As Safety Concerns Grow, Stalling Owners Leaves Players in Bind

Following a flurry of activity last week between Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association as the two sides volleyed to resume the 2020 season, this past weekend was marked by inactivity. After an in-person meeting between Rob Manfred and Tony Clark spurred an owners’ proposal for 60 games on Wednesday and a 70-game counter-offer from the players on Thursday, the owners opted to wait the players out. While they were waiting, the schedule for a potential season got a little bit shorter, and positive coronavirus tests for five players and three staff members in Phillies camp forced some re-evaluation of the viability of Florida as a training site ahead of the upcoming season. With other positive tests popping up around the sport, all of the spring training complexes were temporarily closed for deep cleaning, and to establish new, more stringent safety protocols; in all, 40 players and staff have tested positive for the virus over the last week. Even with that news, the players were expected to formally vote on the owners’ 60-game proposal on Sunday, but a last-minute modification by Rob Manfred pushed the vote back.

In an email obtained by the Associated Press, Rob Manfred indicated to Tony Clark on Sunday that the season would not be able to begin on the July 19 date previously proposed by both sides, pushing the start of the season back to July 26:

“I really believe we are fighting over an impossibility on games,” Manfred said in the email, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press. “The earliest we will be ready for players to report is a week from Monday, given the need to relocate teams from Florida. That leaves 66 days to play 60 games. Realistically, that is the outside of the envelope now.”

Manfred also attempted to address some of the concerns the players have raised regarding a potentially shorter regular season should the current pandemic prevent a full slate of games from being played. Manfred offered to make the 2021 elements of the deal contingent on completing a full season, including expanded playoffs and the universal designated hitter; expanded playoffs are a significant concession to make on the part of the players should the season need to be truncated. The television rights for expanded playoffs in 2021 might be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, though in the players’ last proposal, they requested half the revenue for those playoffs.

Manfred also indicated that players on non-guaranteed contracts would receive full termination pay if cut before the season, though the letter only included players who were eligible for salary arbitration in 2019, with the payments subject to advances already received. Arbitration-eligible players and others on non-guaranteed contracts typically receive either 30 or 45 days termination pay if they are cut in spring training depending on how late into camp they stay. The contracts become guaranteed once on the Opening Day roster. Based solely on the letter, it doesn’t appear that the benefit applies to a significant number of players. For lower-salaried arbitration-eligible players, the advance they’ve received is likely to be more than the termination pay, and for higher-salaried players, the savings to a team from cutting a player are minimal due to the already-existing termination pay rules.

The players now have to consider whether to agree to the 60-game proposal. As Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich wrote over the weekend:

The players are weighing: Would they be better off playing 50 games — the approximate length of the season if the commissioner implemented a schedule — and retaining the right to file a grievance? Or should they play 60 and surrender the right to a grievance while making other concessions worth an unknown but large amount of money?

For 10 games, the players would make around $250 million more in salary, plus receive a $25 million bonus pool and $33 million in advance forgiveness. In exchange, the players would be giving up the right to file a grievance for hundreds of millions of dollars based on MLB’s delay tactics, as Eugene Freedman covered for FanGraphs on Friday. They would also be giving the owners expanded playoffs over the next two years with television rights worth hundreds of million of dollars. In agreeing to a deal, the players would be giving up far more in value than they would receive.

Beyond that, owners are still refusing to concede on one important health matter. Bob Nightengale has reported that players have asked for the ability to opt-out of the season with pay if they are living with someone at a high-risk of COVID-19 complications:

Also, in their latest exchange, the union is asking that players who cohabitate with “high-risk” individuals, including a spouse who’s pregnant, would also have the right to opt out of the 2020 season, and still receive their prorated salary and full-service time.

The owners have yet to agree. That could potentially force players to make a very difficult decision as to whether to play this season. The outbreak in the Phillies’ camp certainly increased awareness about the risk to players. The risk to family members with underlying medical conditions is far greater. Forcing players to choose to risk serious health consequences for their families in order to receive their salaries is not a decision players should have to make.

This could have been a lot easier. If the owners had simply responded with a 66-game season — one that would cost them less than $2 million per team on average, even if we’re as generous to the owners as possible about their claimed losses per game — there likely would already be a deal and we’d be talking about the beginning of the regular season. As I wrote on Friday:

While the players’ latest proposal might not be exactly what the owners are asking for, it is a reasonable one and compromise should be an option. If there are owners who still think otherwise, Rob Manfred and owners who want to see baseball in 2020 need to get together and make sure it happens. There’s also the possibility that Manfred and the owners are engaged in further delay in an attempt to avoid a grievance, and force the shorter schedule they desire.

