Sources: MLB, MLBPA agree to deal on stoppage

Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association struck a deal on critical salary and service-time issues Thursday night, allowing the sides to prepare together for a season delayed indefinitely by the coronavirus pandemic, sources told ESPN.

The agreement, after nearly two weeks of morning-to-night negotiations that involved players, owners, agents, executives, union officials and commissioner’s office staff, came on what would have been Opening Day.

On a phone call with upward of 80 players Thursday, the union voted to accept MLB’s latest proposal, sources said. MLB owners plan to ratify the deal in a noon ET call Friday, according to sources.

While both sides believed they made concessions, they settled around an obvious point: No sports league wants to be seen as bickering about billions of dollars amid an international health and financial crisis. In addition to the agreed-upon financial particulars, the parties engaged in significant discussions about the most vital issue now and in the future: how to proceed amid the outbreak of COVID-19 cases.

While there is no formal framework in the agreement, owners and players both want to play as many games as possible, with an eye on returning to training camps in mid-May and starting games as early as June — even if they play in front of no fans. The flexibility of both sides was seen in the willingness to extend the regular season into October, play neutral-site playoff games in November and add doubleheaders to the schedule.

Players pushed to receive a full year of service time, which counts days toward free agency, arbitration and pension, even in the event of a canceled season. When MLB agreed to grant that, the path to a deal coming together was forged, according to sources.

The union agreed not to sue the league for full salaries in the event that the 2020 season never takes place, and MLB will advance players $170 million over the next two months, sources said. The MLBPA will divvy up the lump sum among four classes of players, with the majority of it going to those with guaranteed major league contracts. If games are played, the advance will count against final salaries, which will be prorated.

MLB’s negotiating posture reflected an ownership class fearful not only of the potential — slim though it might have been — of losing a salary grievance but of limiting costs amid dwindling revenues. With no games until at least early June, owners have lost revenue streams from both gate receipts and local television contracts for at least two months.

Commissioner Rob Manfred urged teams to pay all employees through at least April, which they agreed to do, but employees across the sport are bracing for layoffs and furloughs come May. Cost-cutting measures are included in the agreement between the league and union.

Manfred has the discretion to shorten the 2020 draft to as few as five rounds, and it will be moved from June to sometime in July, sources said. Manfred also can delay the 2020 international signing period, which was supposed to run from July 2, 2020, through June 15, 2021, to at latest Jan. 1, 2021 through Dec. 15, 2021. MLB also has the right to shorten the 2021 draft to as few as 20 rounds and push back the next international signing period as well — though international free agency might well be gone by then, as the league plans to pursue an international draft at the conclusion of the current collective bargaining agreement, which runs out in December 2021.

The change aligns with the league’s perspective on amateurs and the minor leagues. Owners have suggested a draft with fewer rounds, and in MLB’s negotiations with Minor League Baseball on a new working agreement, it sought a reduction of up to 40 of the 160 affiliates. Owners around minor league baseball are fearful that the economic fallout from canceled games — and perhaps a lost season — could cause numerous franchises to fold, according to sources.

This round of negotiations provided at least a small window into what the vital 2021 bargaining might look like — and delivered a sliver of optimism that the wide network of people on both sides, and facilitators in between, can make a deal under strenuous circumstances. While those negotiations will be far more complicated, addressing issues of competitive balance, the changing nature of free agency and how to best keep the game relevant, this round of bargaining had a clear objective: do nothing to forestall a season already hindered by the cruelty of nature.

Though roadblocks existed, compromise was reached and the stigma of petty squabbling averted on issues big and small.

Other fallout from the deal includes:

  • Mookie Betts, J.T. Realmuto, Trevor Bauer and Marcus Stroman, among others, are guaranteed to be free agents come November regardless of the season’s status. If the year is canceled, Betts might never play for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who traded for him this offseason.

  • A transaction freeze will go into effect when owners make the deal official that bars teams from signing free agents, trading players and making roster moves.

  • A rejiggered setting for arbitration, the system that awards players with three, four and five years of service time with higher salaries. While arbitration is a numbers- and precedent-based system typically, the sides will change that to acknowledge the shorter schedule.

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