How would an MLB work stoppage impact the Chicago Cubs?

(Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)
(Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images) /

On August 10, 1994, the Chicago Cubs dropped their fourth straight game, losing 5-2 to the Giants on a damp, windy afternoon at Wrigley. The game was this dismal roster’s 64th loss, the eighth in the their last nine contests. After a scheduled off day on August 11, the Cubs would mercifully get the rest of the season off. The strike had begun, erasing the last month and half of the season and leaving scars that have never completely healed.

This coming December 2, barring a surprise, the owners will initiate a lockout to pressure the MLBPA as part of the negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement.  Once again, labor-management agro and Cubs on-field ineptitude coincide in a depressing harmonic convergence. It’s possible that this work stoppage, like the last, will end in time to save most or all of the following season. But what if, say, the first two or three months of the 2022 season are wiped out? Given that the Cubs are in – cough – rebuilding mode, how would an extended stoppage affect their hard slog back to playoff contention?

At the Major League level, perhaps the most significant impact will be on the young players on the 40-man roster. The MLBPA represents players on the 40-man; these players will not be eligible to play until a new CBA is agreed. Key players who would miss the kind of development that only actual baseball combat provides include Nico Hoerner, Nick Madrigal, Brailyn Marquez, and Miguel Amaya. Hoerner and Madrigal have around 700 combined career plate appearances in the Show (that is, taken together they have yet to play much more than one full season). Marquez has had nothing more than a cup of coffee, while Amaya has yet to even visit the Starbucks.

A two or three month hiatus would hardly kill their careers, but these players are at or near the time where they need to get big league seasoning, so that the Cubs can figure out which of them, if any, will be a key a cog on the next playoff contending roster.

The minor leagues will not be directly affected by the lockout; minor leaguers are not part of the bargaining unit. Minor league games will be played as scheduled, though without players on their team’s respective 40-man rosters. So potential key contributors such as Brennen Davis and Ed Howard will be able to get their reps in. The forthcoming lockout may have actually helped minor league players, who recently received pledges of increased housing assistance from MLB. It’s possible the owners decided they didn’t need videos of minor leaguers living in shipping containers to complicate what will already be a difficult public relations challenge.

If the 1994 strike is a guide, there will be a freeze on free agent signings until just before play resumes. The Cubs are much more likely to active in the Anthony DeSclafani end of the free agent pool than the Max Scherzer end. It’s possible that the flood of lower-tier free agents all scrambling to find work in the same narrow window will lead to some bargain-priced contracts, which could in turn provide useful trade bait later in the season. But for now, the Cubs are caught in the headlights.

Chicago Cubs: How would a work stoppage affect attendance?

In the post-strike year of 1995 per-game attendance across the majors dropped by 20 percent. The Cubs lost only 16 percent, perhaps because the team’s poor performance was already leading casual fans to choose North Avenue Beach instead. A similar attendance blow is easy to imagine in the wake of the 2021 lockout, possibly a 15-20 percent reduction from the team’s 2019 per-game attendance (the very low 2021 figures are, at least in part, COVID impacted). In any event, coming on the heels of the pandemic and performance collapse, a lengthy lockout might have a particularly pernicious affect on the size of Wrigley’s crowds.

Total MLB attendance peaked in 2007; the Cubs hit their all-time high of 3.3 million in 2008. Chicago had a surge from 2014-2016, but attendance has fallen steadily since then. The labor unrest in 1994 interrupted a season of then record per-game attendance. MLB would not reach the 1994 level again until 2006, just two years before a once-in-a-lifetime (we hope) global economic meltdown.

Now the owners have decided to initiate a labor war amidst a long-term decline in fan interest, and in the shadow of cable television’s rapidly emerging obsolescence, a business on which the owners have shoved in a very big stack. Even if the owners “win” the next stoppage, the medium term pressure on front offices will likely be to minimize spending, not just on free agents but on all aspects of baseball operations.

dark. Next. Uncertainty and fear are overshadowing the World Series

This does not bode well for teams like the Cubs, for whom the future has great value and the present comparatively little. These are exactly the conditions that demand investment. The new management faces will bring fresh thinking, but given the recent Rickettsian record, it’s reasonable to wonder whether the management team will be able rise to the occasion, and even if so, how many fans will show up.