The owners appear to be getting their wish for a short season, but it might come without a deal. They haven’t offered significant incentives to the players and at this point, the money from the threatened, mandated schedule isn’t significantly different from MLB’s offer. The lack of a deal comes at considerably greater risk to the owners who have opened themselves up to a grievance with their actions, something they surely wish to avoid, win or lose. They will also face a playoff season that provides players with no financial incentives to perform should the pandemic worsen and players begin to question their safety. MLB and its owners pushed the season to the brink, but they might find the shorter season they desire has unintended consequences that could’ve easily been avoided.





Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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J. Paquin
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J. Paquin

MLB is so tone deaf. NHL, NBA, and NFL families are not at risk? Stop making excuses and figure it out already…

malcer
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malcer

As NHL players report to one of two hub cities and NBA players all converge on Orlando, let’s try to figure out which huge elephant in the room Craig Edwards/ Fangraphs keep ignoring.

The truth is that the NBA and NFL have a longstanding tradition of the league and the owners arbitrating, whereas MLB has a longstanding tradition of both sides being much more willing to throw the cake in the dumpster than to accept a piece that isn’t definitely larger than the other one.

That MLB is now less constructive than the NHL is shocking, though.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

This is the second time I have heard this and it is almost certainly false. There hasn’t been a strike or a lockout for MLB in well over twenty years. The NFL had one (although it was resolved before canceling games) and the NBA had one that shortened the season (and a whole lot in the 90s).

PC1970
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PC1970

NBA also had one in 2011/12. IIRC, they played 66 of 82 games that year.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Yeah that was the one I was thinking of. They also had something like 3 in the 90s.

Labor relations for sports leagues were really bad for about 10 years there.

malcer
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malcer

My main point here was that in those other leaugues, players agreed to a semi-quarantined solution, basically without it even being much of an issue.

As for the labor relations thing: this is obviously somewhat subjective, but my impression following many sports over the years has always been that MLB/MLBPA relations are far more hostile than usual.

Ryan
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Ryan

When compared to the other big sports, MLB must deal with more people & games in rapid succession. The NFL compares in roster sizes, but even they only need to coordinate 1 game per week per team.

Selectchrl
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Selectchrl

” somewhat subjective”

Bolton
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Bolton

NHL played zero games in 2004-05, regular season or playoffs.

Bolton
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Bolton

If the entire MLB season gets wiped out, which seems unlikely, there’s a small chance that it will someday be viewed as being for the best. We do have a pandemic going on. This isn’t a garden-variety strike or lockout. I don’t believe NBA or NHL games will dramatically spread COVID, but what if they do? The leagues would almost certainly be castigated for putting TV contracts ahead of public health.

bglick4
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bglick4

2 years from now people will have all but completely forgotten about the deaths associated with this. I’m not saying that’s good, but the vast majority of people aren’t touched by COVID deaths. I think most will remember the owner’s pettiness more than they remember any COVID spikes (unless the spikes are massive).

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I do think that 2 years from now we may well have forgotten all of the trials MLB went through to put players back on the field, as well as any other baseball/covid related stuff. But COVID and the deaths? No way anyone forgets about this, especially considering that with the exception of NYC and Seattle, most places have not seen the worst of this yet.

There is a non-zero chance we still aren’t out of the woods on this in 2 years (although thankfully, there is so much vaccine development going on I think that is unlikely).

David McCann
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David McCann

But they are at risk. You obviously haven’t paid attention to say otherwise.

HappyFunBall
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HappyFunBall

Until ANY league actually starts playing games, I’d say it’s a bit early to pass judgement.

The NBA and NFL are fall sports. They’re not even scheduled to begin for a few months yet, so don’t go getting excited about what they are promising. It’s isn’t real yet.

The NHL is furiously trying to complete their season, but since it was well underway there just aren’t the labor issues that MLB has. Everyone wants to finish and it’s all going to be playoffs. It’s just a matter of safety.

Dave from DC
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Dave from DC

The NBA is trying to restart so it can have playoffs, like the NHL. Only the NFL has thus far escaped unscathed.

HappyFunBall
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HappyFunBall

Ha! You’re right. Shows how much attention I pay to the hoop …

Dave from DC
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Dave from DC

Unfortunately, your larger point is spot on–restart efforts aren’t looking great at the moment. Everyone is still negotiating health and safety protocols while more and more athletes and team employees test positive.