The first, and easiest, step to overcome in Major League Baseball’s hopeful plan to start the 2020 season, following the mid-March coronavirus shutdown, was completed Monday during a conference call with owners of all 30 teams.
Per multiple reports, owners approved the proposal that had been developed the past few weeks and on Tuesday will submit it to the Major League Baseball Players Association for approval.
But that next step to finalize the deal may be Sisyphean in trying to achieve — though it’s not certain which side is the boulder or the hill.
People inside baseball circles — including front-office personnel, scouts, agents, coaching staff and players — expect contentious and protracted negotiations between MLB and the MLBPA. The plan would start spring training in early June and the regular season in early July.
Though the sides are opponents by nature and have a long history of messy battles, an iciness to the relationship has been building toward a negotiation for a new collective-bargaining agreement following the 2021 season, which is expected to be difficult. The pandemic that has shut down all sports has fast-tracked the looming confrontation.
While player safety and protocols to provide it should be the focal point of the negotiations, the largest obstacle will be money, specifically player compensation.
At debate is how much should be paid to players for what would be the shortest regular season since the 1870s. The plan is for a roughly 80 games for each team.
The MLBPA believes the players should receive a prorated form of their expected 2020 salaries based on games scheduled. For example, Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager, who has a $19 million salary for the season, would receive $9.5 million. For players under contract and not arbitration-eligible, they’d make half of the MLB minimum of just over $560,000.
The MLBPA side in this argument stems from the March 26 agreement with MLB that provided financial guidelines at the beginning of the shutdown, specifically service time for players despite limited number of games, an advance of $170 million to players for salary and the agreement that the ending salary for a player would be prorated based on games MLB could play.
However, commissioner Rob Manfred has since mentioned that agreement was based on the assumption fans would return to games. He added that it could be changed if games are played without fans, which is a stipulation for the current plan.
The previous agreement took almost two weeks to negotiate.
With no fans at games in the foreseeable future, meaning no ticket or concession revenue, the owners don’t feel it’s financially viable to pay players at prorated salaries. The increased revenue from local television deals and increased ratings with few live sports being played wouldn’t be enough to offset the other losses.
Instead, based on reports from USA Today and The Athletic, MLB has proposed a 50-50 split with the MLBPA from all revenues made in 2020 instead of the current salary structure for the 2020 season.
That has never been done in baseball. The NFL and NBA have revenue sharing with owners — 47% for NFL players and 49-51% in the NBA based on expected income. It essentially amounts to a salary cap. The MLBPA has always tried to avoid that salary structure because it meant a salary cap based on the revenue shared. It was one of the key aspects of the 1994 strike.
MLBPA executive director Tony Clark had plenty to say to The Athletic, and none of it was optimistic about MLB’s salary proposal, saying:
“A system that restricts player pay based on revenues is a salary cap, period. This is not the first salary cap proposal our union has received. It probably won’t be the last.
“That the league is trying to take advantage of a global health crisis to get what they’ve failed to achieve in the past — and to anonymously negotiate through the media for the last several days — suggests they know exactly how this will be received.
“None of this is beneficial to the process of finding a way for us to safely get back on the field and resume the 2020 season — which continues to be our sole focus.”
So there is that.
Expect comments from owners in the coming days, citing how much is lost from gate revenue — which includes tickets, concessions and merchandise. MLB owners have often said it accounts for 40% of the total revenue generated.
Beyond the expected main arguing point, there are other aspects to the proposal that are notable.
In an effort to lower travel and play games in home stadiums, there will be a schedule based on geography, meaning increased games between American League and National League teams. For example, the Mariners would play only teams in the American League West and National League West.
With AL and NL teams playing together, the designated hitter, which was implemented in the AL in 1973, would be used in all games. This is something baseball was expected to add in the next CBA — a universal DH. By doing it now, it offers injury protection for pitchers and less need for unnecessary substitutions and double switches in games.
Teams would have a 30-man active roster for games with a 20-man taxi squad to move players back and forth as needed.
And the postseason, which has been a huge moneymaker where revenue sharing for players participating is given, would go from 10 to 14 teams to generate increased dollars. There would be four wild cards in each league. The team with the best record in each league would earn a bye into the division series with the wild-card teams and the other two division winners playing a best-of-three series to advance to the next round.
The battle over money, and lack of attention on other possible issues was not lost on Washington Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle, who tweeted Monday: “Bear with me, but it feels like we’ve zoomed past the most important aspect of any MLB restart plan: health protections for players, families, staff, stadium workers and the workforce it would require to resume a season.”