Owners, GMs have big agenda awaiting them

Owners, GMs have big agenda awaiting them

Owners, GMs have big agenda awaiting them
MILWAUKEE -- With a combined meeting of general managers and owners set to open at the downtown Pfister Hotel on Tuesday morning, it is looking like a big week for Major League Baseball.

By all reports, the owners and players are about to sign off on a new Basic Agreement that may pave the way for the first realignment of the game since the Brewers moved from the American League to the National League in 1998.

If the owners approve the sale of the Astros by Drayton McLane to a group headed by Houston businessman Jim Crane this week, a significant part of the deal reportedly will be the transfer of the Astros from the NL Central to the AL West, giving each league 15 teams beginning with the 2013 season. All six divisions would then be inhabited by five teams. The long-awaited sale is on the agenda for the joint meetings that will include the owners and GMs on Thursday morning.

"If that happens, it puts another team in the AL West that's in our time zone, and I think that's important," Rangers team president Nolan Ryan said during the postseason. "When [the Astros] get competitive again, it will be a natural rivalry. It would be good for baseball and Texas to have teams in the same state vying for the lead in the [AL] West."

Because of competitive balance, the MLB Players Association has been a solid proponent of realignment. Expected to come with it will be the addition of a second Wild Card team and a play-in game in each league as a precursor to the current three-tiered postseason format, which will remain the same. Theoretically, the new 10-team postseason could be introduced as early as the coming year, but it probably won't commence until 2013 because the 2012 schedule has already been released.

Crane's purchase of the Astros has been on hold since it was taken off the agenda at the last Owners Meetings in Cooperstown, N.Y., in August. MLB needed more time to vet Crane and his partners, as the collective bargaining talks involving realignment proceeded on a parallel pace. The sale needs 75-percent approval of the other owners and/or their designees to be ratified.

Last May, when McLane and Crane came to agreement, the sale price was announced at $680 million. But Crane asked for and received a credit reportedly for $50 million to $80 million off the purchase price to move the club into the AL. The Astros, who expanded into the NL as the Houston Colt .45s, along with the Mets, in 1962, will be celebrating its 50th anniversary next season.

The labor negotiations have progressed since January, and it was hoped that they would be concluded last month by the end of the World Series. But issues involving the annual First-Year Player Draft have kept negotiators at the table, although FOX Sports reported on Sunday that both sides were close to resolving the matter by agreeing to a restraint on bonuses and changes to free-agent Draft-pick compensation.

There has been conjecture in the media about a possible announcement in Milwaukee this week. It could happen, although one high-ranking baseball official cautioned that there was still some work to be done.

The current deal, which was signed without any rancor in 2006, expires on Dec. 11, giving negotiators a little breathing room. Another five-year deal, through 2016, is expected, giving MLB continued unfettered labor peace since the end of the strike that wiped out the final third of the 1994 regular season, that year's postseason and delayed the start of the '95 season for almost a month.

"Nobody could have conceived, including me, that 16 years ago we could have this many years of labor peace," Commissioner Bud Selig said last month prior to Game 7 of the World Series. "In retrospect, I've come to understand how badly that hurt us. I give everyone a lot of credit."

But peace didn't come easily. Until a deal was reached in New York as players waited on buses to go to ballparks right at the deadline in August 2002, every labor negotiation between the owners and players from the mid-1970s on included either a strike or a lockout.

In 2006, when Don Fehr was executive director of the union, negotiations began in June and the deal was done behind the scenes and announced in St. Louis during that year's World Series. Michael Weiner replaced Fehr in that role nearly two years ago, and though he has long been involved in baseball negotiations, this is his first as the union's head.

This is the third such negotiations for Rob Manfred, MLB's executive vice president of labor relations and human resources, and none of them have included a work stoppage.

By all accounts, this year's negotiations have been meticulous, with both sides poring over and updating most of the previous agreement. Along the way, Selig has praised Manfred and Weiner for their thoroughness and cordiality under pressure.

With the GMs scheduled to open their meetings on Tuesday, large blocks of time have been set aside to update them on all aspects of the projected new Basic Agreement. For sure, they'll have some time to meet individually to talk about trades in preparation for the annual four days of Winter Meetings in Dallas, starting on Dec. 5, but the schedule this week will be frenetic.

First of all, there are a number of old faces in new places. Theo Epstein moved from Boston to Chicago and was joined by Jed Hoyer, who left San Diego to become the Cubs' GM. Ben Cherington replaced Epstein as Red Sox GM, and Josh Byrnes is the new GM of the Padres. Dan Duquette, after almost decade out of MLB, is now the GM in Baltimore, and Terry Ryan is back in his old position with the Twins after a four-year absence.

They'll all have their annual dinner on Tuesday night at which the Sporting News will announce its annual executive of the year, and then they're scheduled to meet again among themselves on Wednesday morning and with Selig that afternoon.

"That's always very educational for us, especially with the new Basic Agreement coming," D-backs GM Kevin Towers said of the meetings with Selig, which began for the first time in Paradise Valley, Ariz., early last year. "It'll be great to see what rules and regulations might change or might remain the same. It's nice to know what kind of environment we're going to be working in going forward."

At the same time on Wednesday, owners will meet in their various committees. Crane's purchase of the Astros from McLane first needs to be approved by both MLB's ownership committee and executive council before it's moved on to Thursday's joint session.

Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.