Major League Baseball is expected to soon present the MLB Players Association with a proposed format for a shortened 2020 season, with the proposal coming perhaps as early as Tuesday. Though the owners’ reported desire to ask for a further reduction in player salaries is expected to be the major negotiation point (or roadblock) in any proposal, we have also heard that health and safety are naturally the largest concerns on the players’ minds given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The Cardinals’ Andrew Miller and the Yankees’ Chris Iannetta (both members of the MLBPA executive board) recently went into further detail about these concerns in a chat with ESPN.com’s Jesse Rogers. As Miller put it, “I don’t think anything can be done” until a concrete plan is put forth about how players, coaches, clubhouse members, and others can be protected from the threat of coronavirus infection.
“We want to put a good product on the field, but that’s totally secondary to the health of the players,” Miller said. “We are generally younger and healthier, but that doesn’t mean our staff is, that doesn’t mean the umpires are going to be in the clear. It’s not hard to get one degree of separation away from players who have kids who may have conditions, or other family members that live with them.”
The health question ties into the revenue question. The owners’ reported argument for a further reduction in player salaries is that teams are facing a massive revenue shortfall by playing games without any fans in attendance at ballparks. However, Iannetta argues that players, coaches, and staffers face “an intrinsic risk” by coming together to play games, “and we should get fairly compensated for taking that risk for the betterment of the game and the betterment of the owners who stand to make a huge profit off the game.”
It should be noted that players have already agreed to give up a substantial portion of their 2020 salaries. Under the terms of the original agreement made in March between the league and the players’ union, players received a $170MM lump sum to be paid out over April and May, with different amount going to players based on service time and contract status. The most any player could have received is roughly $300K, the total going to players on guaranteed MLB contracts or players who had become eligible for salary arbitration.
The $170MM would be the only money received by players if the 2020 is canceled, though if games are played, the $170MM would then become an advance on players’ actual salaries, which would then be prorated based on the number of games played. To use Miller himself as an example, if an 81-game schedule takes place, he would receive roughly half of his $11.5MM salary for the 2020 season. So if owners push for an even larger salary reduction, Miller would lose even more than the $6.25MM he has already lost to the coronavirus shutdown.
The MLBPA’s stance is that the March agreement settled the matter of 2020 salaries, which the league disputes due to clause in the agreement that (depending on your interpretation) may or may not open the door to further negotiation based on the likelihood that games will be played without fans. While teams will undoubtedly take a major hit from the loss of ticket sales, concession sales, parking, and other revenue tied to having fans attend ballgames in person, there will still be revenue coming to the league and the 30 individual teams via TV and broadcast contracts. Miller also made the point that player salaries “are not tied to revenue in any way. If the owners hit a home run [with a new revenue stream] and make more money, we don’t go back and ask for more on our end.”
It remains to be seen how this issue will be resolved, or if it will necessarily be as big of a stumbling block as it appears to be at this juncture. As Joel Sherman of the New York Post points out, the general public won’t look kindly on the possibility of a financial argument scuttling a possible 2020 season. Sherman also suggested a potential answer to the salary question, which is simply to defer owed salaries into future seasons. This is similar to how the league will pay out bonuses to prospects taken in this year’s amateur draft, though obviously we’re talking a much higher overall dollar figure when it comes to big league contracts.