MLB says it will unilaterally schedule the 2020 season, but there are questions to answer
Monday night, Major League Baseball announced commissioner Rob Manfred plans to impose a 60-game season after the MLB Players Association voted down the league’s final proposal. Weeks of back-and-forth negotiations — very public and off-putting negotiations — were for naught. The two sides couldn’t reach a deal and Manfred will unilaterally schedule the season.
“Today, the Major League Baseball Players Association informed us that they have rejected the agreement framework developed by Commissioner Manfred and (MLBPA executive director) Tony Clark,” MLB said in Monday’s statement. “Needless to say, we are disappointed by this development. The framework provided an opportunity for MLB and its players to work together to confront the difficulties and challenges presented by the pandemic.”
Manfred has not yet unilaterally scheduled the season — that could happen fairly soon, perhaps by Tuesday night — and there are still other outstanding issues that must be resolved before the 2020 baseball season can begin. Here we will answer the seven most pressing return-to-play questions as best we can. Let’s get to it.
1. OK, so what happens now?
MLB requested two pieces of information from the MLBPA by 5 p.m. ET on Tuesday: can the players report to spring training by July 1, and will the union agree to the league’s proposed health and safety protocols? That’s not a hard deadline, but the longer the MLBPA takes to respond, the fewer games they can play. Every day off the calendar is a day that can’t be used to play baseball.
Even as they’ve publicly bickered about money, MLB and MLBPA subcommittees have been negotiating health and safety protocols the last few weeks. MLB submitted its original 67-page proposal last month and the two sides have worked to come to an agreement. Rules regarding the use of indoor batting cages and other facilities (ice baths, etc.) are among the things being revised.
The health and safety protocols are not expected to be a sticking point. Unlike the money, MLB and the MLBPA are very willing to work together on this to ensure games can be played safely. If the MLBPA does not approve the plan prior to Tuesday’s deadline, it won’t be because the side is trying to drive a hard bargain. It’s because the union wants to ensure player safety.
Reporting to spring training by July 1 is not expected to be an issue either. Players have been working out at home — some are able to do more than others — and have been ready to report. Last month Department of Homeland Security acting secretary Chad Wolf issued an order allowing pro athletes entry back into the United States. From the order:
“Professional sporting events provide much needed economic benefits, but equally important, they provide community pride and national unity,” said Acting Secretary Wolf. “In today’s environment, Americans need their sports. It’s time to reopen the economy and it’s time we get our professional athletes back to work.”
Players who returned to their home country during the shutdown — Hyun-Jin Ryu is in South Korea, for example — won’t have to jump through immigration hoops. Furthermore, Tim Brown of Yahoo Sports reports players returning from overseas won’t have to quarantine for two weeks as recommended by the CDC. Not sure that’s a great idea, but reporting to camp should be a non-issue.
Beyond the health and safety protocols and spring training reporting date, MLB and the MLBPA have some other outstanding items to resolve, including roster (universal DH? how does the 30-man active roster and 20-man taxi squad work? etc.) and transaction (is allowing trades during the pandemic a good idea?) rules. No potential deal-breakers, but things that must be worked out.
2. When will the season start?
The master plan right now is launching a three-week spring training on July 1 and beginning the regular season on Friday, July 24. MLB insists the regular season must end on Sept. 27, which leaves 66 days to play 60 regular season games. There is a little bit of wiggle room there, but that’s the best-case scenario. Opening Day one month from Wednesday.
3. Why 60 games?
MLB made four return-to-play offers but only one included full prorated pay (and thus did not violate the March agreement). That proposal came on June 17 and was for a 60-game season. The MLBPA countered with 70 games and meeting in the middle was apparently too much for the league, so owners refused to submit a counter-proposal, and here we are.
The owners insist they will lose money on each game played without fans. Whether you believe them is irrelevant. That’s what they claim, so the shorter the season, the better for them. At the same time, the MLBPA is expected to file a grievance arguing MLB did not play as many games as possible, so once the league offered 60 games at full prorated pay, it essentially had to stick to it.
There had been speculation Manfred would unilaterally implement a 48-54 game season to cut MLB’s losses, so coming up to 60 games makes the league look like it is extending an olive branch. Cynically, I see a 60-game season rather than a 48-54 game season as MLB better positioning itself to better defend against a grievance, but that’s just me.
MLB’s four return-to-play proposals offered the players roughly one-third of their full season salary over some number of games. A 60-game season at prorated pay is 37 percent full season salary. The owners stalled until they got what they wanted, and tried to protect themselves from a grievance during the process. That’s all.
4. When will the MLBPA file its grievance?
Officially, the union has 45 days to file the grievance once Manfred schedules the season. The MLBPA will argue MLB did not make its “best efforts to play as many games as possible” as required by the March agreement. Last month the union requested financial documents showing another round of pay reductions were necessary and MLB only partially responded.
