As you may have heard, MLB players and owners are at odds... again. Spring training has been delayed, and the cancellation or reduction of regular season games seems inevitable. I could dissect the arguments each side is currently making and tell you where each side stands on certain issues, but honestly, it’s exhausting. The players want fair treatment, and the owners are simply in the wrong here. Fortunately for those owners, they have a commissioner who is clearly in over his head and will do whatever he is told to appease his bosses and piss off fans.
Generally speaking, many baseball owners are greedy. Television contracts, current revenue sharing, and antiquated service time manipulation encourages them to be content with a subpar product, because, why not? They say: it doesn’t matter if my team loses 100 games and we spend minimally to field a roster... because I am still going to make money hand over fist! Despite telling you otherwise, they even did this during the pandemic, but cried poor and disappointed part of an already shrinking fanbase.
There are also a myriad of on-field issues with the game (pace of play, shifts, etc.), and I will admit that the product needs to change a bit, or at least evolve. Those issues are part of this lockout equation, but it is primarily about money — and who gets how much of it. There are people who are much more qualified than myself to dissect and analyze the lockout, so I digress... in disgust. Get it together, baseball.
Among those most-affected by the lockout are minor leaguers and your “run of the mill” depth players — young guys without an established role, bullpen arms who bounce around the league, fifth or sixth outfielders, etc. Rather than preparing for the season as they normally would, working with team personnel, and attempting to lock up an eventual roster spot, they are stuck training on their own and doing whatever they can to stay “baseball ready”.
Being locked out is an impactful blow to those fringe players. Bryce Harper and Shohei Ohtani can go with the flow, still have access to the best training and preparation, and when the season starts, they will walk into the dugout or onto the field with all the comfort and security in the world. They’re superstars, and they’ve absolutely earned it. Not every player has the same luxury.
One former Buckeye saw considerable action in the bigs last year, and he does not enjoy remotely the same prestige as a Harper or Ohtani. Travis Lakins, out of Middletown, Ohio, was taken in the 2015 MLB Draft and reached the majors four years later. But he is far from household name, and has experienced varying levels of success at the professional level. The absence of a current collective bargaining agreement is hindering his ability to move forward with his career.
Lakins began his Ohio State career as a sort of utility pitcher. In 2014, he made two starts, earned two saves, and appeared in 25 games total — almost exclusively in relief. He was developed into a starter for the 2015 season, and made 15 starts for the Buckeyes. Despite a less than gaudy win/loss record (5-7 career), Lakin’s three-pitch arsenal, 3.28 ERA, and nearly 3:1 strikeout to walk ratio impressed MLB scouts. He was taken by the Boston Red Sox in the sixth round of the 2015 MLB Draft.
After two “meh” seasons in the lower levels of minor league baseball, Lakins put together a strong 2018. He began the year in AA Portland and appeared in 26 games, racking up nearly 10 K/9. He was then promoted to AAA Pawtucket, where he finished with a 1.65 ERA, admittedly in a small sample. Lakins started 2019 still in Pawtucket, but was called up for his major league debut on April 23. He made a relief appearance in front of 30,000 in Fenway Park — which, having been there personally and as a baseball fan, I can only imagine is one of the coolest experiences known to man.
Lakins made 16 total appearances for the Red Sox, many of which came during September call-ups. Unfortunately, his Boston experience was short-lived, as the team designated him for assignment in January of 2020. He was eventually claimed by the Baltimore Orioles. Lakins has been given ample opportunity by the Orioles, but the results have been mixed — trending towards negative, unfortunately. After keeping his ERA under 3.00 in 2020, it ballooned to 5.79 in 2021. One of the biggest issues for Lakins has been walks. He gave up more than 5 BB/9 during his time in Baltimore.
Now, as if life in baseball is not challenging enough, Lakins is injured. He underwent right elbow surgery in July of 2021, and was hoping to get back in time for the 2022 season. Life threw him a curveball with the lockout. Lakins has been unable to rehab like he likely would have under normal circumstances. He is not permitted to interact with any team’s medical staff, nor can he use their facilities to rehab on his own. As a former sixth-round pick who signed above slot, and potentially with assistance from the MLBPA, Lakins isn’t just sitting around waiting for his elbow to fix itself. However, the rehab process is likely much more difficult without the aid or support of an organization.
Furthermore, Lakins can’t even communicate with front office personnel, managers, or coaches! Not that January and February are flush with communication between player and coach, but as a guy coming back from injury, I’m sure teams would like to know how he is doing or how the rehab is going. The lockout prohibits that.
It probably feels like Lakins is out on an island, and that is unfortunate. He is teetering on having a major league career at all, and now he cannot rehab at team facilities or speak with the people making decisions as to whether or not he will have a job. As far as I could tell, Lakins’ contract is up, meaning there is no more guaranteed money coming his way. The Orioles likely own his rights after optioning him to AAA as a result of the injury, but he may be lucky to earn an eventual spring training invite with them. The good news is, at 27 years old, Lakins’ career is far from over. The lockout is not doing him any favors, but both sides are meeting daily to try and get this thing figured out.
The former Buckeye hurler is not alone in his circumstances. Minor leaguers are seemingly under attack from owners, as the latter look to cut teams and jobs. Free agency hasn’t even begun, and there are dozens of players without teams or contracts, which will be at least partially dictated by the terms of whatever agreement the two sides ultimately come to. Young big leaguers (some stars) are in wait-and-see mode to see if they can increase their earning potential before a fifth or sixth year of service time — which is just bananas, when a 27-year old MVP candidate is making $7 million annually, and under arbitration rules until 2025!
Lakins’ current quandary is just another byproduct of the unrest within baseball. America’s pastime has now become its third or fourth-most popular sport, and the fan fatigue resulting from these stoppages and petty wars is beyond palpable. The game and MLB will presumably never cease to exist, but it is certainly failing to adapt and grow. When hockey and soccer start to receive more attention, look no further than the reign of Rob Manfred as a reason why. For Lakins’ sake, and hundreds of others just like him, let’s hope compromise can be reached.