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MLB makes pitch for shortened season to union, sources confirm

Commissioner of Baseball Rob Manfred attends Game Two

Commissioner of Baseball Rob Manfred attends Game Two of the National League Division Series between the San Diego Padres and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Globe Life Field on October 07, 2020 in Arlington, Texas.  Credit: Getty Images/Ronald Martinez

Major League Baseball, again trying to stage a season through a pandemic, made a pitch to the Players Association on Friday to delay the start of spring training by a month, followed by a 154-game schedule, multiple sources confirmed Sunday.

The carrot this time? The players would be paid at their full 162-game rate for agreeing to the plan. Also, MLB offered to implement the universal DH as part of the deal, along with expanded playoffs.

The Players Association still was discussing the proposal Sunday night, but the expectation is that it will be rejected when the official response is delivered Monday, according to sources. Teams currently are scheduled to report for spring training in mid-February.

The union has a number of concerns, each spinning on the axis of distrust between these two sides, primarily that the players’ salaries aren’t adequately protected against potential interruptions in the schedule. In addition, spring training is only two weeks away, with many players already set up in base cities or having made financial arrangements to do so and tailoring their workouts to start on the original dates.

Although MLB has hinted for months that spring training might be delayed — with Arizona struggling to contain COVID-19 positivity rates — Friday’s pitch was the first official proposal the union heard on the subject.

MLB believes that delaying the season would provide more time to get a better handle on the pandemic — maybe with a dip in infection rates and vaccinations increasing — which could help prevent outbreaks during the season and possibly allow for fans in the stadiums.

But the union is always wary of stepping outside the current CBA. It’s usually a non-starter in negotiations, especially when it involves player salaries. Last year, after a four-month battle between MLB and the union, the result was a dramatically reduced 60-game season but at prorated salaries, something the players refused to budge on.

After taking a 63% pay cut last summer, the players have a newly fortified unwillingness to be flexible on the schedule right from the jump. They also see gray area in MLB’s proposal for 162-game pay for 154 games. What happens if MLB determines that dozens of games need to be scrapped or the season has to be canceled? As of now, there is no mechanism to address that.

Compressing a 154-game season into five months, with the potential need for more doubleheaders and little margin to make up postponements, also is a significant health and safety issue from the union’s perspective. MLB remains steadfast in finishing the World Series close to the end of October — or even the first week of November, if necessary — and that doesn’t leave much wiggle room if the season goes sideways.

The universal DH remains an attractive lure for the players, but the union refused to trade that for expanded playoffs when MLB made that offer earlier this winter. From a competitive standpoint, the DH should not still be in limbo. It is handcuffing teams as they try to put together rosters for 2021 and also costing players jobs.

As for the expanded playoffs, the format was a success last season, but the union sees that as a huge financial windfall for MLB. Because of that, it is leery of handing over such a prized bargaining chip without getting what the players believe to be an equal return.

So what’s going to happen? MLB almost certainly won’t get the union’s cooperation to delay the season, so the likely outcome is for teams to report for spring training as scheduled in roughly two weeks.

The two sides have been negotiating the pandemic-related protocols, just as they did last summer, and are confident they again can play with careful monitoring of the situation.

In the meantime, they still can discuss the universal DH and expanded playoffs, leaving open the possibility for both in 2021. Last year, MLB didn’t announce the new playoff format until after the first pitch of the Opening Night game between the Yankees and Nationals. As of now, Opening Day remains April 1, but it still seems as if baseball has plenty to figure out just to get spring training underway.

"There’s no certainty yet," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said Friday. "So hopefully they’ll get all that buttoned up soon."

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