Internally, MLB’s focus, according to a person with knowledge of the sport’s deliberations, has been on building consensus among owners for implementing a season of roughly 50 games — an idea MLB floated Monday but did not formally propose.
That stance reflects MLB’s belief that the March agreement between the sides governing the terms of the sport’s shutdown gives Commissioner Rob Manfred the power to dictate the length of the 2020 season in the absence of a second agreement. The union, however, almost certainly would challenge such a unilateral move.
The apparent deadlock over the past couple of days has left the sport’s chances of getting on the field this year at their bleakest. Baseball hoped to have an agreement this week, reopen spring training camps in mid-June and celebrate Opening Day around July 4. Although the deadline could be pushed to next week, the lack of momentum toward a deal is at least as daunting an enemy as the calendar.
MLB’s formal rejection of the union’s latest proposal and its intention to forgo a counterproposal were first reported by the Athletic.
Player compensation has been the major sticking point preventing a deal, with the players insisting on receiving full prorated shares of their 2020 salaries based on the number of games played and MLB believing players should take further reductions to reflect the loss of in-stadium revenue from the absence of fans.
In MLB’s lone economic proposal, presented May 11, it proposed an 82-game regular season, with players receiving pay cuts that get progressively larger for those making the highest salaries. All told, it would result in players receiving approximately 30 percent of their original salaries for 2020 — roughly the same as what they would earn in a 50-game season at full pro rata.
In the union’s 114-game proposal made to MLB on Sunday, which included full prorated salaries, players would receive about 70 percent of their original 2020 salaries.
At the midpoint between the two formal proposals would be a season of roughly 82 games, which happens to be what MLB has proposed, and players receiving roughly 50 percent of their original 2020 salaries — which happens to be roughly what the prorated portion would pay them.
However, owners claim they would lose an average of $640,000 per game played without fans unless players agree to a pay cut — a claim that has drawn skepticism from the union — which has led them to effectively present the players with a different choice: a season of 82 games with a pay cut or a season of 50 games at full pro rata. The owners’ outlay would be roughly the same either way.
MLB believes it needs to complete its postseason, its primary driver of industry revenue, by the end of October to guard against a potential second wave of the coronavirus.
Even as the economic dispute threatens to derail the season, the sides have yet to agree on the other major component — the complex health and safety protocols that govern the season to protect players and other participants. While both sides believe there is an agreement to be made, the continued spread of the coronavirus in the United States represents another potential problem.
That point was driven home by a development out of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, which saw two players from the Yomiuri Giants reportedly test positive this week, calling into question the league’s plans to open June 19 and providing another reminder to MLB of the attendant risks of playing through a pandemic.
A 50-game season would lessen that risk but would lead to questions of both legitimacy and practicality for the sport. Critics would argue it is not enough games to stand as a representative season. Would a 2020 World Series champion at the end of a 50-game season be considered legitimate? Would regular season stats be counted the same as any normal, 162-game season?
From a practical standpoint, the union as a whole, not to mention individual players, would have to decide it is worth their while to play in 2020, with all the attendant health risks, for what amounts to less than a third of their normal pay. Would a $30 million pitcher risk his health — both in regards to the coronavirus and the toll on his arm from a sped-up spring training — to make roughly 10 starts? Would a player making the major league minimum want to risk his future free agency?
Even as other major American sports leagues take significant steps toward starting or restarting their seasons, baseball seems no closer to taking the field than it did March 26, which was to have been its original Opening Day. And in some ways, it seems even further away.