club to help fund the continuing players strike.”
Teams continued signing free agents during the strike in the final months of 1994. “I’m not sure our words match our actions,” remarked Dodgers GM Fred Claire in this Bob Nightengale article. Angels GM Bill Bavasi commented, “I’m not saying teams are wrong for what they’re doing, it just has people confused. I know I can’t figure it out.” One of the winter’s top free agents, Gregg Jefferies, inked a four-year, $20MM deal with the Phillies. Not long after, the Mariners re-upped Jay Buhner for $15.5MM. December 23, 1994 marked a turning point, as the owners implemented their salary cap plan. It was only then that the union advised players not to sign free agent contracts, Chass wrote.
History shows us that if the current collective bargaining agreement expires on December 1 without a new deal in place, a freeze on free agency and/or trades is not fait accompli. It’s fair to say that the environment now is less contentious than it was 27 years ago, as ownership isn’t attempting to impose a salary cap and the players aren’t planning to strike this season. There is technically nothing stopping Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Kris Bryant, and all the rest from signing free agent contracts despite the lack of a CBA. While uncertainty around things like the new luxury tax thresholds and the universal designated hitter seems likely to suppress hot stove action, an actual free agency freeze won’t happen unless MLB or the players impose it.