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Fewer games? Salary deferrals? Where MLB players and owners could find middle ground on 2020 season

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Is all of the recent acrimony between MLB players and owners real or the byproduct of the early stages of the 2020 season’s negotiations playing out in the public spotlight? When recently asked that question, one baseball official’s reply was, “Yes.”

Yes, as in both things are true.

It’s with that backdrop the sport continues to navigate a return to the field. Now that both sides have presented the other with offers, perhaps the real negotiation can start, though the sides remain several miles apart at the moment.

The league’s first offer of a sliding pay scale based on an 82-game season was met with a response sticking to full prorated salaries but with 114 games played. The players’ assumption in offering more games is that owners make more money if more games are played. But the league disagrees, with so many of those games likely to take place in front of empty stadiums. Their position is that playing fewer games means losing fewer dollars. It’s hard to argue against ownership on this point because if playing more meant making more, then why wouldn’t they look to do so?

The owners backed that theory up by bringing another potential option into the dialogue as a last resort: Let’s play 40-50 games but at the players’ full prorated salary. Can it work?

Not likely, at least according to two players contacted by ESPN on Monday who couldn’t speak publicly due to the sensitive nature of the negotiations.

Players might simply feel the risk isn’t worth the smaller reward a shorter season would bring — and not just because of COVID-19.

At 25% of their full salary for 25% of a full-length season, risking an arm injury that could linger into future seasons becomes a risky gamble. And what if a player hits .180 in 40-50 games? Cold stretches like that happen all the time, even to very good players. What does his contract via arbitration or free agency look like in 2021?

Player compensation in baseball is built for large sample sizes. It’s why something that would resemble a normal baseball season, such as the 82-game proposal, seemed like a more desirable number, but ownership can’t — or doesn’t want to — pay full freight for that amount. Then again, with the sport hanging from the side of a cliff, would a player’s concern over potential stats really prevent him from approving the plan? And the guy that hits .400 could be rewarded as much as the one punished for hitting .180.

So if signaling a willingness to move on games is the first step in both sides offering an olive branch that they could work together, what else could help get a deal done?

Salary deferrals

The players first mentioned the idea of deferrals in their Sunday proposal to the league but with some major caveats: They’ll accept deferrals only if the postseason is canceled due to a second wave of COVID-19, and only if they get the full value of their contracts at that later date.

The deferral, to be used only under the worst case possible, isn’t likely to sit well with owners. But numerous agents and players have indicated throughout the process that they would listen on any proposal that included them, so perhaps a version of the deferral suggestion that helps get to middle ground is out there. Maybe the players get a smaller percentage of their full prorated salaries now and then the rest when revenue streams return.

One sticking point for owners in deferring money is that 2021 has no guarantees for revenues right now, either, and believe it or not, teams say they work on small margins from year to year anyway. Furloughs and the inability to pay minor league players are indications of such issues — even though team owners are worth billions. In any case, those deferrals would come due soon enough and most likely after at least two awful years economically for baseball. It doesn’t mean it can’t help be a solution though.

Additional revenue

Another advantage that a potential shorter season opens up for both sides is potential to bring in some additional money through options that might not be available under a plan that requires cramming as many games in as possible to fill out a schedule.

Things that could generate more revenue in a hurry include an end-of-year Home Run Derby, a skills competition and an All-Star Game. And, of course, an even more expanded postseason — something both sides already agree on — could help make the financial picture more palatable.

Perhaps the final answer falls somewhere between 50 and 82 games, or perhaps it comes between the two original proposals in the 82-114 range. If the two sides can keep talking, they’re bound to close the gap because the alternative simply isn’t acceptable.

Forget a hard deadline date to motivate the sides. Ignoring a country starving for something positive and uplifting would be a mistake the league can’t afford — and perhaps not recover from for years.

For now, the big takeaway is that the sides are finally engaging in this kind of meaningful dialogue. Now they need a breakthrough.

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Aaron Nola clears virus protocol, reports to Phillies camp

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PHILADELPHIA — Phillies ace Aaron Nola reported to camp on Monday after waiting a few extra days because he was in contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.

