MLB, MLBPA strike deal for pandemic-related issues

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred (left), and MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark

Major League Baseball has struck a tentative agreement with the MLB Players Association to cover many of the crucial logistical and economic issues created by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

According to multiple reports, MLB and the players’ union have completed a deal following nearly two weeks of intensive negotiations that will cover key matters in this rescheduled year such as player payments, service time accrual, and the upcoming First-Year Player Draft.

In the agreement, owners will advance players $170m in salary payments in two stages, with that money not needing to be returned if the entire 2020 season is canceled because of the public health crisis. The advanced money, to be divided among the players by the union, is a small fraction of the roughly $4bn in total player salaries for this season, but represents key money for players now during the crisis.

If games are played, the advanced money will count against final salaries, which will be prorated based on how much of the season is able to happen. 

Service time accrual was perhaps the biggest issue in the negotiations, and players pushed hard for players to receive credit this year for a full season, even if the entire 2020 season is canceled because of the pandemic. Management ultimately agreed to that, helping to pave the way toward a final deal. And if there is a season of any length, players will receive credit for a full year of service. If there is no 2020 season at all, players will receive the same service time they accrued in 2019.

The service time accrual is what determines when players become eligible for major salary escalators such as arbitration and free agency, and the increased compensation for eligible players has substantial ripple effects throughout the entire sport.

Players have ratified the agreement, and owners are expected are approve the deal on March 27. 

It is not known when MLB will be able to resume play. The league is following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding the avoidance of large gatherings until at least mid-May. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said earlier this week that his “optimistic outlook is that some point in May, we’ll be gearing back up.” But as the US now leads the world in confirmed Covid-19 cases, that timetable remains tentative at best. 

And once play resumes, it is not known what the schedule will look like, though Manfred said “nothing’s off the table.” The agreement allows for the regular season to extend into October, and for the possibility of postseason games to be played in neutral, warm-weather sites.

The MLB-MLBPA deal also calls for a sharply reduced Draft, to be set at as few as five rounds this year and 20 next year instead of the typical 40, and with signing bonuses for prospects largely deferred for the next two years. Teams are also pledging to keep full-time employees on staff with their regular salaries through April 30 with no layoffs. 

The deal will also call for roster freezes during the duration of the pandemic, including trades, signings, and minor league assignments. With the oncoming agreement, the last two days have been a significant flurry of player transactions before that freeze begins.

The agreement represents a classic compromise, with players knowing they have some money coming now and their ability to earn much more later retained, and owners getting cost certainty and the knowledge their overall expenses in this most unusual season will not mirror a normal year.