MLB and the Players Association began a critical week of baseball restart talks Monday with what could be a positive development: The owners are prepared to pay players their full prorated salaries, as the union has insisted upon all along, but for a shorter season of 50 to 60 games, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
Notably, that possibility — which has not officially been proposed to the union — became public just one day after the union made its counterproposal Sunday. These negotiations have crawled forward, or sideways, for three weeks. The sides remain far apart, but they believe they can get a deal done this week, a source said. That the pace of talks might be increasing is good news.
MLB believes the March 26 agreement gives commissioner Rob Manfred the power to determine the schedule, a source said. In the absence of an agreement with the union, he can unilaterally order a season of any length.
Why as few as 50 games? Owners contend that in a fan-less ballpark environment — as necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic for at least part of the season — they would lose hundreds of thousands of dollars per game. With fewer games, hypothetically teams would lose less money. But that scenario would mean less overall money for players, thus pushing the union to meet MLB in the middle.
Fifty or so games is about one-third of a full season and less than half of the 114 games the union asked for on Sunday. That proposal included an Opening Day date of June 30, which would mean starting a three-week spring training — already on the short end of ideal — next week.
In that counterproposal, the union not only held to its hardline stance of no further drops in pay but suggested that players make more money by playing more games — an increase from the owners’ initial pitch of 82. The season would run through Oct. 31, with the playoffs taking place in November — a scheduling dynamic MLB wants to avoid because of fear of a so-called second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks.
Among the other items in the union’s proposal:
* A two-year commitment to an expanded playoff structure. MLB previously suggested expanding the field from 10 to 14 teams. The idea is to make more money by selling playoff broadcast rights, which are lucrative.
* $100 million in deferred money if the postseason is canceled because of a possible second wave of the coronavirus. That would affect players whose original 2020 salaries were $10 million or higher. The deferred money would be paid with interest in November 2021 and November 2022.
* $100 million salary advance for the second spring training. Right now, major-leaguers don’t have any salary coming in. As part of the late March agreement, they got a $170 million salary advance through May.
* A potential Home Run Derby and All-Star Game in the offseason. Those are marquee events and moneymakers for the sport, and under a condensed schedule, they would get squeezed out of their midseason slot.
Time is running out for the sides to come to an agreement, with this week their unofficial deadline.
The baseball-watching world regarded last week as critical, too. And it was. But after minimal progress — MLB suggested more major salary cuts for players on Tuesday, the players immediately bristled, the union pitched its own ideas Sunday — it is even more true. Player pay and fine-tuning safety measures to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in baseball environments are the greatest issues they need to figure out.
Throughout this process, MLB and the union have seemed not to be in a hurry. Negotiations began May 12. It took two weeks for MLB to formally present its sliding-scale salary cuts idea, on top of prorating players’ pay. And it took five days for the Players Association to respond with its counterproposal.
The one-day turnaround to MLB’s latest idea, though, hints at a new sense of urgency.
With David Lennon