Major League Baseball this week will present to players a plan to play — albeit in an unusual format. Key aspects of the plan include an 82-game season to begin around July 4, a playoff expanded from 10 to 14 teams, a universal designated hitter and teams playing at their home parks1 but within geographic-based divisions. There would be a second, condensed spring training that would start in June.
The plan would affect nearly every part of the game. A shorter regular season would favor underdogs, but an expanded postseason would likely help the best teams. The DH in both leagues — which MLB has long since considered — would have obvious and immediate implications for National League clubs. But the players must agree to any deal, and the debate over this plan may again lay bare the league’s always-precarious labor situation.
FiveThirtyEight reached out to players, agents and the Major League Baseball Players Association to get a sense of the greatest divides in the proposal and where players and owners might agree. Players and agents would not speak on the record because of the sensitivity of negotiations in returning to play, but the sources we spoke to are familiar with the proposal and the ongoing talks and considerations behind the scenes. Players say they want to play, but they also want to feel safe — and a major sticking point includes a key financial aspect of the plan: Owners want to share revenues 50-50 with the players, a de facto salary cap that players have long resisted.
“I think we will play,” one agent told FiveThirtyEight, “but there is going to be an economic war.”
Players and agents contacted by FiveThirtyEight favor the agreement players reached with owners in March, when players were guaranteed $170 million in advance payments and prorated pay if a partial season were played. But owners are increasingly concerned about lost revenue in a season of fanless baseball — though one source said there is talk of returning fans in a limited capacity, like is planned in South Korea — and there are already reports of planned payroll cuts for next season.
“We agreed to the pay structure in the original agreement,” said one NL player representative. “For anything with regards to salaries, we would have to see the books and projection models and stuff like that.”
The league could use an expanded playoff format to make up a portion of lost dollars in ticket and concession sales. Pittsburgh Pirates player rep Jameson Taillon told FiveThirtyEight last month that players are open to making that concession for this season. Another source said baseball has also considered being much more aggressive with how it schedules and televises games — including targeting the many Americans working from home during the pandemic with afternoon games, which would theoretically help the league’s TV ratings.
The proposed geographic-based divisions appeal to players not just because of the reduced miles they would have to travel, but also because they believe they could play more games — which would mean more pay within the structure of their current prorated-money deal. Baseball could squeeze more games into more days by playing more doubleheaders, which MLB has considered in its proposals and which would be made easier by expanded rosters. (Teams would increase to 30 players each under MLB’s plan, with additional players from taxi squads.) Some on the players’ side also believe that MLB could push the postseason back deeper into the fall by playing at neutral sites.
“The travel is a big deal,” the agent said of such a travel and division format. “You’d have better recovery, better performance, fewer injuries. … We could probably get 30 games per month.”
Another area of concern for players is, of course, their health in the midst of a pandemic. “I’m looking for things like testing, safety precautions,” one player rep said. Details of those plans will presumably be made to players in the coming days.
Last week, Yankees catcher Chris Iannetta said to ESPN that “there is an intrinsic risk that players are going to undertake … 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.”
One player agent said he has been impressed with MLB’s thoroughness in considering rapid testing, cleaning and social distancing policies, but players will want to see the protocols spelled out this week. Players want everyone involved in game day operations to be tested regularly, and they want considerations in terms of pay and service time for those who cannot play because of elevated risk to themselves or a family member, but they also do not want to take away from the public supply of testing, sources said.
If players feel safe and fairly compensated, there could very well be a season. If not, they could refuse to play — and MLB could miss a season for the first time in its history.