KC Royals Midweek Musings: Can there be a happy ending?

(Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images) /

The KC Royals and 29 other teams are probably considering the players’ latest offer for a 2020 season. Can baseball’s current labor spat have a happy ending?

Some KC Royals Midweek Musings limited to wondering whether the players’ latest counteroffer will move the parties any closer to an Opening Day this year:  

At first glance, the counteroffer (it was unclear when this story was written whether the counter was made Tuesday night or will be delivered today) doesn’t look promising. The package reportedly includes an 89-game schedule, full pro-rata player pay, expanded 16-team playoffs for two seasons, a guaranteed share of postseason revenue even if playoff games are contested in empty venues, pandemic-related player opt-outs, and postseason in-game “enhancements.”

The offer’s schedule and compensation components are the problem points. The clubs have never offered more than 82 games, have gone as low as 50, and appear ready to impose, through Commissioner Rob Manfred, a 48-gamer. More ominous, however, is the union’s continuing insistence on full pro-rata pay for any schedule.

Let’s take a look.

What the clubs will like.  Expect clubs to like the players’ position on expanded playoffs. Both sides previously proposed variations on this theme; Monday, owners offered to expand the postseason to 16 teams, with the winners of eight-team tournaments in each league squaring off in the World Series. The players’ reported offer sweetens that pot–they’re willing to adopt the owners’ proposal for this season and next. The clubs know more teams and games mean much, much more money.

Owners should also like the players’ willingness to share at least part of $50 million of postseason revenues if fans can’t attend games because it mirrors a term of MLB’s last offer.

The clubs will also be happy if the counteroffer is, in fact, delivered no later than sometime today. They only asked the union to respond by today and didn’t make it a drop-dead date; acquiescence in delivery time signals the players aren’t engaged in petty small-time tactics.

What the clubs won’t like.  This is easy. They won’t like the proposed schedule length and they won’t like the pay plan.

If there’s a sure thing in all of this protracted labor mess, it’s that the players will get paid on some kind of pro-rata basis; forget the non-starter, oddball pro-rata/sliding scale hybrid plan MLB proposed several days ago that appeared designed more to split the union than to forge a deal. Schedule length is inextricably intertwined with pro-rata because total player pay depends on the number of games played.

The players recently offered 114 games, a proposal I recently wrote they never expected the owners to accept. The clubs’ subsequent offer of 50 teed up a tidy, difference-splitting 82, a number they’d previously offered and the union could accept.

The union is reportedly countering the clubs’ Monday offer of 76 games with 89, which (surprise) sets up another half-season approximating split of the difference. But at this point, it appears MLB’s desire to wrap up the World Series in October drives its scheduled agenda.

The clubs don’t want to play November baseball, ostensibly because of the risk a potential fall surge of COVID-19 will pose to games. Although the union’s new offer pares games from 114 to 89, it still proposes a July 10 Opening Day and October 11 end to the season; such a slate, together with a 16-team postseason, risks November postseason contests.

Compensation? Players desperately want the full pro-rata pay they agreed to in March; the owners say that agreement is subject to further discussion if fans can’t attend games, and now want players to accept salary reductions beyond pro-rata. The union won’t go near the 75% pro-rata offer for 76 games the clubs made Monday–the 75% is based in part on postseason shares, so it’s entirely dependent on there being a postseason, and drops to 50% if there isn’t. If there’s a sure deal-killer, full pro-rata appears to be it.

What the clubs won’t fight about.  I see the clubs, including the KC Royals, having no objection to a couple of things in the union offer: opt-outs and “enhancements.” The union wants service time and pay for its members who, for high-risk pandemic-relayed health or safety reasons, choose not to play this season; they also want clubs to allow non-high-risk players to opt-out but aren’t insisting on pay or service time preservation for them. For obvious reasons, the owners aren’t going to fight either proposal.

The players are also willing to participate in postseason in-game enhancements such as wearing live microphones. This, too, the owners will accept–it’s harmless and might add something to the games.

Where is the hope?  The clubs aren’t going to accept the union’s counteroffer. But some of the proposals it contains offer slivers of hope for potential future negotiations.

That the union likes the owners’ 16-team playoff format and coupled it to its previous offer of two postseasons’ worth of the concept, and clearly can accept the clubs’ offer of sharing part of 50% of postseason revenue if fanless games are played, indicates the two sides are on some common ground. Landing there once is good; landing there twice is even better.

The 89-game proposal reflects union willingness to at least partially accommodate MLB’s schedule concerns; indeed, if the parties are actually engaged in age-old (and often time-wasting) difference-splitting maneuvering, they’ll get there.

And the opt-outs and enhancements are no-brainers.

Pay, then, is what it’s always has been–the deal-breaker. Is there hope?

That depends on perspective. Via Manfred, the owners can get the short schedule that guarantees no November baseball and, at the same time, give the players the full pro-rata pay they want. But those are “wins” in concept only–the owners probably don’t really want an optically-poor 48-game schedule disgruntled fans will blame on them, and the players, including the KC Royals, won’t get much money for so few games.

The players could relent a bit and accept a smidgen less than full pro-rata, which the clubs might offer in place of the further drastic reductions they’re seemingly stuck on and the union will never accept. Compromise now would be entirely appropriate in difficult times brought on by a rare circumstance that’s not likely to hamper future seasons.

Something, though, has to give to avoid a farcical mini-season. Both sides have demonstrated they can find things to agree on; they’ve proven they can budge.

Therein lies a little hope that the clubs and players will find a way. If they don’t, a 48-game season could be right around the corner.

Next. Maybe the KC Royals should draft a catcher. dark

That’s it for this week. We’ll be back next week with another edition of KC Royals Midweek Musings, including some thoughts on baseball books with Kansas City angles, news on former Royals playing abroad, and a simulation update.