Grievances are based on facts, not speculation or hurt feelings. The MLBPA will point out MLB proposed to play 82 games at one point, and that the league did not provide enough evidence showing further pay reductions — or a shorter season — were necessary. The fact MLB asked the MLBPA to waive its right to a grievance in its last proposal is a pretty good indication the owners are worried.
MLB will cite a clause in the March agreement saying the schedule was formed while “taking into account player safety and health, rescheduling needs, competitive considerations, stadium availability, and the economic feasibility of various alternatives.” Owners will also file their own grievance saying the players violated the March agreement by not negotiating salaries in good faith.
The grievance will not interrupt play and could take years to resolve. The Kris Bryant service-time grievance took nearly five years. The 1985 collusion case did not land in front of an arbitrator until 1987. Once the grievance is heard, the MLBPA could be awarded millions (or billions?) in damages and back pay, and get a deeper look into MLB’s books during the discovery phase.
Also, the grievance is an enormous piece of leverage heading into collective bargaining agreement negotiations that will happen after the 2021 season. The MLBPA could trade dropping the grievance to gain other concessions, such as a higher minimum salary or protections for free agents. The union will file a grievance. There’s little doubt about that. As for how players use it, there are multiple options.
5. What was left on the table?
Quite a bit, actually. Manfred unilaterally implementing the season means it should be business as usual in 2020, for the most part. Make no mistake though, both sides but a lot on the table in an effort to reach a return-to-play agreement. Here is a list of known offers presented during negotiations:
- Expanded postseason in 2020 and 2021 (14-team and 16-team formats).
- Ties or revised extra-inning tiebreaker rules.
- Advertisement patches on jerseys.
- Universal designated hitter in 2020 and 2021.
- Elimination of the qualifying offer (2020-21 offseason only).
- Full salary guarantee for arbitration-eligible players (rather than partial termination pay if released in spring training).
Had the MLBPA agreed to an expanded postseason and ads on jerseys, they would’ve become permanent with the next collective bargaining agreement. There’s no putting that cat back in the bag, so, by rejecting the proposal, the MLBPA can still use them as leverage during next year’s negotiations. It’s not something players gave up easily this year.
MLB’s last proposal included an expanded postseason and ads on jerseys, and would’ve given the players concessions ($25 million postseason pool money, partial salary advance forgiveness, etc.) that would’ve push their total compensation to 104 percent of prorated salary according to MLB’s calculations, or 62.4 games of salary in a 60-game season.
The MLBPA would’ve had to give MLB all that, and waive its right to a grievance, for only 2.4 extra games of pay, all while assuming the health risks associated with playing and traveling during a pandemic. Can’t say I’m surprised the union rejected that proposal. They passed on 2.4 extra games worth of pay to retain a lot of leverage going forward.
(According to MLB Network’s Jon Heyman, the extra-inning tiebreaker rule may still be used in 2020 to avoid long games and reduce injury risk during the shortened season.)
6. Will they actually finish the season?
Reader, I sure hope so. This past weekend’s developments were disheartening. The Astros and Phillies reported positive COVID-19 cases at their spring training complex, the Blue Jays had a 40-man roster pitcher show symptoms, and the Angels reported positive cases in personnel not at their MLB ballpark or spring training site. Forty people in baseball reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 last week.
In response to the positive tests, MLB reportedly ordered all spring training complexes shut down and sanitized, and personnel can not return until they test negative. Also, each team can host spring training in its major league ballpark in its home city rather than at its spring training complex given the recent increase in cases in Arizona and Florida.
What happens if dozens of personnel test positive when they report to spring training next week? What if it happens in the middle of the regular season, or in October? I don’t know. I really don’t, and I don’t know that MLB and the MLBPA know either. COVID-19 is the common enemy and all the planning in the world may not prevent an outbreak. I truly hope they can finish the season. I’d be lying if I said I were confident they can, however.
7. Next year’s CBA talks are going to be bad, huh?
Yeah, they are. The current collective bargaining agreement expires Dec. 1, 2021, and the last three months were basically a warm-up session. The MLBPA is more unified now than at any point since the 1994-95 work stoppage and the owners can’t be happy they didn’t get the players to cave on further salary reductions. Plus they’ve lost a ton of money on top of it.
There is a lot of animosity and a lot of distrust on both sides. Neither side likes the other very much. They need each other, but they don’t have to like each other. I won’t go as far as to say a work stoppage is a lock at this point — I’m hopeful survival instinct will kick in and the two sides realize they can’t afford another prolonged shutdown after this year — but the chances a stoppage happens are certainty high. Higher than they’ve been at any point in the last quarter-century.