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A reasonable solution to play baseball games in 2020

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With talks stalled, players should make this counter-offer.

Detroit Tigers Tony Clark reacts to striking out a Photo credit should read JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images

On Tuesday, Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred presented a proposal to Tony Clark, head of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association (MLBPA) with an outline for an abbreviated MLB season in 2020. The proposal included an 82-game schedule, with spring training to resume around June 10 and games to begin by the Fourth of July. There are other aspects to the proposal, but nothing about finances and not much detail on plans to guard the health of players and their families.

  • Baseball would maintain the current two league, six division format, playing games only within three geographic regions: East, Central, and West.
  • The designated hitter would be used in all games, and playoffs would be expanded from 10 teams to 14.
  • Rosters would be expanded to 30 active players per game, with a “taxi squad” of up to 20 players who could be added as needed during the season.
  • Games would be played in each team’s home stadium, local rules permitting, and there would be no fans in attendance, at least to start the season. If local rules did not allow spectator-less games to be played, the team would play at another team’s site, or at their spring training facilities in Arizona or Florida, as the case may be.

What was not proposed was the much rumored 50/50 split of revenues that the owners approved on Monday for presentation. That proposal would have been shot down by the players, who believe that they already agreed to reduce their salaries on a prorated basis for any games played this season. And, they believe that a court would interpret their agreement accordingly.

Clark told The Athletic:

“A system that restricts player pay based on revenues is a salary cap, period. This is not the first salary-cap proposal our union has received. It probably won’t be the last.

“That the league is trying to take advantage of a global health crisis to get what they’ve failed to achieve in the past — and to anonymously negotiate through the media for the last several days — suggests they know exactly how this will be received.

“None of this is beneficial to the process of finding a way for us to safely get back on the field and resume the 2020 season — which continues to be our sole focus.”

Owners will not agree to pay the players on a prorated basis without paying fans, insisting that they take a further pay cut. So, we have a stalemate.

Manfred and the owners know damn well that the players would never agree to a revenue split. They have tried on several occasions to implement a salary cap, even causing a strike that brought cancellation of the end of the season and the World Series in 1994. Once the two sides agreed on a luxury tax instead — which has become a de-facto soft salary cap — the game has had 25 seasons of labor peace. A revenue split is a salary cap and is a non-starter.

The players would like more games

...even if the season were extended well into November. More games mean more money for both clubs and players. But more regular season games won’t bring revenue on the scale of other revenues. National TV revenue is almost entirely dependent on postseason games. By increasing the playoffs by one best-of-three round, MLB can probably capture all the national TV revenue that they had coming. Local revenues, which will already take a hit without attendance, concessions, and parking, could be further reduced if the season is cut in half.

MLB is making a proposal for the testing and medical safety protocols this week. This is a chief concern of players, but both sides believe that they can secure enough equipment and work out the details necessary to put on a limited season. They need the pandemic and local authorities to cooperate, meaning we can’t have a second wave that wipes out the season before playoffs even start. That is out of their control.

Let’s say that the players are correct in their belief that the March agreement fully addresses the issue of player compensation, even in the event of games without fans. MLB can still cancel the season, using a clause in the CBA that allows cancellation in the event of a national emergency, which has already been declared. Then, there is no season and they can all go home, blaming the other side. You can bet the owners would do that, rather than give in.

Or, the players can still agree to changes, for the good of the game and to avoid the public backlash that is sure to follow. Fans will blame both sides, and both sides will suffer both in the present and the future. Players would be within their rights to expect some future compensation for taking an even bigger hit this season.

Here is a reasonable compromise:

  • MLB and players agree to an 82 game season, expanded rosters, expanded playoffs, and universal DH for 2020
  • Players agree to take 50 percent of salaries for 2020, with a minimum salary of $500,000 or 90 percent of the current minimum salary. Players have already received an average of about $ 280,000 as part of the March agreement
  • Up to 50 percent of salaries above $ 1 million may be deferred, without interest, for a period of up to two years. (Prime rate is currently 0.25%)
  • MLB may expand the season up to 100 games without additional compensation to players.
  • MLB may schedule up to four double headers per month, featuring seven inning games
  • If the season is canceled before 50 games are played, players will receive a pro rated share of salary for those games. If the season is canceled after 50 games are played, players will receive their full 50 percent of salary for 2020 season.
  • The amateur player draft will be 10 rounds in 2020 and at least 20 rounds in 2021. Slot bonuses remain unchanged
  • Minimum player salary will increase to $ 600,000 for the 2021 season

Would this proposal be adopted?

If the owners insist on a revenue split, there is only one outcome: no season. A 50 percent reduction in salaries is about as much as they can reasonably expect. Being able to add 18 games provides a chance to recover additional local revenue without paying additional salary costs. Being able to defer up to half of the largest contracts without interest gives them relief if they experience a revenue crunch. Increasing the minimum salary in 2021 could be considered a down payment on the inevitable increase coming with a new CBA which would start a year later.

Most clubs will still make money, or at least break even, and their franchise values will not take the kind of hit that forcing a lost season would cause.

Once they get to the 50-game mark, postseason revenues would more than offset the difference between canceling the season and the difference in what players would make for the remainder of the season, so there is no financial motive to call it off at that point.

The players won’t be happy about having to defer salaries, but they will be paid a lot more than if there was no season, and they will be paid what amounts to a prorated share for 82 games. They may play up to 18 additional games, which is 11.1 percent of a season.

The biggest winners will be the players not yet eligible for arbitration. That is about 40 percent of an average roster, and more with rosters expanding up to 30 players. The same players stand to benefit from an increase in the minimum salary a year later and suffer no loss in the deferred salaries. The financial incentives should appeal to this large section of the players’ association membership. The biggest losers would be players with the highest salaries. But they also have the most to lose if there is no season and thus, the most to gain by playing.

And of course, the fans win, because there will be baseball!