Major League Baseball, unable so far to find any points of agreement with its players about conducting a 2020 season, has reportedly begun considering a worst-case scenario. And the good news is that nuclear option isn’t cancellation; it’s actually playing regular-season games.
Just not many.
According to a report on ESPN, MLB owners have discussed conceding the players’ central point — that agreeing to prorate their salaries on a per-game basis is enough of a financial rollback to allow a season to proceed. The wrinkle: Team owners, who insist they will lose a significant amount of money for every game played without fans in the ballpark, want that season to last “in the neighborhood of 50 regular-season games,” according to the report.
That’s less than one-third the 162-game length of a normal season, and even less than half of the 110 games the Twins played in the strike-interrupted 1981 season, the shortest in franchise history.
The motivation for such a proposal, which the network said MLB does not yet plan to present to the players, could be to demonstrate how unwilling some owners are to absorb additional losses in this pandemic-ravaged summer, losses that the union disputes would occur. Another ESPN report on Sunday cited MLB sources who say “there is a group of owners perfectly willing to shut down the season, to slash payroll costs and reduce losses.”
But it could also be a negotiating ploy designed to hasten the process of compromise, a sign that the sport’s executives recognize how little time remains to reach an agreement, organize and hold a training camp, and get on the field before the summer slips away.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has the power, under an agreement the two sides reached shortly after the coronavirus crisis closed training camps, to unilaterally schedule a season of whatever length he chooses, paying players their agreed-upon 1/162nd of their contracted salaries for each game. Reminding players of that option and proposing a two-month season is calculated to add leverage to the owners’ position. It also means even the failure to reach a new deal might not completely scuttle a season, as many players and fans fear.
Yet it potentially also turns last week’s duel of proposals that headed off in wildly divergent directions — the owners asked for a sliding scale of additional salary cuts, the players suggested playing through October and expanding the playoff field into November and beyond — into a much simpler back-and-forth:
How many games can you afford? How many games can you afford to lose?
For the Twins, the final number — whether it’s the 112 games the players asked for, the 82 the owners proposed last week at discounted salaries, or the 50 that MLB seeks now — has consequences.
Extending the regular season through October, for instance, means the Twins would not be able to schedule any playoff games at Target Field, where the average high temperature in November is 44 degrees. With all due respect to U.S. Bank Stadium and its unsuitably quirky dimensions, it means the playoffs and, theoretically, their first World Series appearance in 29 years, would take place hundreds of miles away.
An 82- or 50-game season would allow the season to end on time and the playoffs, even expanded to 14 teams as players have suggested, to take place in home parks. It also would better protect MLB from a resurgence of coronavirus cases this fall, a possibility that the league fears because the great majority of its annual national TV revenue of more than $1.7 billion comes from broadcasting postseason games.
The shorter calendar, however, could cause some, and perhaps several, players to opt out of 2020. The health risk might be unacceptable to players with underlying conditions. Players with major league contracts worth $1 million or less have already received a $286,000 advance on salaries this year, and would be playing for only a small remainder of their paychecks.
Pitchers might be especially reluctant to return for a two-month gig, particularly given a rushed ramp-up to the season. Take a purely hypothetical case on the Twins: Jose Berrios has earned less than $1.5 million in his 2½ seasons, but given that he has made the AL All-Star team twice, he’s headed for a long-term contract worth $50 million or more, should he remain healthy and effective. Would the 26-year-old righthander, awarded a $4.025 million salary in arbitration in February, risk his valuable pitching arm and that future jackpot in order to hastily prepare to make, say, 10 starts at most and earn just $1.24 million of that paycheck?
Maybe. But he would have to seriously consider the question.
That’s what’s at stake in these negotiations. A baseball season seems more possible, given Monday’s developments. But the length and shape of that season remains a mystery.