Playing for free, salary drop, 2022 lockout possible for MLB

RONALD BLUM

NEW YORK (AP) — Jeremy Jeffress, Jordan Montgomery, Kevin Plawecki could be playing for free this season, earning salaries lower than what they already received as advances.

Mookie Betts, George Springer, J.T. Realmuto, James Paxton and Marcus Stroman are likely to find fewer bidders, dollars and contract years as the free-agent market lurches into a free fall next offseason.

And all of baseball could be bracing for a spring training lockout and shortened 2022 season after the coronavirus pandemic heightened the likelihood of the sport’s first work stoppage since 1994-95.

“Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Christian Yelich, all these guys are lucky that they signed,” former Miami Marlins president David Samson said Sunday. “The biggest people you should watch this offseason are Mookie Betts and J.T. Realmuto because J.T. thought that he would surpass Joe Mauer and Buster Posey, and there is likely no chance. And Mookie Betts thought that he would be above Bryce Harper and I would view that as much less likely now.”

The pathogen highlighted each side’s economic interest: players care most about the regular season, when they accrue the entirety of their salaries; owners worry about the postseason, when $787 million in broadcast revenue is due.

Major League Baseball owners are left with the decision of how long a regular season to schedule after players’ union head Tony Clark said Saturday night that “unfortunately it appears that further dialogue with the league would be futile.”

Bruce Meyer, the union’s chief negotiator, sent Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem a letter that “we demand that you inform us of your plans by close of business on Monday.”

A March 26 agreement called for players to receive prorated salaries and bound the sides to “complete the fullest 2020 championship season and postseason that is economically feasible,” consistent with a series of provisions: no government restrictions on mass gatherings, no travel restrictions and no health or safety risk “to stage games in front of fans in each of the 30 clubs’ home ballparks.”

It also called for MLB and the union to “discuss in good faith the economic feasibility of playing games in the absence of spectators or at appropriate substitute neutral sites.”

Commissioner Rob Manfred has threatened a regular-season of about 50 games, which would lead to players receiving about 31% of their salaries, about $1.23 billion. That is less than the $1.27 billion they were guaranteed in the offer they turned down, a deal worth $1.45 billion if the postseason is completed.

MLB appears likely to announce a decision after Manfred confers with the 30 controlling owners.

Barring a move toward a deal, both sides probably will file grievances. The union would claim MLB failed to schedule the longest season possible and ask for money damages.

The union would say to make an evaluation it needs documents detailing the equity relationships between baseball owners and regional sports networks, and between owners and real estate ventures adjacent to ballparks. MLB would claim the union did not bargain in good faith.

Players say they have no obligation to help clubs reduce expenses caused by playing in empty ballparks. Agent Scott Boras says the MLB stance is akin to saying: “When lighting strikes you, you tell the runners no race until you fix my track.”

Arbitrator Mark Irvings, who ruled against Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant in the service time manipulation grievance filed by the union, would likely spent months ruling on document demands before the sides even start to present the merits of the case.

Players have received $170 million in salary advances, up to $286,500 each. That means a player with a salary of about $925,000 or less whose contract did not include a lower rate of pay while in the major leagues — Jeffress, Montgomery and Plawecki, among them — already has received more money that he would be owed under the proration formula.

Those players wouldn't have to return any money; instead, the money would be paid back to MLB by the union from taxes collected from teams for exceeding international signing bonus pool thresholds.

All players will lose chances to accumulate statistics for games lost that are never made up.

While they argue and file briefs, Betts, Realmuto and the rest are unlikely to reach the $300 million-and-more deals given to Mike Trout, Harper, Giancarlo Stanton, Gerrit Cole and Machado. The average salary, stagnated around $4.4 million since 2016, is likely to fall sharply this winter.

And if the coronavirus lingers into 2021, another season could be impacted. Unless the sides reach an agreement, the sides would argue whether MLB has the right to suspend the Uniform Player Contract during a national emergency, as Manfred threatened before the March agreement. Teams also will probably push for a pandemic provision in the guarantee language of new guaranteed contracts.

Bargaining during a major grievance will be even more difficult than usual heading into the labor contract’s expiration on Dec. 1, 2021. Given the experience of 1994 and the union’s threat to strike in 2002, teams would rather have a confrontation during spring training than in summer.

And if Joe Biden defeats Donald Trump in the presidential election and Democrats win control of both houses of Congress, player take-home could go down no matter what.

“If the Democrats win, I think they recognize that tax rates are going to go through the roof,” former Commissioner Fay Vincent said. ”$40 million is an awful lot of money, but the tax on that is going to be extraordinary.”

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