On Monday night, Major League Baseball released a statement that, despite the legalese and lengthy section recapitulating earlier letters, set the terms under which baseball will return:
88 days after the league and the Major League Baseball Players Association reached an agreement to pay players a pro-rata share of their salaries (with the commissioner retaining the right to set the length of the season unilaterally), the two sides weren’t able to come to a satisfactory agreement for the resumption of play; they’ll instead abide by the terms of the March deal. Sources told Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic that the league plans to announce a 60-game season, equal in length to the owners’ final proposal to the players.
Many of the details of the actual season remain unsettled. The union and the league must still agree on health and safety protocols, though representatives from both sides maintain that a deal there is imminent. The league’s statement mentions this specifically, but even without that particular ask of the players, the March 26 agreement is subject to the two parties agreeing on such regulations.
There has not yet been an official declaration that there will be a season. In addition to being contingent on a final health protocol agreement, there’s the matter of a second spring training. MLB has asked the players to report by July 1. The MLBPA seems very likely to comply with this request, however, which means that a followup announcement with an exact season schedule should follow soon.
From a practical standpoint, there are two major changes between this imposed season and the final offer from the owners. First, the playoffs will retain their current form. The league had initially asked for two years of expanded playoffs, before later adding a clause that would revert the 2021 playoffs to their original 10-team form if the 2020 season were truncated. This represents a setback for the owners, who command the lion’s share of playoff revenue and could immediately sell the rights, likely for a hefty sum. The playoff field will no doubt be a bargaining chip in the upcoming CBA negotiations, but for now, the old system will remain in place.
Second, there’s no mention of a universal DH. On the margins, a National League DH likely favors the players, though by far less than the expanded playoff field favors the owners. An extra spot in the lineup, particularly one that can be manned by older players, seems like a good bet to result in at least a little extra money in veteran contracts. I would not be surprised to see a temporary universal DH, for this year only, as part of the health and safety protocols still to be agreed to, especially since it was reportedly part of an earlier version of the protocols. Pitchers will already be preparing on a short schedule this year; asking them to hit seems like an unnecessary complication.
There are several other differences between the league’s final offer and this fallback agreement. First, the players retain the right to file a grievance against the league. As Eugene Freedman noted last Friday, the league takes the threat of a grievance seriously. Given that the agreement calls for “best efforts to play as many games as possible,” this 60-game proposal is less likely to result in a grievance than earlier talk of a 48-game season, but the risk of one clearly remains at the forefront of owners’ minds.
Second, the league had offered to forgive $33 million in loans (advances that became guaranteed should the season be canceled) to players. That works out to roughly a one game reduction in the length of the schedule; the players have an aggregate salary of $25 million per game. This won’t change the length of the season or any of its logistics, but it’s a small cost to players relative to a negotiated settlement. Finally, the league had offered to add $25 million to the playoff pool this year — another game’s worth of salary.
In essence, should the league announce a 60-game season, the players will be $58 million worse off, in cash terms, than the league’s final offer. In exchange for that, they’ll retain the right to file a grievance over the league’s good faith efforts to play as many games as possible. In addition, they’ll retain the bargaining chip of expanded playoffs; while that isn’t money in their pockets today, expanded playoffs in 2020 and 2021 would likely result in a permanent expansion in the next CBA. Instead, the owners will likely need to make concessions to secure a bigger playoff field down the road.
There are, of course, many ways this could all still go wrong. The players might push back on a seven-day reporting deadline; international travel and quarantine concerns could delay at least a few players. The league hasn’t finalized a 60-game slate yet; if the health and safety discussions are more contentious than has been reported, delays in that negotiation could shorten the season. And of course, this is all contingent on the league preventing a COVID-19 outbreak among players and personnel, not to mention their families — recent positive tests in Phillies camp and at other team complexes make that an uncertain proposition, and certainly put a damper on the proceedings.
But for the moment, there’s a clear headline: baseball is returning. After months of negotiations and several threats of a cancelation for non-COVID reasons, the original deal held. The commissioner just told the players when and where — now it’s (almost) time to play baseball.
Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.