As the calendar flips to June, Major League Baseball is entering its most important week since the 1994-95 work stoppage. MLB and the MLB Players Association are currently -- and very publicly -- working through many issues related to the coronavirus pandemic shutdown. This week will play a major role in shaping a 2020 season.
MLB and the MLBPA to come to an agreement. Given the proposed timeline though, there is a soft deadline to wrap things up, and it's this week. Any later risks delaying the season further.. That would necessitate launching an abbreviated three-week spring training in mid-June. There is no hard deadline for
To be clear, MLB and the MLBPA will delay the start of the season if necessary. If they can't come to an agreement until, say, late June, and the regular season can't begin until Aug. 1, so be it. They'll start on Aug. 1 because some baseball is better than no baseball. That is something both sides want to avoid thought. There is a real urgency to reach an agreement soon.
There are countless issues that must be resolved before MLB and the MLBPA have an agreement for the 2020 season. Some are more important than others but they all have to be resolved before baseball can return. The can can't be kicked down the road much further. Here are six lingering issues as the two sides enter this very important week.
1. Economic agreement
The owners want the players to cover their losses. That's the simplest way to explain it. Owning an MLB franchise tends to be very lucrative, but profit is never guaranteed when you own a business, and now that the owners are facing a loss, they want their employees to pay for it. The owners didn't share the profits when revenues climbed north of $10 billion -- the average salary has been stagnant for five years -- but they want to share the losses. That is baseball's current economic dispute in a nutshell.
-- the highest paid players would take the largest pay cuts and the lowest paid players would be made close to whole -- that was dead on arrival. It was a pretty transparent attempt to divide the union and put the sport's biggest earners at odds with those at the bottom of the pay scale, which is most players.
It does not appear the strategy worked, however. There has been no public bickering between players and they seem to be on the same page. Max Scherzer, a high ranking MLBPA official and a universally respected veteran player, :
"After discussing the latest developments with the rest of the players there's no reason to engage with MLB in any further compensation reductions. We have previously negotiated a pay cut in the version of prorated salaries, and there's no justification to accept a 2nd pay cut based upon the current information the union has received. I'm glad to hear other players voicing the same viewpoint and believe MLB's economic strategy would completely change if all documentation were to become public information."
MLB and the MLBPA agreed to prorated salaries in March and that agreement calls for the two sides to "discuss in good faith the economic feasibility of playing games in the absence of spectators." The owners want the players to take another pay cut because the stands will be empty. The union can argue the owners are not negotiating in good faith because they've only partially responded to requests for documentation showing further salary reductions are necessary.
Eugene Freedman, a labor lawyer and Baseball Prospectus contributor, says the MLBPA's counter-proposal challenges Manfred's unilateral ability to start the season. "The Union has found a very strong way of proving its point that the March agreement is in full force and effect and should not be reopened," Freedman writes. We're at a stalemate now.(likely 110 rather than 82) with prorated salaries (per the March agreement). That same March agreement gives commissioner Rob Manfred the unilateral ability to schedule the season.
The MLBPA could seek future concessions (higher minimum salary, revamped arbitration process, etc.) in exchange for accepting further salary reductions now, though that seems impossible. Rewriting the sport's economic structure would take weeks (months, more likely) of negotiations. This is not something the two sides could hammer out on an afternoon Zoom call, you know?
It is important to note these are not two friends haggling over who pays for lunch. There are labor laws in effect here, and should the MLBPA even discuss a new salary structure with MLB, the March agreement becomes unenforceable. Despite the pandemic and crashing economy, the salary dispute will continue to play out publicly, because that's what these two parties do. They fight publicly.
If there is going to be a 2020 season, one side will have to cave. Either the owners will accept losses (losses they are better able to make up in the future than players, who tend to have short careers) or the players will accept further salary reductions. This dispute over player salaries is the single biggest issue right now. This will determine whether there is baseball in 2020.
2. Health and safety agreement
While MLB and the MLBPA fight about money, the two sides have subcommittees working behind the scenes to resolve health and safety issues, according to Joel Sherman of the New York Post. . The document is a work-in-progress and the union will provide feedback.
The safety plan is very thorough -- it advises, for example, that each pitcher have his own personal rosin bag to avoid spreading COVID-19 -- and that shows how seriously MLB is taking safety. It also shows how fine a needle MLB and the MLBPA are trying to thread. The plan requires the buy-in and cooperation of thousands, and when that many people are involved, vulnerabilities exist.
