The ongoing MLB lockout hangs over every baseball topic like a storm cloud. Absolutely everything is affected in one way or another, and any prediction, projection, hope or opportunity is predicated on the final result of the CBA negotiations. That the players and the owners will ultimately come to an agreement is not in doubt, but both the details of that agreement as well as the timeframe in which it arrives will have major implications on all aspects of the game. 

Spring Training is in position to be the first major casualty of this war. The owner’s willingness to cancel regular season games is proof that our annual winter-ending rite is at best an afterthought. There clearly will be some type of training session before regular season play commences, but it is surely going to be truncated and rushed much like the last-minute 2020 summer camp. It is impossible to deny the effects the lack of a full spring slate had on the players in 2020, and it is unfortunate for every player on every club that it is going to happen again just two years later. 

Some players however are affected more than others. Year long training keeps position players in top physical condition, so a relatively small amount of simulated game reps should mostly do the trick to help them get their timing at the plate. Pitchers face a more difficult task, as it is harder to build up the stamina required to pitch for the duration of a full season. It’s why they report to a regular spring training camp earlier, and so from the outset taking away the additional week or two they get in a typical spring puts them at a disadvantage. The pitchers who face the largest disadvantage are the relievers that fill out the last couple slots in the bullpen. 

Many teams have positional battles in spring training, but top teams typically have their lineups set in advance, with a prospect getting a chance at the fifth starter role or a little jockeying for a bench role being the extent of the uncertainty. On the other hand, every team has competition for the last few spots in their bullpen. The season-to-season volatility of relievers makes for more churn than at any other position, and long-term deals like starting pitchers and all star position players sign are not really a reality for a reliever. The vast majority of bullpen innings come from hurlers that are either in the pre-arb/arbitration stage of their career or are on a one-year contract. 

This situation lends itself to robust spring training battles for each spot in the ‘pen. Teams serve themselves well by bringing in a lot of depth and pitting them against each other to see who comes out on top. A reliever who had a tough previous season may have developed a new pitch, which can cause drastic improvements. A different pitcher who was successful the prior year might have been scouted during the break, taking away some of his edge. These factors are discovered during spring training and help teams to make effective roster decisions. With a truncated off season and spring training, the end result is going to skew the opportunities heavily towards minor league prospect type relievers, leaving a potentially higher quality batch of early 30s bullpen arms out in the cold. Normally many of these pitchers would be given opportunities to compete for jobs in the spring, but the lockout and freeze on free agent contracts creates a situation where quality relievers and needy teams can pass like ships in the night. 

Take a guy like Tony Watson. A quality arm to be sure, and in the three-batter-minimum era has even a little extra value as a lefty who doesn’t noticeably decline when facing a right handed batter. His stats were decent in 2021, getting into 62 games and pitching to a sub-4 ERA with an even better FIP to back it up. His HR/FB ratio was low suggesting he may have gotten a little bit lucky with his 2021 fly balls, but given his craftiness and experience we also could potentially give him a little bit of credit for achieving the mythical “inducing soft contact” result. Regardless of how you want to interpret the underlying numbers, surely there is at least one major league team who could use him in the bullpen. In spite of his successful overall career and a solid 2021 campaign, he could easily find himself left out of the free agent frenzy and without an invitation to spring training if he is unwilling to settle for a minor league deal. Entering his age 37 season, he may not want to try to grind it out in the minors, and without the opportunity to win a major league job this spring he could end up deciding to retire rather than squeezing out the last season or three of effective pitching he potentially has. This hurts the player, and it hurts whatever team he ends up missing out on. His theoretical spot would go to a young prospect who maybe isn’t quite big league ready, and the team’s overall run prevention expectation will drop, albeit not drastically. 

In the ultra-competitive MLB world even a tiny drop in the quality of a team can be the difference between a trophy and an October tee time. The quality of the game suffers too, fans want to see the best of the best. Replacing Tony Watson with a rookie who needs more seasoning isn’t the same as swapping out Fernando Tatis Jr for a random person off the street, but regardless it is frustrating to see finances get in the way of the on-field action. 

Daniel Ponce De Leon was able to sign a minor league deal, and it was eye-opening to see a pitcher of his caliber being forced to settle. He is the kind of “harness the raw stuff” reclamation project that a number of teams might have been interested enough in to give him a major league deal during a normal off season. If he didn’t feel comfortable holding out for a major league contract it’s pretty easy to imagine some of the pitchers currently on the free agent market ending up without a chair when the music stops.

Everyone who loves baseball wants the lockout to end as soon as possible. There still are faint rays of hope that the regular season will start on time and we’ll get to play 162. I understand that sacrificing spring training is painless in comparison to the potential full ramifications of this bitter negotiation. Jim Bouton has a wonderful anecdote in his classic Ball Four about getting the opportunity to prove himself in extra innings during a spring training game. He claims his five shutout innings caused the Yankees to give him another shot, and another one after he proved himself again. He needed every game of spring training and even a bit extra to prove himself, and I have a soft spot for the guys who won’t get that opportunity this season.

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