Major League Baseball Players Association Executive Director Tony Clark is...

Major League Baseball Players Association Executive Director Tony Clark is seen during a press conference on Wednesday, March 22, 2017 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California.  Credit: MLB via Getty Images/Alex Trautwig

For baseball, the end is near.

But is it the bitter negotiations that are finally drawing to a close? Or the window of opportunity to salvage something more than the bare minimum of a rubber-stamped 48-game season the commissioner will implement regardless?

That answer could come Wednesday, after the Players Association delivered a swift counterproposal Tuesday of 89 games, with 100% prorated salaries, and expanded playoffs with as many as eight teams from each league, sources confirmed. That’s a significant step down (and huge monetary giveback) from the 114 games of the union’s previous proposal, which Major League Baseball flatly rejected, and only seven games more than the original 82 pitched by the owners’ side, an initial offer that also included a sliding-scale pay reduction the Players Association angrily dismissed.

The union considered Tuesday’s counterproposal, coming just 24 hours after MLB’s latest pitch, to be a strong signal of the players’ determination to get back on the field as soon as possible. Also, the Players Association suggested schedule for the regular season now runs from July 10 to Oct. 11 in an effort to satisfy MLB’s concerns over a second wave of coronavirus.

Still, MLB has displayed zero inclination to pay full prorated salaries for anything more than roughly 48 games -- apparently the acceptable cost line for the owners -- and that would suggest this union proposal is destined to be rejected as well. MLB is frustrated by the union’s inflexibility on the compensation issue and believes the group has prioritized the political aspect of winning that battle over resuming the season.

Wednesday was set up as the self-imposed expiration date for MLB’s latest proposal: a 76-game regular season, with expanded playoffs that could include up to eight teams from each league.

The problem? That pitch only guaranteed 50% prorated salaries, with another 25% tacked on if the playoffs are completed. Anything less than the full 100% prorated compensation is considered a deal-breaker by the Players Association, which believes that pay scale already had been settled by the March 26 agreement.

After Tuesday’s proposal by the Players Association, the owners must realize there’s no point even having another conversation without offering full prorated salaries. MLB did include one appealing tidbit for the players -- the removal of the qualifying offer/draft-pick compensation for free agents -- but it’s pretty clear that union chief Tony Clark & Co. are not budging on the salary front.

So what is going to happen Wednesday? Now that MLB has another union counterproposal to consider, the clock is becoming more of a concern. MLB had asserted that even an 82-game season was no longer feasible, based on the shrinking time frame, so it figured to reject any union counterproposal beyond that number. Which sets up a potential Wednesday scenario of commissioner Rob Manfred saying that it’s too late for any further discussion and now he must proceed with setting a shorter schedule, maybe around 50 games, while granting the players their full prorated salaries.

Judging by the frosty relationship between the two sides, the latter is shaping up to be the more anticipated course for this season, despite increasing the hostility from the players going forward. Manfred is empowered by the March 26 agreement to plow ahead on his own with plans for the season, as long the players are paid on a 100% pro-rata basis, and that may be the only option he’s left with if there’s little movement.

The two sides have been at this since May 12 and not much has changed. By ESPN’s arithmetic, MLB’s two proposals -- along with the floated 48-game concept -- essentially offer the same player compensation, around $1.03 billion total, just packaged differently each time. That spells out just how much the owners are willing to pay to put on a 2020 season and they’re apparently not moving off that number.

As for the Players Association, it’s a fairly simple equation, too. The price is 100% prorated salaries, as agreed upon, and if the two sides can’t come to a deal on everything else, then the owners must decide how many games they can afford. That would pressure Manfred to make good on his threat of a 48-game season and put the owners in a tough spot as far as absorbing the blame for a vastly-reduced schedule.

The status of the 2020 season hinges on that financial staredown. There are some other health-related issues to iron out, such as the “acknowledgement of risk” waiver and other details in the 67-page operations manual, but those aren’t considered deal-breakers. Everything is secondary to the battle over player compensation, a fight that really can’t go on for much longer, if it stretches past Wednesday.

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