Today is Memorial Day. The next major national holiday, Independence Day, comes up fewer than six weeks from now. By then Major League Baseball hopes to start a 2020 season, shortened from its usual length and played in empty ballparks with health and safety protocols in place.
One of the things holding up a 2020 MLB season is a dispute between players and owners over salaries. An agreement was made between the parties on March 26 which said that players would be paid a pro-rated portion of their 2020 salaries depending on how long the season was. Owners claim the deal was only good if fans were going to be allowed in ballparks — it seems clear now they won’t — and that the agreement on pay would have to be renegotiated for the empty stadiums that now appear to be the only way to host games this year.
In The Athletic, Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich report on a potential new proposal that could be made to players this week:
Major League Baseball will not propose a full revenue-sharing system to determine player salaries for the 2020 season, people with knowledge of the league’s thinking told The Athletic. In a scheduled meeting with the Players Association on Tuesday, the league plans to offer an alternative proposal, leaving the union with a potential choice: to hold the league to the prorated salaries the two sides negotiated in March, or accommodate the owners’ desire for a second, possibly percentage-based cut in some other fashion.
Deferring 2020 salary might be the choice the union is most willing to accept. Meanwhile, some player agents are open to pay reductions if the trade-off is financial protection for players this offseason, which some fear might otherwise be harsh for free agents and arbitration-eligible players.
To this point, the union has been adamant it will not accept further pay reductions. The players, however, have internally discussed the possibility of deferrals to address the owners’ cash-flow problem, a source with knowledge of the discussions said.
There’s something that might actually provide a framework for a deal. Owners wouldn’t have to put out full salaries now, satisfying their “cash-flow problem,” but players would wind up with closer to what they feel they originally agreed to in the March deal with owners.
Ultimately, nothing forces players to take a further pay cut, and nothing forces the owners to start the season — a potential stalemate that seems to provide the impetus to a new negotiation. The resolution, however, remains unclear. And some player agents fear that preserving prorated salaries only would lead to a bigger problem in the offseason, when the owners might cut spending dramatically following their losses.
That doesn’t sound good. Rosenthal and Drellich go on to say that other bargaining chips could be the length of the 2020 season (suggesting that perhaps it could be either shorter or longer than the proposed 82 games), the idea of the universal DH becoming permanent (DHs are seen to be an additional position that would be paid better than, say, a bench player or relief pitcher), or possibly even a salary “floor,” requiring teams to all spend a minimum amount of money on player payroll. Opening Day payrolls for MLB teams in 2019 ranged from $62 million (Marlins) to $213 million (Red Sox). Requiring a minimum would presumably help level the playing field, because some teams would have to spend more than they currently do. Players, though, fear that a salary floor would result in a salary cap, something they have resisted for decades.
Rosenthal and Drellich conclude:
Whatever the solutions, the parties probably need to keep them as simple as possible, considering they might only have this week and next to reach agreement without delaying the start of a second spring training beyond the mid-June target date.
To this point, much of the talk between MLB and the union on economics has occurred publicly rather than privately. This is the week when actual progress is required.
That’s absolutely correct. MLB had floated June 10 as the approximate date for “Spring Training 2.0” to begin. That’s two weeks from Wednesday. The parties don’t have a lot of time to make a deal to assure that some sort of 2020 season can happen. They also have to make sure a plan is in place to protect the health and safety of the players.
Meanwhile, in Japan, Nippon Pro Baseball (NPB) has a deal in place to begin playing games June 19, also in empty stadiums:
After delaying opening day, NPB formed a joint task force with the J. League and convened a panel of medical experts with the aim of determining the right time to resume their respective seasons amid the pandemic.
NPB will soon finalize its own guidelines regarding the virus and make those publicly available.
“While it’s a joy for us to open our season, we’ll need to proceed with the utmost caution to protect our players, staff and their families,” Saito said. We have to prepare with that in mind. That’s more important than anything else.”
Japan, of course, is in a different place regarding the novel coronavirus pandemic than the USA is. The Japan Times article linked above suggests that it’s possible fans might be allowed back in stadiums in Japan later this year, but gives no assurances nor date. That wouldn’t be the case in MLB. NPB hopes to play 120 games, down from their usual 143. They’ve cancelled interleague play between the two leagues (don’t expect that to happen in a MLB schedule) and their All-Star series.
The linked article says they will hold their championship series, the Japan Series, originally scheduled for Nov. 7-15. Of NPB’s 13 stadiums (the Orix Buffaloes call two stadiums home), six have roofs, so in Japan weather won’t be an issue for their postseason. Also, per NPB Commissioner Atsushi Saito:
It’s also been speculated NPB would cap games at nine innings or put a time limit on when a new inning could start, though Saito would only say the leagues “are discussing it.”
NPB games already end after 12 innings, if tied, the game goes into the books as a tie. This would shorten all games.
It does seem as if we’re edging toward a possible MLB season in 2020. Personally, I go back and forth. On the one hand, I miss baseball and would love to see games this year, even if I can’t go to any. On the other hand, there seem to be so many obstacles in the way of live baseball in 2020 that sometimes I think MLB should just pack it in, regroup and schedule a 2021 season which hopefully could be “normal” once a vaccine for the coronavirus is created.
As always, we await developments.