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What exactly was in the March agreement?

How that deal affects starting the season...and potential grievance filings

2020 Major League Baseball Draft Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

As if negotiations between MLB and the MLBPA weren’t already precarious enough, yesterday certainly didn’t bring any good news. Commissioner Rob Manfred walked back his “100%” confidence in a 2020 season being played.

To briefly recap the series of events that have unfolded over the past week or so:

  • On Wednesday, Manfred declared, “I can tell you unequivocally we are gonna play Major League Baseball this year.”
  • Fast forward to Saturday, when the MLBPA rejected the latest league proposal to resume play. MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark announced in his statement that the players would not respond with another counteroffer, instead asking MLB to “tell us when and where” to report for the start of the season. In other words, the stage was set for Manfred to unilaterally impose a shortened season.
  • Yesterday, MLB informed the MLBPA that the league would not roll out a 2020 schedule unless the players waived their right to file a grievance.

On what grounds exactly would the MLBPA file a grievance against MLB? To answer that question, we need to go back to the original March 26th agreement between the two parties. We’ve been discussing the March deal in some capacity for a while now, but I figured it would be worth revisiting the specific details to get a sense of how both sides might try to spin them.

Section I of the agreement outlines:

The Office of the Commissioner, the Players Association, the Clubs, and Players recognize that each of the parties shall work in good faith to as soon as is practicable commence, play, and complete the fullest 2020 championship season and post-season that is economically feasible.

We can begin to unpack the core of the dispute in this clause alone. Two immediate questions become 1) what constitutes good faith? and 2) how do we determine economic feasibility? Those very well might be decided by an arbitrator should MLB and/or the MLBPA file a grievance. (More on that in a moment.)

Regarding economic feasibility, team owners have been criticized for a lack of transparency in disclosing their financial information. By essentially continuing to make the same offer to the players in different forms, the owners have made it clear they are only willing to pay about one-third of the salary commitments for a typical 162-game season. Meanwhile, the players are skeptical that fan-less games would be as big a financial blow as owners claim. If nothing else, the MLBPA could see benefit in utilizing a grievance to obtain more thorough financial documentation ahead of what will undoubtedly be a bitter round of collective bargaining agreement (CBA) negotiations next year. (After all, the league is crying poor...coming off a reported $10.7 billion in revenue last year and the recent news of a $3.2 billion TV deal with Turner Sports.)

That takes us to Section II, which continues:

The Office of the Commissioner will construct and provide to the Players Association, as promptly as possible, a proposed 2020 championship season and postseason schedule (or multiple schedule options) using best efforts to play as many games as possible, while taking into account player safety and health, rescheduling needs, competitive considerations, stadium availability, and the economic feasibility of various alternatives.

Recall that the March agreement established a framework for what the players have wanted all along: pro rata compensation. As The Associated Press described the deal:

Each player signed to a major league contract at the start of the season shall have his salary determined by multiplying his full-season salary by the number of games scheduled (not adjusting for weather-related postponements or cancellations) divided by 162, minus any advanced salary. In the event of an additional interruption or delay, the salary shall be determined by multiplying his full-season salary by the games played by the player’s club divided by 162.

Tying pay to the length of the season created an obvious incentive for the players to push for a schedule with more games. The MLBPA would argue that the league is not “using best efforts to play as many games as possible,” as Section II calls for. It is widely assumed that if Manfred is to implement a schedule, it would be somewhere around 50 games in duration, which, with prorated salaries, also works out to roughly one-third of a full season’s pay. Players like Trevor Bauer have already accused MLB of deliberately dragging its feet to further shorten the season.

The league would presumably counter by pointing to the very end of Section II, Article A, which says the goal is to get as many games in as possible “while taking into account player safety and health, rescheduling needs, competitive considerations, stadium availability, and the economic feasibility of various alternatives.”

MLB could also try to use the March agreement as the basis for a grievance. Their case could mention paragraph 11 of the Uniform Player’s Contract (UPC), a part of the current CBA ratified by the league and MLBPA in 2016.

Governmental Regulation–National Emergency

11. This contract is subject to federal or state legislation, regulations, executive or other official orders or other governmental action, now or hereafter in effect respecting military, naval, air or other governmental service, which may directly or indirectly affect the Player, Club or the League and subject also to the right of the Commissioner to suspend the operation of this contract during any national emergency during which Major League Baseball is not played.

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a national emergency proclamation on March 13th, which means the owners had the option of invoking the (mutually agreed upon) UPC—and instituting a prorated salary system for 2020—before they came to terms with the players two weeks later. The March 26th deal did, however, stipulate that all 30 teams would contribute towards a $170 million pool of advance pay that players would keep even if the season were canceled in its entirety. It also enabled players to earn as much as a full year of service time for a shortened or canceled season. The aforementioned Associated Press article explains:

If games are played, a player would receive service equal to days in the major leagues multiplied by 186 (days in the original season’s schedule), divided by the number of days in the revised schedule after excluding interruptions in play. A full service year remains 172 days.

If no games are played, each player on the major league roster or injured list would receive major league service equaling what that player accrued in 2019. Players on the restricted list would not receive any service time.

All of this is to say that the league could frame the March deal as the owners making concessions to the players without gaining much they didn’t already possess. The agreement instructed both parties to “discuss the economic feasibility of playing games at neutral sites or without fans,” which MLB could contend the MLBPA did in bad faith. Of course, players refusing to suit up if a shortened schedule is set could open another can of worms as it pertains to a grievance.

As for the possibility of there simply not being a season? Some owners already favor skipping past 2020 as a cost-cutting measure. The March agreement lists an easing of mass gathering and travel restrictions throughout the U.S. and Canada in addition to consultation with medical experts and the MLBPA about health and safety risk as steps to be taken before a potential season may begin. If enough owners shift into the pro-cancelation camp, Manfred could put his foot down and insist on adhering to these terms despite the workarounds at his disposal.

I don’t know what odds I would place on a 2020 MLB season occurring, but let’s just say that I’m less optimistic than I was 48 hours ago.