Baseball is Back, But MLB Labor Dispute Points to Uncertain Future

Baseball will make its long-awaited return later this month, but the MLB and the MLB Players Association (MLBPA) may have simply agreed to a temporary ceasefire, rather than a formal truce.

Originally scheduled to get underway on March 26, the fate of baseball's season was thrown up in the air after the novel coronavirus pandemic forced the MLB to postpone Opening Day.

Three months of negotiations between the league and the MLBPA failed to deliver any tangible progress and after talks came to yet another standstill just over a week ago, MLB owners voted unanimously in favor of implementing the terms of the agreement they made with the MLBPA on March 26.

The regular season will get underway on July 23 and will consist of 60 games instead of the usual 162-game slate, with 10 teams qualifying for the postseason, as it has been the case since 2012.

With the MLB's Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) ending next year, the showdown between the players and the league was seen as a dress rehearsal for future negotiations, which could be similarly difficult.

"This entire negotiation has really been about the upcoming CBA negotiations," Michael Elkins, host of the Game 7 podcast and litigation attorney at MLE Law, tells Newsweek.

"The MLBPA thinks that if they give into anything in this negotiation it will be used against them in the upcoming CBA negotiation. The MLBPA is also furious over the pace and dollar values of free agent signings over the last few years, convinced that there has been collusion on the part of the owners.

"Everything about this negotiation, including MLB moving forward, will have an impact on the new CBA negotiations."

While the MLB and the players signed an agreement on March 26, subsequent negotiations proved far from straightforward with the two sides failing to agree on the number of games to be played in the regular season.

The MLB's initial offer called for an 82-game regular season, which was subsequently lowered to 76 and then to 72 and then ultimately to 60 as commissioner Rob Manfred exercised the right to proceed with the terms of the agreement signed in March.

The MLBPA, on the other hand, had originally called for the regular season to last 114 games, before reducing their demand to an 89-game regular season in their final proposal.

The MLB and the MLBPA had agreed in March that players will earn full pro-rated salaries for every game they play and dismissed the owners' requests of taking a further pay cut last month.

On Thursday, USA Today reported the union was considering filing a grievance against the MLB, after feeling the owners deliberately slowed down negotiations to limit the number of games.

While "a grievance is certainly a realistic possibility" and the MLBPA could in theory "seek an injunction to try and stop the season", Elkins doesn't expect the players' union to carry out the threat.

"I highly doubt they will do that since they gave MLB the power to implement a schedule in the March 26 agreement and thus would have little chance of prevailing," he says.

On Monday, Colorado Rockies outfielder Ian Desmond announced he would not join his teammates when the season resumes, citing concerns over the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.

Tellingly, however, he also singled out baseball's labor struggle and its lack of diversity as the reasons behind his decision. The former issue and the way the MLB handled the situation cast baseball in an unfavorable light, a luxury the sport could hardly afford given it was still reeling from the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal that rocked the MLB in November last year.

MLB, MLB Draft
The MLB Logo on the batting mat during the spring training game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Minnesota Twins at TD Ballpark on February 27 in Dunedin, Florida. Mark Brown/Getty

"Baseball had a golden opportunity to be the only professional sport playing, something it desperately needed," explains Elkins, noting that while the sport's revenue remains healthy, its growth is stalling.

"Instead of being the leading sport during a pandemic [...] the players and owners bungled through a very public, very contentious negotiation arguing over how to divide up their billions while hard working Americans were losing their livelihoods to something that was totally out of their control.

"If the sport was so blind that it didn't see this opportunity, I can't imagine how 2021 will play out. The difference in 2021 is that there may not be many fans left who actually care."

So far, four players have opted to sit out the upcoming season. Along with Desmond, Washington Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and pitcher Joe Ross both announced they will not play this summer and will be joined on the sidelines by Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Mike Leake.

The terms of the agreement reached on March 26 mean that unless the MLB determines them as "high-risk" players in terms of health, those who opt to sit out the season will relinquish part of their salaries.

As a result, Leake and Desmond will forfeit approximately $5 and $5.5 million respectively, while Zimmerman and Ross will give up around $740,000 and $550,000 each.

Over the weekend, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic pointed out one of the many issues that still remains unresolved is the value of the vesting option—the optional year at the end of a player's contract that becomes guaranteed if the player reaches a certain performance incentive threshold.

If the options were to be pro-rated like the salaries, some players—Chicago Cubs pitcher Jon Lester, for example—may have buyout values that exceed their options.

At the same time, there's no clarity over how many games would be required in a 60-game season as opposed to a full regular season for their vesting option to become valid.

To complicate the situation even further, the recent spike of COVID-19 cases casts a prominent shadow over baseball's return and the possibility of the MLB being forced to halt proceedings before the season is over is far from remote.

On Wednesday Manfred accidentally told The Dan Patrick Show the league had always intended to play a 60-game regular season.

The commissioner subsequently clarified the comment was meant in relation to the recent spike in coronavirus cases.

"No matter what happened with the union, the way things unfolded with the second spike we would have ended up with only time for 60 games, anyway," he was quoted as saying by USA Today.

At least 15 U.S. states have either paused or reversed plans to reopen after the lockdown as coronavirus cases have rose exponentially.

As of Friday morning over 2.74 million cases of coronavirus had been reported in the U.S., by far the highest tally of any country in the world.

Of the over 521,500 deaths recorded worldwide so far, more than 128,700 have been in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins University, which has been tracking the outbreak using combined data sources.

"I think the reemergence of COVID-19 is a greater threat to the 2020 season than a labor grievance or labor issues," adds Elkins.

"As for the next campaign, the fact is that the players and owners are deeply divided and there is little to no trust on either side. This is one of the more contentious times in recent memory. I would not be surprised if the negotiations for a new CBA held up the 2021 season."