No major rules changes for '17, but '18 a possibility

No major rules changes for '17, but '18 a possibility

PHOENIX -- Major League Baseball may have one notable rule change this season -- an automatic intentional walk. As for significant rule changes, they appear to be very much on the table for 2018, with an eye toward speeding up the pace of play.

Commissioner Rob Manfred made this clear on Tuesday afternoon during a news conference that opened the fifth annual Cactus League Spring Training Media Day.

Manfred expressed disappointment that Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Tony Clark had shut the door on major rule revisions.

"Unfortunately, it now appears there really won't be any meaningful rule change for the 2017 season due to a lack of cooperation from the MLBPA," Manfred said.

Manfred on labor laws

One minor change we might see involves eliminating thrown pitches on the intentional walk. Sources told MLB.com's Jon Paul Morosi on Tuesday evening that rather than have a pitcher lob four pitches to the catcher to intentionally walk a hitter, managers will signal from the dugout to have the hitter take first base. ESPN first reported this rule change, but it's one that would not speed up the pace of play in a significant manner.

However, baseball's new labor agreement gives Manfred the right to unilaterally implement rule changes during the next offseason in time for Opening Day 2018.

Among the possible changes: a 20-second pitch clock that has been used in the Minor Leagues, limiting trips to the mound and raising the strike zone. As for the much-discussed suggestion that a runner be placed on second base at the start of extra innings, Manfred said that would be an experiment in the Minors.

While Manfred wasn't sure it would ever be brought to the Majors, he said no rejection should be made until the impact was studied in the Minors.

"I've tried to be clear that our game is fundamentally sound, that it does not need to be fixed, as some people have suggested," Manfred said, "and I think last season was a concrete demonstration of the potential of our game to captivate the nation and of the game's unique place in American culture.

"We routinely draw 75 million people live to Major League Baseball games every year and another 40 million to Minor League Baseball. No other sport has that kind of drawing power.

"At the same time, I believe it's a mistake to stick our head in the sand and ignore the fact that our game has changed and continues to change."

Manfred committed to Classic

Among the changes Manfred cited was a 32 percent increase in home runs and a 67 percent increase in strikeouts since 1980.

"Last year, balls in play were at a record low," Manfred said, "and we all know that things like the use of relief pitchers has changed dramatically in the last 30 years.

"I'm firmly convinced that our fans, both our avid fans and casual fans, want us to respond to and manage the change that's going on in the game. I know, I'm certain, that our job as stewards of the game is to be responsive to fans, and I reject the notion that we can educate fans to embrace the game as it's currently being played."

That comment was in response to Clark's statement that dead time in a baseball game wasn't really dead time and that fans needed to be educated about everything that was going on.

"I have great respect for the labor relations process, and I have a pretty good track record of getting things done with the MLBPA," Manfred said. "I have to admit, however, that I'm disappointed that we could not even get the MLBPA to agree to modest rule changes like limits on trips to the mound that have little effect on the competitive character of the game.

"Despite this disappointment, we will continue to work with the MLBPA to effectuate change."

Here's what happens next: Major League Baseball will notify the players that it intends to continue negotiating the rule changes, thus retaining the option of unilaterally implementing the changes after this season.

"The Basic Agreement contains a two-year rule change process," Manfred said. "Our rights, the clubs' rights, are much stronger in year two of that process, and we intend to pursue our agenda for change into year two of that process for the benefit of the game and for the benefit of the fans."

Manfred said he hoped an agreement on rules changes could be reached.

"Right now, our intention is to keep everything that we brought to the table with the MLBPA alive, including the pitch clock, visits to the mound, intentional walks, everything that we raised during this offseason," Manfred said. "Tony is more than within his rights to say right now he doesn't want to move ahead with those rule changes.

"We will continue the process and exercise the rights that we negotiated for and have under the Basic Agreement. Hopefully that process will lead to an agreement. I want an agreement on these issues, but I'm also not prepared to walk away on this topic just because Tony is not ready to move forward now."

He emphasized that shortening games wasn't his first priority.

"We have never set a time goal, because it's really not about time," Manfred said. "It's about two things: It's about pace and action. It is about pace in the sense that we would like to take dead time out of the game. It's about action during the game that keeps fans engaged.

"There is no ideal time for that and the fact of the matter is once you induce action it's hard to predict what you're going to get in terms of time of game. But we've never thought about it that way, that's why we've stayed away from the phrase 'time of game,' as opposed to 'pace of game.'"

Among other topics:

• Manfred said his support for the World Baseball Classic -- which begins on March 6 -- is unwavering, adding, "I intend to keep the WBC alive and growing as long as I'm Commissioner. The WBC serves two really, really important purposes, I think purposes that are crucial to the future of the game. One is the internationalization of the sport. It's great to have an opportunity for some of our very, very best players to play in Korea, Japan, Mexico. That's outstanding. It's important for growing the game.

"Secondly, given our status currently with respect to the Olympics, the money that the WBC funnels into federations that they can use for development is crucial to the grassroots growth of the game in those countries. As much as I love the event, and I do love the event, it's those two purposes that make me committed to it going forward."

• Baseball remains in limbo about its participation in the 2020 Olympics.

"With respect to Tokyo and the Olympics, we have yet to have a description from the federation or the Olympic committee as to exactly what they envision for baseball in 2020," Manfred said. "Absent that description, a detailed description, how many games, how many days, how many players, I'm just not in a position to tell you what this issue will take."

Baseball hasn't been a part of the Olympics since 2008.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter @richardjustice. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.