Last night the Associated Press reported that, among many other issues Major League Baseball and the MLBPA are dealing with at the moment, they are trying to figure out what to do about service time and scheduling and other logistical matters. While there are obviously more important matters facing the country at the moment, this stuff is pretty fascinating — and becomes pretty complicated — the more you think about it.
But let’s start easy. Will players be paid?
Players are not paid during spring training. They get per diems, but their contractually-specified salaries do not kick in until the season starts, which would’ve been Opening Day a week from now. I have not seen an official word on what will actually happen, but I am about 99.999% certain that players will not be paid.
It’s pretty straightforward, actually: the uniform player contract, which contains all of the boilerplate applicable to every player, specifically states that allows teams to suspend contracts during a “national emergency”:
President Trump declared the pandemic a national emergency on March 13, and Major League Baseball’s official statement suspending spring training and pushing back the start of the season specifically referenced the “national emergency.” If Trump hadn’t done that it would’ve been interesting to see if Rob Manfred could get an arbitrator to side with him and his ability to unilaterally declare a “national emergency,” but there’s no debating that we have one now, both legally and factually. The players will not be paid.
Service time is a bit more complicated. It’s possible that the league would argue that the “suspend the operation of the contract” language means that the passage of time, for contractual purposes, stops as well. That’d be pretty extreme. Of course we learned from the Associated Press last night that the union is suggesting that players should be given a full season of service time even if the season ends up getting canceled in its entirety. That’s the other extreme, but it’s an extreme that at least acknowledges that (a) the players aren’t getting any younger while the crisis goes on; and (b) payment, for most players, is directly tied to their age.
Playing this out against real life examples demonstrates how thorny this could get.
Take Kris Bryant, for instance. After losing a contentious arbitration over his service time, Bryant was to be entering his walk year in 2021 (he had sought for it to be after this season). If the entire season is canceled, and if Major League Baseball gets its way, Bryant will be controlled by the Cubs for yet another year, and he won’t hit free agency until he’s over 30. Talk about a massive swing in market value by virtue of (a) an arbitrator’s decision; and (b) a pandemic.
Or how about Mookie Betts? He’s also in his walk year, and because the Red Sox have decided to slash payroll, they traded him to Los Angeles. The Dodgers gave up a package of players for him. If 2020 counts as a season for service time purposes and Betts walks, the Dodgers gave up players for nothing in return. If it doesn’t count as a season, Betts’ free agency is pushed back, and he doesn’t hit free agency until he’s been in the bigs for eight years.
It’s not just the stars, of course. And it’s not the stars who will be hurt the most. They’re rich. Think about the guys who, because of a one-year delay, will fall short of ever reaching arbitration, which is the first time most players make real money. Think about the minor leaguers who don’t even get a shot because they have one more year on the odometer. Obviously the league and the union cannot negotiate the literal passage of time, but there are all manner of financial and contractual concerns that are tied to the passage of time which can play out differently depending on what the league and union agree to.
In the end, I suspect that we’ll see some agreement reached about what will constitute a “full season” for service time purposes, presuming at least some baseball is played in 2020. But how many games will that be?
Last week I wrote about shortened seasons of the past. The two most applicable ones would seem to be 1981, when the strike made the season into a 103-111 game affair (games played varied among teams), and 1994, when the season was stopped at between 112-117 games. Both of those were a “full season” for contractual purposes. Last night’s report said that MLB has suggested that anything below 130 games should only count for “proportional” service time, meaning that if Mookie Betts or someone like him played in a 125-game season, they wouldn’t hit free agency until after the 2021 season. You have to figure that’s a non-starter for the union.
Of course, like everything else in the world right now, we have no idea what’s really going to happen. It strikes me that MLB can withhold salary or stop service time, but it can’t do both. What actually happens, however, is a great unknown.