DETROIT – Not a single meaningful pitch has been thrown, but it’s still been one of the wildest springs ever for Major League Baseball.
Between the league shutting down in the middle of spring training, the deals being proposed back and forth by players and owners, and the vocal finger pointing on social media, there’s a whole lot for fans to keep up with.
Here’s an explanation of everything that’s happened and where the players, owners and commissioner currently stand.
This all started March 12, when the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) throughout the nation forced professional sports leagues to temporarily shut down.
As strange as it was to hear the news break in the middle of spring training games -- the Detroit Tigers, for example, found out just innings into their final matchup that they would be shut down after the game’s completion -- nobody was surprised when MLB announced a two-week delay to the start of the regular season.
By that time, college basketball, the NBA and the NHL had already shut down. While they were considered temporary at the time, there hasn’t been a jump ball, puck drop or first pitch in the three months since.
Players agree to prorated salaries, Manfred gets power
By the end of March it was becoming clear the baseball season would likely have to be shortened. Players were weeks removed from spring training and would need another few weeks to ramp up again before putting the pedal to the metal.
MLB officials came to an agreement with the MLB Players Association on March 27 that got negotiations off on the right foot.
The players agreed to prorated salaries for the 2020 season, meaning their earnings would be cut to match the percentage of the 162-game season that was actually played. So, for example, a player set to make $10 million for 2020 would make $5 million if exactly 81 games were played.
In exchange, players would receive a full year of service time for the abbreviated season. If no season is played, they will receive 2020 service time matching what they earned in 2019. They also got some advanced pay in April and May as a safety net.
Players also agreed not to sue for full salaries if a shortened version of the season was played.
There were other details included in the agreement, such as MLB’s right to shorten the 2020 draft, which ultimately happened.
Quick Tigers draft links:
- First round: Arizona State 1B Spencer Torkelson
- Second round: Ohio State C Dillon Dingler
- Competitive Balance Round B: LSU OF Daniel Cabrera
- Third round: Rice SS Trei Cruz
- Fourth round: Arizona State 3B Gage Workman
- Fifth round: High school 3B Colt Keith
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred also received powers to determine when it was safe to start a season. Essentially, the agreement allowed Manfred to implement a season of a shorter length as long as players received their full prorated salary for the number of games played.
There are two important aspects to remember from the March 27 deal. The first is that players agreed to prorated salaries -- they were willing to take pay cuts for a shortened season but want to get paid for the games they do play. The second is Manfred’s ability to enforce a season, because it has been viewed as a last resort throughout negotiations.
Unofficial plans tossed around
Baseball took a back seat to the coronavirus in April and the first half of May. It was clear no leagues would be able to resume play while states were reporting thousands of new infections per day.
Some of the rumors that popped up included baseball resuming without fans at the spring training sites in Arizona and Florida. Speculation about divisions, schedules and playoff format were bandied about but never really gained any traction.
The first solid movement toward getting back on the field came May 11, when MLB owners unofficially proposed a half-season that would start around the Fourth of July.
But the proposal didn’t get past the Players Association because it included a proposal for a revenue split. Basically, teams proposed players receive the percentage of their salaries based on a 50-50 share of revenue from the season and playoffs, which would be expanded.
Some players were agitated by the proposal, not only because revenue sharing is unprecedented in baseball but also because they insisted the March 26 agreement ended any need to negotiate financials. The players agreed to prorated salaries and expected to receive payment equal to whatever fraction of the season was played.
Many believed MLB owners knew the players would never accept a deal that included revenue sharing and accused the league of failing to negotiate in good faith.
In response, the Players Association asked the teams to make financial documents public so they could consider the actual dollar amounts associated with revenue sharing. MLB teams have long claimed the sport isn’t overly profitable, but they’re always reluctant to prove it.
Much like the players would never really consider revenue sharing, the owners would never consider turning over those financial documents, so these talks never resulted in an official proposal.
5 offers, 5 rejections
MLB’s first official offer came May 26, just days after the revenue sharing talks fizzled.
May 26: MLB’s first offer
Owners offered to pay players on a sliding scale, with the league’s most expensive stars making a smaller percentage of their salaries than the lesser paid players.
Those making the league minimum would earn 72.5% of their prorated salary. The major league minimum for 2020 is $563,500. So, if the league played 81 games (exactly half of a season), that player had already agreed to making $281,750 (exactly half). This proposal would instead give that player 72.5% of that prorated amount, or $204,268.75.
