“Risk” continues to be the defining term while the Major League Baseball Players Association and league haggle over how to start the season.
The players vaulted a proposal back to the league late Sunday night, as reported by ESPN, which included a 114-game season to run from June 30-Oct. 31 (as opposed to the 82-game season offered six days ago by the league). Players added a salary deferral caveat. Deferrals of $100 million for players who make $10 million or more would be triggered if the postseason -- a large earner for owners and risk in financial recuperation for the players this year -- did not occur. The players threw in some fresh ideas, including additional microphones on the field, possibly a separate offseason Home Run Derby, and expanded playoffs for the next two years, to further ring the cash register.
An open-ended idea also made its way into what the players sent back. The union proposed players deemed high-risk to play during the coronavirus pandemic could opt out of the season and still receive salary. It also suggested players not deemed high-risk could opt out of the season. They would not be paid, but would still receive service time. This is a wild-card in the proposal.
A tussle between personal preservation and team duty will be coming for players who can be free agents. Does Mookie Betts, who will be the offseason’s focal point, want to risk playing this year? Does Sean Doolittle? Will they worry about this extended lull before sprinting back into a season? If the union gains games -- forcing multiple doubleheaders into the schedule -- will an everyday player scoff at putting his body through that with a payday just months away?
Betts was the central figure in the union’s original agreement with the league in March. Service time was crucial to the players because they wanted to vault Betts into free agency no matter what. They wanted Juan Soto’s clock to move another year forward. Major League Baseball is structured against young players. Free agency is the only salvation. Moving toward it is paramount at any point, even when recent offseason spending has lost its past fervor.
So, underlying this agreement will be that idea. The players will not give on service time. They say they will not give on salary. These are two anchors going forward.
Betts, Doolittle and a slew of others will have to evaluate their “risk” differently. Betts will be 28-years-old this offseason. A 10-year contract for more money than Bryce Harper or Manny Machado received will be his focus. Doolittle is in the final year of his overwhelming underpayment as a result of a five-year, $10.5 million contract he signed in Oakland. He will be 34 by the time the offseason starts. His remaining contracts are few.
These questions will slam into the general desire percolating beneath all players. They are here to compete. Emerging from the minor-league crab bucket is a challenge for most. Doolittle was a late first-round pick. As a first baseman. He didn’t reach the major leagues until he was 25 years old. Telling him sitting out any portion of a season would be in his theoretical best interest is a difficult sell. But, he will have to consider it, along with the health of his wife, Eireann Dolan, who has a chronic lung condition. Even in a season which could be a “repeat” for the Nationals.
A new challenge emerges each time a new proposal is lobbed from one side to another. Perfect is unattainable. Good enough is the goal here, and if that means service time moves without certain players on the field in 2020, so be it. The union just said that’s acceptable.
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