NEW YORK — Major League Baseball has made another try to start the coronavirus-delayed season in early July, proposing a 76-game regular season, expanding the playoffs from 10 teams to as many as 16 and allowing players to earn about 75% of their prorated salaries.
Players have refused cuts beyond what they agreed to in March shortly after the pandemic began, part of baseball’s again acrimonious labour relations. The arduous negotiations have jeopardized plans to hold opening day around the Fourth of July in empty ballparks and provide entertainment to a public still emerging from months of quarantine.
MLB’s latest proposal would guarantee 50% of players’ prorated salaries over the regular season, according to details obtained by The Associated Press.
The proposal would eliminate all free-agent compensation for the first time since the free-agent era started in 1976. It also would forgive 20% of the $170 million in salaries already advanced to players during April and May.
“If the players desire to accept this proposal, we need to reach an agreement by Wednesday,” Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem wrote in a letter to union negotiator Bruce Meyer that was obtained by The Associated Press. “While we understand that it is a relatively short time frame, we cannot waste any additional days if we are to have sufficient time for players to travel to spring training, conduct COVID-19 testing and education, conduct a spring training of an appropriate length, and schedule a 76-game season that ends no later than Sept. 27.”
“While we are prepared to continue discussion past Wednesday on a season with fewer than 76 games, we simply do not have enough days to schedule a season of that length unless an agreement is reached in the next 48 hours,” he added.
There was no immediate response from the union, which is likely to view the plan as a step back because of the large percentage of salaries not guaranteed.
“There’s social unrest in our country amid a global pandemic. Baseball won’t solve these problems, but maybe it could help,” Washington pitcher Sean Doolittle tweeted. “We’ve been staying ready & we proposed 114 games — to protect the integrity of the game, to give back to our fans & cities, and because we want to play.”
“It’s frustrating to have a public labour dispute when there’s so much hardship. I hate it,” he said. “But we have an obligation to future players to do right by them. We want to play. We also have to make sure that future players won’t be paying for any concessions we make.”
While there is no chance players would accept this proposal as is, the offer dropped the sliding scale teams embraced last month that would have left stars with just a fraction of their expected pay. The latest proposal figures to spark more talks that could lead to opening day at some point in July.
Players agreed March 26 for prorated salaries that depend on games played, part of a deal for a guarantee of service time if the season was scrapped.
MLB says it can’t afford to play in ballparks without fans and on May 26 proposed an 82-game schedule. The union countered five days later with a 114-game schedule at prorated pay that would extend the regular season by a month through October.
MLB is worried a second wave of the virus would endanger the post-season — when MLB is scheduled to receive $787 million in broadcast revenue.
Teams estimate the new offer would guarantee $1.43 billion in compensation: $955 million in salaries, including an allowance for earned bonuses; $393 million if the post-season is played — half the broadcast revenue — for a 20% bonus for every player with a big league contract; $50 million for the regular season post-season pool normally funded with ticket money; and $34 million for the forgiven advances.
Mike Trout and Gerrit Cole, who have the highest salaries of $36 million each, would have been guaranteed $5.58 million each under the initial MLB proposal with the chance to earn up to about $8 million, and $25.3 million apiece in the union plan. They would be guaranteed $8,723,967 each under the latest offer and would get $12,190,633 apiece if the post-season is completed.
A player at the $563,500 minimum could earn up to $244,492 and those at $1 million — about half those on current active rosters — could get up to $389,496.
MLB estimates its revenue would drop from $9.73 billion last year to $2.75 billion this year with a 76-game season. Adding prorated shares of signing bonuses, option buyout, termination pay, assignment bonuses and benefits, MLB says players would get 70.2% of revenue, up from 46.7%. Also factoring in signing bonuses for amateurs in the draft this week and international players, MLB projects players would get 86.2%, up from 52.1%.
Expansion of the playoffs would make a major change for MLB’s 30 clubs. Postseason teams doubled to four with the split of each league into two divisions in 1969, then to eight with the realignment to three divisions and the addition of a wild card in 1995, a year later than planned due to a players’ strike. The post-season reached its current 10 with the addition of a second wild card and a wild-card round in 2012.
Players proposed expanding the playoffs to 14 teams in both 2020 and ‘21. The MLB plan also would cover the next two seasons. It doesn’t specify a format other than as many as eight clubs per league.
Free agent compensation has long caused bitter fights since the arbitration decision in December 1975 that struck down the reserve clause — it led to an eight-day strike during spring training in 1980 and a 50-day strike during the 1981 season. Compensation had been narrowed in recent years but still caused some free agents to have fewer bidders and sign later, such as pitchers Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel in 2019.
MLB proposed dropping the loss of draft picks and international signing bonus pool allocation for signing a qualified free agent.
All players would have the right to opt out and not play, but only high-risk individuals would be treated as if injured and would receive salary and service time.
Players’ distrust of MLB stems from accusations of service time manipulation to delay eligibility for free agency and salary arbitration; payroll paring for rebuilding the union calls tanking; slow free-agent markets; and five years of relatively flat salaries.
MLB’s frustration with the union has built since Tony Clark took over after Michael Weiner died in late 2013. Management complains the union procrastinates responding to proposals and then causes hectic deadline negotiations.
Halem sent Meyer an angry letter Wednesday, and Meyer replied in kind Friday.
“I am not going to respond to the assertions and mischaracterizations in your letter because we are well past the point that exchanging letters is a constructive use of our limited time,” Halem wrote Monday. “To be clear, we are neither shutting down negotiations nor requesting that the association negotiate against itself.”
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Ronald Blum, The Associated Press