On Saturday, after rejecting Major League Baseball’s latest offer, the Major League Baseball Players Association agreed to abide by the threat MLB had floated at the beginning of the month and allow the commissioner to set the schedule. In response, MLB sent a letter to the MLBPA indicating it would not set a schedule unless the players agreed not to file a grievance over a shortened season. Before looking at why MLB might be taking this approach, let’s take a look at how we got here. It’s been almost a week since the first day of the amateur draft, when Rob Manfred spoke to Tom Verducci about the start of the season on MLB Network. Early in the interview, Verducci asked about the possibility of imposing a shorter schedule:
Tom Verducci: Obviously, you want an agreement. In the absence of an agreement, according to the March 26 agreement with the players the owners believe that you as commissioner can schedule a season that “uses the best efforts to play as many games as possible”. How close are you to that point, how many games are we talking about.
Rob Manfred: I remain committed to the idea that the best thing for our sport is to reach a negotiated agreement with the MLBPA that plays as many games as possible for our fans. We do have rights under the March 26 agreement and there could become a point in time where we’ll exercise those rights.
Manfred went on to say the two sides were “very, very close” on health and safety protocols. After he also indicated that finishing the season in November was not practical due to a potential second wave of the coronavirus and the difficulty of moving the playoffs around for television partners, Verducci got to the heart of the matter and asked whether there would be baseball this season.
Tom Verducci: Negotiations are complicated. Simple question for you. Can you guarantee we will have major league baseball in 2020?
Rob Manfred: We are going to play baseball in 2020. 100%. If it has to be under the March 26 agreement if we get to that point in the calendar, so be it, but one way or the other we are playing major league baseball.
Two days later, MLB provided the players with its “Final Counterproposal for 72 games,” along with a letter from deputy commissioner Dan Halem to union negotiator Bruce Meyer complaining that players were not entitled to pay to begin with and that MLB could have opted to not have negotiated a deal in March at all. The letter did not mention the owners’ fears of the players suing for full salaries in the event of a partial season, the elimination of the roughly $20 million in minimum postseason bonus pools, the relaxation of debt rules that might otherwise have opened up the CBA completely, or the $400 million in amateur signing bonuses that were deferred or eliminated. The March agreement was not an act of generosity, but rather a pact between two sophisticated parties trying to reach the best deal possible. And as Manfred noted, the March agreement gives the commissioner certain rights, including the right to set the schedule.
But the commissioner appears less than eager to impose that right, likely because there are other provisions in that agreement that might not be as beneficial to the league. The commissioner agreed to use “best efforts” to play as many games as possible, but has since indicated that a longer season is impossible due to a potential second wave as well as the difficulties surrounding television rights; the league has also scoffed at the idea of doubleheaders. It is this provision of the March agreement that could lead to a grievance should MLB impose a short season. The slow pace at which MLB has negotiated lends credence to the idea that the league is actually attempting to delay the start of the season to pay players less and thus that the commissioner might not be using his best efforts.
As to discussions of economic feasibility, the union has characterized the league’s disclosures as insufficiently transparent, and even a cursory examination of the league’s own financial presentation provided to the players back in May shows not that regular season games are unprofitable, but rather that their profitability varied on an individual team basis. Overall, teams would make money playing regular season games compared to playing no games at all, which meets one definition for economic feasibility. The league’s likely issue was that those games weren’t even close to as profitable as the postseason, which is less certain to occur and where the money is divided equally by team. While the commissioner’s office views a grievance as a “gotcha trap,” it isn’t a possible measure the league would have been unaware of. It’s something I mentioned more than a week ago after MLB made it’s second offer. It was one of the reasons I questioned MLB’s willingness to bargain in the first place, considering all that MLB had to gain by making a much better offer but instead opted not to.
It’s possible to argue that MLB’s threat is simply a continuation of a prior plan to trim the schedule to as few games as possible to limit salaries and get to the playoff money. If the owners could get more regular season games on very favorable terms (like the 30% pay cut from full pro-rated pay over 72 games that they last proposed, which is a 40% pay cut from an 82-game season), they were willing to proceed to the playoffs. For the owners, this mode of negotiation appeared to be a win-win. Either run out the clock and pay less, or hope the union agreed to a deal with huge cuts that would provide more money to the owners. MLBPA’s response — to a shortened schedule and to any offers not significantly better than the threatened pro-rated 50-game slate — has thrown a wrench in those plans. Demanding more discussion or that the players agree not to proceed with a grievance gets the owners slightly back on track, but they are clearly still concerned about the potential for a grievance, which might provide more transparency into the owners’ finances and comes with the threat of hundreds of million of dollars in awards to the players.
There are a couple other theories over what could be influencing the negotiations. One is simply that the owners are not a unified voice in these discussions, and that a compromised solution among them is required before any compromise with the players can be reached. There have been talks that some owners don’t want to play the season at all; those voices could be hampering a decent offer from heading the players’ way. (Perhaps the threat of hundreds of millions of dollars in damages is the kind of outcome that could get those owners back to the table.) The other possibility, far worse, is that the owners are simply indicating that they are willing to sink this ship and take the players with them. There’s not any reasonable scenario in which owners lose less money by not playing games. Regular season games will net the owners millions while the playoffs promise nearly a billion dollars, if they can get there. That’s why the threat over the last month hasn’t been one of canceling the season, but rather of imposing a 50-game version.
It’s hard not to see MLB’s current threat to the cancel the season as anything other than another bluff. As I noted yesterday, MLB is being presented with the opportunity to make a good offer, a real compromise where they receive significant concessions from the players in the form of expanded playoffs, ending the potential for a grievance, and additional revenue that even MLB acknowledges is not insubstantial. According to MLB’s own figures, going from 50 to 70 games, without even accounting for national television revenues, would cost owners just $6 million per team. It’s hard to see why such a relatively small sum is holding up the potential for a meaningful baseball season, or why it’s worth threatening to cancel the season less than a week after guaranteeing the fans one was coming.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.