Testing is, obviously, at the core of the safety plan. The plan calls for multiple temperature checks per day and multiple COVID-19 tests per week. MLB will have to acquire those tests without taking resources away from the public, because there's no way the league can ethically test players thousands of times if there aren't enough tests for health care workers and citizens.
Players have already raised concerns about proposed limitations on indoor batting cages, steam rooms and ice baths, and other facilities at the ballpark. Those are not amenities. They are tools to optimize performance and health. I don't think either side would blow up a season over hot tub access or something silly like that. This is something they have to work through though.
The safety plan figures to include a provision allowing personnel to opt out of the season during the pandemic. Kenley Jansen has had heart surgery. Jon Lester and Anthony Rizzo are cancer survivors. Adam Duvall is one of several players with Type 1 diabetes. There are personnel (and family members) with conditions that put them at risk of serious complications from COVID-19.
Personal safety is paramount and allowing players (and coaches, umpires, and other personnel) to opt out of the season will require an agreement on service time and salary. That's an economic question more than it is a safety question. Resolving that, acquiring tests, and agreeing on access to ballpark facilities is really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to safety.
Ultimately, the money will determine whether we get a baseball season in 2020. If MLB and the MLBPA can work through that, the safety plan will then determine whether they can actually play and complete a baseball season, and even then the league is still at the mercy of COVID-19 containment around the country.
3. Contingency plans
As impressive and thorough as the 67-page (and counting?) safety plan is, something will go awry this season. It is inevitable, and MLB will need to be prepared. What happens if a player tests positive? What if a player tests positive on the road? What if there's an outbreak in a city and games have to be moved elsewhere? What if tests suddenly become unavailable?
These are all obvious questions that must be answered well ahead of time so action can be taken immediately. Where do we move games that have to be moved? How do we transport the players? Where do they live? How do we contract trace a player who tests positive? MLB has to know these answers before starting the season because those issues could pop up literally on Opening Day.
It will be impossible to develop a contingency plan for everything, but there will need to be a plan in place to come up with a plan, if that makes sense. Does MLB suspend play should something unforeseen happen so they can come up with solution without putting personnel at risk? MLB and the MLBPA have to plan for as much as possible, and even then it won't be enough.
4. Spring training, regular season, and postseason schedules
When the shutdown was first announced MLB's master plan was to pick up the season at whatever point in the 2020 schedule play resumed. It was easier to stick with the current schedule than generate a new one because travel plans had been arranged, ballpark availability was locked in, and tickets were sold as well. Picking up the existing schedule simplified the process.
The latest restart proposal calls for a regional schedule, meaning the two East divisions would play only each other, the two Central divisions would play only each other, and the two West divisions would play only each other. Teams would essentially isolate geographically to hopefully avoid spreading COVID-19 across the country. That will require a new schedule.
With a new schedule comes all the logistical issues, like arranging travel and lodging, and in the case of the Toronto Blue Jays, the mandatory 14-day quarantine for all persons entering Canada. The Blue Jays may have to play their home games at their spring training complex in Florida, or maybe at their Triple-A affiliate's ballpark in Buffalo, which is a two-hour drive from Toronto.
MLB has proposed an expanded 14-team postseason field and, because there is concern about a second COVID-19 wave in the fall, the league does not want to drag things out into November. They want to play as many regular season games and a complete postseason as quickly as possible. The expanded 14-team postseason field will essentially add a new round.
Then there's spring training. Teams will have the option to train at their major league ballpark in their home city or at their spring training facility. The spring training facility would be ideal because the complexes are large (multiple fields, multiple clubhouses, etc.) with plenty of room for players and personnel to social distance while preparing for the season.
The thing is, COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Arizona, and it may be safer for Cactus League teams to train in their home cities. Also, avoiding the Arizona heat in June is an obvious plus. Some teams have reopened their spring training complexes for limited workouts. That works now. It may not when the full squad reports. Spring training will be a massive undertaking.
5. Other logistics
Many players have returned home during the pandemic and last week the Department of Homeland Security issued an order exempting foreign-born athletes from being denied entry into the United States. "In today's environment, Americans need their sports. It's time to reopen the economy and it's time we get our professional athletes back to work," the order says.