“All my tests came back negative,” Nola said. “If you don’t have symptoms and you come in contact with somebody who ends up testing positive, you’re out for probably at least seven days. That could possibly be two starts. It’s obviously going to be a hard part of it. And sometimes it’s out of our control. We just have to try to do our part every day.”

The Phillies have had seven players and five staff members test positive for the virus. None has been identified.

Infielder Scott Kingery and pitchers Hector Neris, Ranger Suarez and Tommy Hunter were placed on the 10-day injured list with no specified injuries last week. Outfielder Adam Haseley and catcher Christian Bethancourt still haven’t reported to camp.

Nola threw a bullpen upon arriving and would likely start Philadelphia’s season opener later this month if he’s ready. Nola finished third in NL Cy Young Award voting in 2018 when he was 17-6 with a 2.37 ERA. He was 12-7 with a 3.87 ERA last year.

“I was impressed by his bullpen [Monday] considering he hadn’t done a lot for a week,” manager Joe Girardi said. “It’s too early to tell where he’ll fit in. He would’ve been our Opening Day starter. I have to see where he’s at. I’m not saying he won’t be. I’m not ready to say.”

Nola said he is committed to playing this season amid the pandemic.

“Nothing has crossed my mind about opting out,” Nola said. “I want to play as bad as everyone else does. The guys who opted out, it’s understandable.”

The Phillies are scheduled to open the 60-game season at home against Miami on July 24.

Zack Wheeler, the No. 2 starter behind Nola, is in camp but uncertain about staying because his wife is due to deliver the couple’s first child later this month.

“It’s a very difficult decision. It’s something that is still playing in my head. I have to be very careful here at the field, outside of the field, wherever I go,” Wheeler said. “The baby’s and Dominique’s health are most important to me. So whatever I can do to make sure they are safe, that is the No. 1 goal for me. Baseball comes after that.”

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2020 MLB schedule release winners and losers — Which teams face biggest challenges?

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The annual release of the Major League Baseball schedule is usually a pretty fun night. You get to see what’s lined up for Opening Day. You see how specialty games — like the one in Williamsport, Penn. or the once-planned series this year in London — fit onto the calendar. Most of all, it’s the unfurling of 2,430 glorious games of baseball that will play out over six months. The original version of the 2020 schedule was released way back in August of last year. It feels like a different epoch.

Monday’s release of the shortened version of the 2020 schedule didn’t quite stack up to the usual flurry of excitement. Of the 2,430 games we usually get, this time there will be 900, or at least we hope there will be. Sixty games per team, the fewest in the major leagues since the 1870s, will determine who squeezes into the usual playoff format. Of the many things we could say about such a state of things, we can at least say this: We’ve never seen a big-league schedule like this one.

Strength of schedule isn’t usually a big factor in deciding the final standings. Teams competing for the same division titles usually play nearly identical schedules. There is a bit of variation for the teams competing for wild-card slots, but it’s not typically a deciding factor. This time, however, relative schedule strength has a wider range than any season we’ve had.

That’s because of the unprecedented formula for this year’s slate. Teams will play 40 of their 60 games within their own division (67 percent). That number is significantly higher than a typical season, when teams face division opponents 76 times (47 percent). The other 20 games will be intraleague matchups — the exact same number in which teams usually face the opposite circuit. However, those 20 matchups now comprise a third of each team’s schedule (33 percent) rather than having them spread across 162 games (12 percent).

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Patrick Mahomes tops Mike Trout for biggest contract in sports history

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The coronavirus pandemic put a halt to virtually every major sport in the world, but it couldn’t stop the sports business from booming — at least if you’re an elite athlete, the best of the best.

In March 2019, Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout signed the largest contract in professional sports history, worth $426.5 million. Just sixteen months later, despite a virus that has wreaked havoc across the globe, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has topped Trout.

Of course, Mahomes is coming off a 50-touchdown, 5,000-yard season in 2018 and a Super Bowl title in 2019.

In case you’re curious, here are the top five contracts on the all-time list, according to ESPN Stats & Information:



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