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As MLB awaits union response, players remain clear on one thing: No more pay cuts

Max Scherzer reaches for the ball on the mound at the beginning of a game in 2018. Scherzer posted on social media amid discussions of baseball's return. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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While Major League Baseball awaits a response to its opening economic proposal for starting the 2020 season, the players’ union remained publicly silent Thursday about its negotiating plans but further entrenched in its central stance: no further cuts to player salaries.

The union is weighing its response to MLB’s opening proposal sent Tuesday, which called for a second round of cuts to player salaries — beyond the one agreed to in March — with this one being applied on a sliding scale and the highest-paid players being hit the hardest. Union leaders have not decided on the specifics of a formal counterproposal or whether even to make one at all, and they have yet to signal when they will reveal their next move.

But what the union made clear Thursday was its continued opposition to further pay cuts as the days dwindle until next week’s soft deadline for an agreement that would allow MLB to start its delayed season with “spring training 2.0” in mid-June and an Opening Day around July 4.

MLB has envisioned an 82-game regular season played without fans and an expanded, 14-team postseason, but it insists it would lose billions of dollars by playing in 2020 without additional salary concessions from the players. The union is skeptical of those claims and has requested documentation of them.

In an email to his clients that was leaked to the Associated Press, Scott Boras, the most influential agent in baseball, stressed the importance of opposing the further pay cuts and implied that players should sit out the season rather than agree to them.

“Remember, games cannot be played without you,” Boras wrote, according to the AP. “Players should not agree to further pay cuts to bail out the owners. Let owners take some of their record revenues and profits from the past several years and pay you the prorated salaries you agreed to accept or let them borrow against the asset values they created from the use of those profits players generated.”

News of the Boras letter came less than 24 hours after Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer, a Boras client and member of the union’s executive subcommittee, wrote in a social media post that players had “no reason to engage with MLB” over pay cuts, challenging the sport to open its books if it wants to justify that proposal.

“There’s no justification to accept a 2nd pay cut based upon the current information the union has received,” Scherzer wrote. “I’m glad to hear other players voicing the same viewpoint and believe MLB’s economic strategy would completely change if all documentation were to become public information.”

Analysis: Max Scherzer doesn’t speak up without a calculated purpose

Scherzer’s comments came late Wednesday night following a pair of union meetings regarding the next steps, one with the eight members of the executive subcommittee and the other with a group of 150 or more players.

The union has long insisted the issue of player compensation was settled in the March 26 agreement, which called for players to be paid prorated shares of their 2020 salaries based on the number of games played. The owners, however, contend the language in that agreement made clear it pertained only to games with fans and that games played in empty stadiums would require additional salary concessions to account for the loss of in-stadium revenue.

Under the March agreement and assuming an 82-game season, players would make roughly half their original 2020 salaries — amounting to a total loss of around $2 billion in aggregate salaries. But in its opening economic proposal delivered to the union Tuesday, MLB proposed further cuts that would get progressively deeper for players making the most money, some of whom would earn less than a quarter of their original salaries.

The union could choose not to counter MLB’s proposal directly but instead use the schedule as a way into a negotiation. The players have discussed proposing a longer regular season of perhaps 100 to 110 games, according to a person familiar with the union’s position. The owners, however, want to protect the postseason — when it makes the bulk of its revenue from its TV deals — from the threat of a potential second wave of the coronavirus in the fall.

The union also has discussed proposing salary deferrals that in theory could see players accepting less money in 2020 but being made whole through deferred payments stretching over future years. Some owners, however, would be hesitant to take on additional debt amid uncertainty about revenue streams in 2021 and beyond.

In his email to clients, Boras accused owners of asking players to “bail them out of the investment decisions they have made” — specifically, debt accrued from their franchise purchases, stadium renovations and land development around the stadiums.

“This type of financing is allowed and encouraged by MLB because it has resulted in significant franchise valuations,” Boras wrote. “Owners now want the players to take additional pay cuts to help them pay these loans. They want a bailout.”

Even as the sides navigate a thorny economic negotiation, there remains work to be done on the health and safety front before the sport could open its season. MLB delivered a 67-page proposal to the union May 15 covering issues such as testing and social distancing guidelines for players and staff. Last week, the union sent a response containing mostly questions, suggestions and requests for clarifications.

Although that negotiation is considered less contentious than the economic one, the union said Tuesday that sides remained “far apart” on those issues.

And while the two negotiations — economics and health and safety — proceed on essentially parallel tracks, the players increasingly see the two as intertwined, with players being asked to take on most of the health risk by playing in 2020 while also being asked to do so for a fraction of their salaries.

“I get how fortunate I am to play baseball for a living [but] I also know how much I’ve sacrificed and how much work I’ve put in to reaching this point,” Boston Red Sox outfielder Kevin Pillar wrote on Twitter. “… I want to play more than anything and take care of my family as long as it is safe.”

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