- - Thursday, December 1, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Word went out across the land late Wednesday night – there will be peace, prosperity and pitchers and catchers.

Baseball players and owners agreed to a new labor agreement in the final hours of the deadline to make the deal, which means that the former Tombstone of sports labor has turned into Pleasantville.

No conflict, all peace.

It has been 21 years since the game shut itself down – and cancelled the World Series – when the owners hired negotiators to break the union and the players went on strike. Since then, save for some desperate moments in the talks for a 2002 agreement, it’s been peace, love and money, lots of it, more than baseball has ever seen.

The new labor agreement is a sign that everyone wants the unprecedented amounts of money the game is making — nearly $10 billion — to continue without the risk of dramatic changes on either side.

Change, though, is coming, not just in baseball, but throughout the professional sports landscape, And though money should still flow, no one is quite sure how or how much.

ESPN, one of baseball’s national television partners, is losing 20,000 subscribers a day to cord cutting — people saying goodbye to their cable television and opting for independent, streaming viewing options. Those losses are estimated to amount to more than $100 million annually.

They are in the middle of an eight-year, $5.6 million deal with Major League Baseball — a deal that was made in 2012, when cutting cords was limited to hospital birthing rooms. No one anticipated then that that the most powerful network in sports would be on its heels five years later, scrambling to figure out one of the mysteries of 21st century communication – how to monetize the web.

The new baseball labor deal will run out when that ESPN contract does as well. After that, no one knows. So you can understand why, for the most part, both sides agreed to keep the ship afloat right now, because, quite frankly, no one is sure what may happen a year from now, let alone five years.

And it’s not just ESPN and national television money. Baseball’s life blood are its regional sports networks, such as MASN. If ESPN is losing subscribers at a record rate, so are those regional sports networks. This battle going on between the Washington Nationals and the Baltimore Orioles for their piece of the MASN pie may be complicated by the reality that the pie now is smaller than the pie five years ago, and could soon be crumbs.

Baseball, though, may be best positioned for the brave new world of television because of their Major League Baseball Advanced Media operation, which now brings in $1.2 billion annually, and its visionary leader, Bob Bowman.

Baseball has been the leader in streaming and web technology in sports, so much so that the National Hockey League and other competing sports have contracted with MLBAM to stream their product. Clients even include the mighty NFL. No one will say so publicly, but baseball produces the streaming for the Super Bowl.

At a media conference in February, Bowman talked about the idea of creating a global sports network that would be online. Baseball is positioned better than anyone to be the leader of this movement.

That’s the future, though. Right now there is peace, which means baseball’s winter meetings can go on as planned starting Sunday at National Harbor.

Any major deals at these meetings could be slowed down as clubs sort out the impact of the new labor agreement, so caution could be the theme of these meetings.

Don’t expect much from the Nationals, as general manager Mike Rizzo likes to pay December and January prices, and, operating from a position of strength – a division-winning 95-victory team – he can afford to wait for the deal that he is comfortable with.

There is a list of needs, though, and questions – do they shop for an infielder and keep Trea Turner at center field, or move him to his previous shortstop position and look for a center fielder? Or another corner outfielder, and move Bryce Harper to center – a move under discussion?

If the trade talks with Pittsburgh for center fielder Andrew McCutchen continue to heat up, those questions may be answered.

With Wilson Ramos in free agency, and recovering from knee surgery, a catcher is a need. It’s fair to expect that Scott Boras’ client, former Orioles catcher Matt Wieters, would be high on the list, for no reason other than that he is a Boras client. I would be surprised, though, if they bite on Wieters unless he falls to those desperate January prices. They are in the market for bullpen help – a closer, specifically — which means either re-signing Mark Melancon or pursuing a player they have coveted for years, Aroldis Chapman.

There will be hours of discussion at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center next week about Chicago White Sox starter Chris Sale, and Washington will likely be part of those discussions, but unless the White Sox get blown away by a deal, they may not move Sale, who won’t be a free agent until 2018. If he is not moved – and given a new deal – Sale will have to suffer through the final year of his contract with a $12 million guaranteed pay day – and he will be grossly underpaid.

That’s life in Pleasantville.

⦁ Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes and Google Play.

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