The sliding scale ended with players making more than $20 million per year. They would only get 20% of their prorated salaries. For example, Bryce Harper, whose contract would have paid him $27,538,461 in 2020, would make $2,753,846.10.
Yes, that’s still a lot of money to the average person, but that’s far less than what the players agreed to in the March 26 deal.
To be blunt: The owners knew the players would never accept this offer. It was a pretty transparent attempt to make the richer players look like they only cared about money and create friction with those making the league minimum. This PR move by the league backfired as most fans saw the hypocritical aspect of billionaire owners trying to pin the blame for stalling negotiations on millionaire players.
Within moments of the offer going public, outspoken players such as Cincinnati Red pitcher Trevor Bauer, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty and Washington Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle led the charge against the proposal.
The proposed season would be 82 games, which is far fewer than the players wanted at that time. Obviously, the players would make more money with more games on a prorated level, while speculation was that owners preferred a shorter season with expanded playoffs so they could pay the players for fewer regular season games while cashing in on the more profitable playoff matchups.
May 31: Players Association’s first offer
Less than a week later, the players made their first official offer.
There wasn’t much to this proposal. Players basically said, “We already have an agreement from March 26, so let’s pick a date and run with it.”
This deal called for a 114-game regular season with fully prorated salaries. That would be just over 70% of a full 162-game season which means players would make a healthy chunk of their original salaries.
One compromise by the players in this proposal was agreeing to an expanded postseason not only for 2020, but also 2021 to help make up for the financial losses. The playoffs would expand to 14 teams for both years.
Like the MLB’s first offer, this offer was never going to be accepted, though it seems much more reasonable considering the March 26 deal. This was basically the Players Association saying, “Try again.”
June 8: MLB’s second offer
The owners did try again. The only problem was they didn’t really change anything.
Keep in mind: MLB’s first offer gave players making the league minimum just 36.7% of their original contract amount (82 games being 50.6% of the full 162-game season, and 72.5% of 50.6 being 36.7% total) and the highest paid players just 10.1% of their original contract amount (50.6% of games times 20% of prorated pay).
So from offering between 36.7% and 10.1% of a full season’s pay, MLB came back with an offer in... exactly the same range.
The owners asked for an additional two playoff teams, increasing the number to 16 -- more than half the league.
In return, players would get 75% of their prorated pay for a 76-game season. That’s 46.9% of a 162-game season, which means three-quarters prorated pay for that length would give players 35.2% of their original salary amount.
Oh, by the way, if a second wave of the coronavirus caused the postseason to be canceled, that number would drop to 50% of prorated pay for the regular season, meaning players would make just 23.4% of their original salary amount.
So instead of moving closer to the Players Association’s requests, MLB asked for more postseason games, didn’t budge on the money and also put all the losses on the players if the postseason got canceled.
June 9: Players Association’s second offer
The day after the owners made their offer, the players came back with a deal that at least showed some compromise.
Players dropped 25 games off of their proposed 114-game season, offering 89 games at full prorated play. They also agreed to expand the playoffs to 16 games, not just for 2020, but also for 2021.
In this scenario, players would make 54.9% of their contracts because 89 games is just over half of a full 162-game season.
June 12: MLB’s third offer
Fantasy baseball players know the feeling of trying to trade with someone who just keeps counter offering the same two or three players from his own team over and over.
“The reason nobody wants those players is because they aren’t good and you want too much for them,” you want to shout.
Well, the MLB owners are that fantasy baseball player.
After offering the lowest paid players at most 36.7% of their salaries in the first proposal and all players 23.4%-35.2% of their salaries in the second proposal, MLB came back and offered the players between 31.1% and 36.9% in the third deal.
The specifics: A 72-game season with 16 postseason teams at up to 83% prorated salaries.
Here’s the thing: MLB was increasing the percentage of prorated salaries offered to players in an attempt to look like it was compromising. But in reality, but decreasing the number of games in the season, the final dollar amounts ended up looking about the same.
Players accused the league of failing to negotiate in good faith due to the repetitive deals.
Manfred guarantees season
Two days before the MLB’s third proposal, the commissioner came out publicly and guaranteed there would at least be a shortened season.
“We’re going to play baseball in 2020, 100%,” Manfred told MLB Network.
Since Manfred had the ability to impose the shortened season with prorated salaries, it seemed like owners were at least willing to pay up for a couple of months in order to cash in on an expanded postseason.
