With just over two weeks before pitchers and catchers are slated to report for spring training, Major League Baseball has sent a proposal to the MLB Players Association that would see the season shortened to 154 games, from 162, and other aspects that if not approved lay the groundwork for the schedule to adhere to the parameters of a normal regular season as defined in the current labor agreement.
According to several sources within MLB and the MLBPA that requested anonymity due to continued negotiations, the offer would see players schedule for 154 games but be paid for a full 162-game season. In an effort to give players and the general public more time to be vaccinated, with the hope that new cases and deaths from COVID-19 trend downward, the league has proposed a compressed schedule that would see spring training start on Monday, March 22nd. The regular season would commence on Wednesday, April 28th, and end on October 10th instead of October 3rd with the postseason trailing into November. The season would start by seeing 18 scheduled days off, with the schedule allowing for 12 split doubleheaders per team.
While the league has previously offered to extend the season into November, according to the Los Angeles Times, network partners prefer that the postseason concludes in October, but FOX, who hosts the World Series, is flexible on provided the postseason would last one week into November. Unlike last year, the proposal does not include a neutral-site postseason — either in warm-weather climates or in a dome — which would make scheduling easier for the television networks.
As part of the proposal, the league is seeking an expanded number of teams in the postseason of 14, down from 16 in 2020, but up from 10 in the current labor agreement. Also, the designated hitter would be used universally in both the National and American Leagues.
The proposal was offered to the MLBPA on Friday with the request to reply as to whether to accept or counteroffer come early this week. The union is not beholden to counteroffer and can summarily reject the offer at which point in the negotiations the structure of a normal regular season as defined in the current collective bargaining agreement would be the default.
While the union for the players has not rejected the offer, sources indicate that the proposal has significant issues to allow for approval.
While the players would be paid a full season’s salary for just 154 games played, the compressed schedule under the pandemic creates a scenario in which commissioner Rob Manfred could wield his powers to cancel games more extensively. While the commissioner has these powers already for emergencies such as natural disasters, the pandemic has created a climate in which canceled games are would be more broadly applied. Last season, under a shortened 60-game schedule, two teams – the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers – played 58 due to cancellation. In cases where Manfred would apply his authority to cancel games, the players would not be compensated for those lost. The Player’s Association sees the compressed schedule as increasing such a risk, not just due to COVID outbreaks, but little slack later in the year where weather events could cause cancellations.
As to expanded postseason, unlike 2020, the players have not been offered a percentage of postseason television revenues. Instead, the players would fall back to the provision in the CBA which sees a complex system where a percentage of gate revenues tied to attendance is doled out depending on the number of games in a particular series. It is still uncertain whether full attendance will be allowed by the time the 2021 postseason arrives, thus lowering the postseason “shares” that the players could receive if a percentage of attendance is enforced by health authorities.
The MLBPA also sees the expanded number of teams in the postseason as disincentivizing clubs to spend on free agent talent as it gives teams an easier path to postseason play. It’s possible that one or more teams under .500 could advance to the postseason.
The players had already rejected an offer of the universal DH in exchange for the expanded postseason. The players have sought the universal DH for some time as it extends the life of veteran position players that can move to DH as defense becomes a liability, and those veteran players most often make high salaries. But as a bargaining item, it is seen as weak given the owners also benefit by protecting their high-priced and often fragile assets in pitchers, who would no longer bat and stay off the base paths.
Complicating issues for the owners and Manfred, revenue-sharing will be instituted for the upcoming season after being suspended for the 2020 season. Storied teams in ballparks with large seating capacities such as the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees would be the ones sharing revenues with small market clubs such as the Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates. Those large market clubs are prime to be ones to not have ballparks opened to limited fan attendance early on, while a club such as the Royals may be able to open the season with some fans in the stands. The Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL have seen limited fan attendance, and like Arrowhead Stadium, the Royals play in an open-air ballpark that should allow that to occur. In doing so, the Royals could see revenue-sharing while also enjoying limited fan attendance, while the Yankees and Dodgers would pay into revenue-sharing without enjoying those gate related revenues. This case of some clubs being able to host fans while others cannot while also having a revenue-sharing system creates the possibility of economic disparity within the league.
The offer by MLB comes at a time when the league had been telling clubs to have players get ready to report for spring training. Some pitchers are already in locations near spring training facilities. While the MLBPA is still reviewing the offer from the league, and it will likely be rejected, there is still time for the aspects of the proposal to be addressed at a later date. Although conditions are very different than in 2020 — the country was locked down, but the league was able to get through the shortened season; NFL, NBA, and NHL are all currently playing, some with fans in the stands – the possibility that agreement on some of these issues could be reached as late as the 11th hour before the regular season begins, as was the case last year. Should that not occur, the players and owners would conduct the season under the current labor agreement set to expire on Dec. 1st.