Furthermore, Tim Brown of Yahoo! Sports reports MLB players returning from other countries will not have to quarantine for two weeks as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For all intents and purposes, players can return to the U.S. and rejoin their team right away. There are no immigration or quarantine hoops to jump through, for better or worse.
MLB players returning from other countries is one major logistical issue that is now a non-issue, apparently. There will be countless other logistical problems to solve between now and spring training though. How do teams travel, what do we do about the All-Star Game, so on and so forth. I have two logistical questions that should interest all baseball fans:
- Will MLB have broadcast blackouts this year?
- Will MLB be flexible with game start times?
People are starved for sports and millions are still isolating at home. I understand there are television contracts and broadcast agreements in place, but is MLB really going to enforce blackouts this year? And are they really going to stack games in prime time rather than spread them out throughout the day? Games at 1 p.m., 4 p.m., 7 p.m., and 10 p.m. ET each day sounds amazing.
Should baseball return in early July as the league hopes, it will be the only game in town, and MLB will have an opportunity to give their fans unprecedented access to the sport. No blackouts and games all day, every day is a tremendous way to cultivate new fans (and lure back fans who might be turned away by the public salary squabble). Let's hope MLB does the fan-friendly thing here.
One other thing I want to mention: MLB will return without fans initially, but fans will eventually be allowed into the park and getting them into the building safely will be a challenge. Letting them out safely will be even more difficult. You can't have thousands of fans rushing the exits simultaneously during the pandemic. Not a pressing issue, I know, but something that has to be considered.
6. What about minor leaguers?
There is unlikely to be a minor league season this year. Look how difficult it is to plan a season for 30 major league teams. Now imagine trying that for 160 or so minor league teams (that have way less resources than MLB teams). It's not possible. There won't be a traditional minor league season this year and .
MLB's restart plan includes a 50-man roster split into a 30-man active roster and a 20-man taxi squad. That taxi squad is effectively a Triple-A roster where teams can stash potential injury replacements and call-up options. The taxi squad players will remain with the team and work out and practice to stay ready in case they're needed. That feeder system is important.
Different teams will use the taxi squad differently. Rebuilders could load it up with top prospects to ensure their future core players get some hands-on instruction this year. Contenders focused on winning the World Series could stack their taxi squad with players best able to help them win in 2020. If that's a journeyman non-roster type over a top prospect in Single-A, so be it.
There are thousands of minor leaguers though and the vast majority will not be on the taxi squad. What happens to them this year? With no actual minor league season, the best case scenario may be holding workouts and intrasquad games at each team's spring training complex. If all goes well, maybe they could even play games against other nearby teams.
An extended spring training setup may not be possible though, in which case thousands of minor leaguers may be stuck at home all season, losing all that development time. Best case is the shutdown is a one-year bump in the road. Worst case is their skills begin to atrophy and their careers are irreparably damaged. Either option is bad for the future of the game.
MLB's owners have indicated the future of baseball is not their priority. They've shown that with, , . I'd like to think MLB won't hang thousands of minor leaguers out to dry this season. I'm not confident that will be the case though.
My hunch -- and this is just a hunch -- is MLB and the MLBPA will reach an agreement this week that allows them to start spring training in June and the regular season in July. Manfred's unilateral ability to cancel the season effectively allows the owners to hold baseball hostage to get further salary reductions from the players, though I don't think they'd actually cancel the season.
MLB and the MLBPA are not stupid. They act stupid sometimes, sure, but they both understand canceling a season because of an economic dispute at a time when tens of millions are losing their jobs would do incalculable damage to sport long-term, especially if the NBA and NHL are able to resume and complete their seasons safely and without labor strife. Canceling the season because it is unsafe to play during a pandemic would be sad but understandable. Canceling for economic reasons would be unforgivable.
The recent public bickering is discouraging, no doubt, but speaking to others who've covered previous labor disputes, this is par for the course. The two sides sabre-rattle for a bit, then get down to business. The difference is that, unlike a typical collective bargaining agreement negotiation, time is in short supply. This has to be wrapped up soon to begin the season on the desired time frame. MLB and the MLB will have to adjust their strategies.
To be sure, getting baseball off the ground this season is the top priority this week. These negotiations will also have long-term consequences because the current CBA is set to expire in Dec. 2021. Any distrust and bad blood that exists now could -- and will -- linger into next year's negotiations. It's not hyperbole to say the future well-being of the league is on the line right now.