However, that also raised questions about the league’s negotiations and whether the owners ever really tried to reach a deal for a longer season. As a result, murmurs of a grievance filed on behalf of the players started to emerge.
Players call owners’ bluff
What the owners didn’t anticipate was the players getting tired of the one-sided negotiations. After the third consecutive offer from the league that didn’t come close to meeting their demands, the players started to rally around one phrase.
“Tell us when and where,” they started to tweet.
The players were basically throwing their hands up in the air, admitting defeat in the negotiations and telling the owners, “Fine, you win. Just tell us when you’re going to make us report for a 50-game season and let’s get on with it.”
The Players Association was fed up with the back-and-forth offers, which seemed more like a front to make it look like the league was trying to reach a deal, rather than a genuine attempt to play baseball.
This put the ball in the commissioner’s court, as he had promised there would be a season just days earlier.
Manfred goes back on his word
Literally two days after the players called the owners’ bluff and asked when they should report, the commissioner humiliated himself by taking the exact opposite stance than the week before.
Manfred told ESPN he wasn’t confident there would be a season.
“I’m not confident,” he told ESPN. “I think there’s a real risk (of not having a season).”
To be blunt again: The owners were so sure they could bully the players into accepting some form of salary reduction that they had Manfred guarantee a shortened season. When the players said, “Fine, you win. We want to play,” the owners were forced to show what most fans knew all along: saving money at the expense of player salaries is more important to them than actually playing baseball.
MLB also let it leak that there would be no season unless the Players Association promised not to file a grievance of bad faith, which, obviously looks like an admission of negotiating in bad faith. The owners wouldn’t be so worried about losing that grievance -- to the point of canceling the entire season -- unless they thought they would lose the battle.
No player better described this move than Bauer, who did so in a long Twitter thread. Here’s the full threat in quote form. It’s long, but worth reading because it perfectly describes what the players are feeling and seems to accurately fit the way MLB has handled the situation.
“So, Rob, explain to us how you can be 100% sure that there’s going to be baseball but not confident there will be baseball at the same time?” Bauer tweeted. “What changed between those statements? Players told you to set the season, but it’s too early to set the season right now, isn’t it, Rob? Because then you’d have to explain why you’re only going to impose 50 games when we could easily play 70+ right now. The tactic is to bluff with ‘no season’ again and delay another 2-3 weeks until you clear the risk of ‘not negotiating in good faith by trying to play as many games as possible.' The public backlash combined with potential of having to explain yourself fin front of an arbitrator isn’t too appealing, is it? Let’s see -- the way I have it figured, you want to play between 50 and 60 games -- can’t make it 50 because that would be too obvious to everyone what you were trying to do and no one would think that was a ‘representative season.' So you’d risk not getting your precious playoff money. Nope, can’t have that. So you’ve got to make it more than that, but not too many. You’ve gone as high as about 55 games full prorated salary, so you’ll probably settle somewhere around there, potentially a couple games higher than that to throw people off the scene, isn’t that right, Rob? So in that scenario, let’s see, Sept. 27 end date to protect playoff T.V. schedules, 60ish games -- going to have to be at least four off days in there, so that’s 64 days. Plus about 20 for spring training -- 84 days. Sept. 27 minus 84 days is July 5, plus about a week to get players to spring training. So tack on another seven, that takes us to June 28. As I have it figured, that’s your deadline. But today is June 15, so how do you delay another 13 days? I guess we all got that answer today: threaten to cancel the season. Threaten arbitration. Threaten grievances. All the while, hold the fans for ransom. Hold the future of the game for ransom. No one believes your bluff, bud. You’re holding a losing hand. Unfortunately, it’s a losing hand for everyone involved, not just you. There’s some saying out there about not killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Check it out on the ole Google machine. It’s worth knowing.”
Where we stand
There are always two sides to every story, but the MLB owners look like they’ve been caught red-handed putting their own wealth above the game of baseball and its fans.
Until Manfred or the owners provide a reasonable explanation for why things have gone this way, everyone is pretty much left to make the same conclusion: Greed is threatening to cancel the 2020 baseball season.
There’s no trust between the owners and the Players Association right now, and that’s not only bad for this summer, it could be disastrous in future negotiations. The MLB is in a tenuous position, and there doesn’t appear to be any strong leadership to help negotiate a way out.
Baseball is not a dying sport. Interest in what happens on the field won’t disappear because billionaires in suits demand even more money than they already have. But until people who care about the actual game are willing to make decisions that get players back on the field, everyone involved loses.