Tony Clark, head of the Major League Baseball Players Association,...

Tony Clark, head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, speaks with the media in Dunedin, Fla., on February 24, 2017.  Credit: AP/Nathan Denette

The Players Association delivered its counterproposal Sunday afternoon, according to a person familiar with the discussions, and its vision of what the 2020 season could look like offered a potential way around MLB’s first-pitch ask for severe pay cuts last week.

The union proposed a 114-game regular season, running from June 30 to Oct. 31, as well as a two-year commitment to an expanded playoff structure, the source said. More games in such a tight frame includes the flexibility for more doubleheaders, and also more prorated salary for the players, as well as the proposal of $100 million in deferred money if the postseason needs to be canceled because of a second wave of the coronavirus.

In addition, players who qualify as “high-risk” — defined by pre-existing health conditions — can opt out of playing and still receive their full 2020 salaries. Anyone else who chooses not to play will get service time but no pay compensation.

The union’s hook for expanded playoffs would produce more money for the owners, as the postseason represents the biggest financial windfall, and the deferment protects both sides in the event of another COVID-19 outbreak. Under the deferment clause, only players with contracts above $10 million (before the prorated version) are subject to the plan, with the money paid out (including interest) in November 2021 and November 2022.

The union’s proposal also includes provisions for a potential Home Run Derby and All-Star Game during the offseason. The players also are asking for a $100 million advance for spring training, which would need to start no later than the second week of June, given the union’s timetable.

Sunday’s response by the Players Association represents some progress. At least the dialogue is moving forward. But MLB has been adamant about seeking further pay reductions, and it’s unclear just how much the owners are willing to bend on that topic.

The union bristled last week at MLB’s proposal for a sliding scale of salary cuts, which included the steepest cuts for its highest-paid players, estimating that the plan called for more than $800 million in additional givebacks after the 50% lost when the pandemic wiped out the first half of the season.

The Players Association has treated any additional salary cuts as a non-starter in this round of negotiations. The owners insist they can’t pay the entirety of their prorated contracts. The ongoing debate involves the “economic feasibility” of taking the field again, and ESPN reported Sunday that some owners would rather cancel the season to save money on payroll costs and avoid further losses.

The question: How many owners truly feel that way? MLB needs 23 teams for any proposal to be approved, so it would require eight dissenting clubs to effectively tank any shot at restarting the season.

There’s no doubt that plenty of owners are pleading economic hardship, based on the pay cuts and furloughs to front offices as well as the release of hundreds of minor-leaguers (cost: $400 each per week). The owners also insist they’d lose $640,000 per game, on average, if they had to pay the players prorated salaries over an 82-game season.

“It does feel like there's a fairly large gulf,” said Vince Gennaro, associate dean at NYU’s Tisch Institute for Global Sport. “And I'm not sure if there is a middle to be found.

"I guess part of it is, I am wondering what leverage the players might have. I mean, if you're losing a bunch of money as owners by not playing, and then you're losing a bunch more by playing, then I’m not sure why you would play.

“There is a reason, independent of the financials, and that is to command the stage for sports again. The country is yearning for that.”

In addition, baseball has to avoid the scenario of being the only sport that doesn’t make it back, if the NBA, NHL and NFL all start up again. That wouldn’t be a great look for MLB and certainly could do irreparable damage to its long-term popularity.

“You don’t want to be left out — the league that missed the whole season when everybody else got something in,” Gennaro said. “There should be a price the owners are willing to pay for that.”

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