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Positive coronavirus tests create urgency in MLB’s 2020 negotiations

The resumption of spring training now will be no earlier than June 29, with the season starting July 26.

In this Nov. 21, 2019, file photo, baseball commissioner Rob Manfred speaks to the media at the owners meeting in Arlington, Texas. It’s been over three months since the commissioners of major sports cancelled or postponed events because of the coronavirus. Enough time for us to grade them on how they’ve handled the virus so far.
LM Otero/AP

MLB had 40 players and staff members test positive for COVID-19 in the last week, creating a sense of urgency in labor negotiations between the owners and players, according to two persons with direct knowledge of the situation.

They spoke to USA Today on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

The players postponed their vote Sunday on MLB’s plan for a 60-game season with full prorated pay after commissioner Rob Manfred telephoned union chief Tony Clark and e-mailed tweaks to MLB’s last proposal.

MLB still is offering 60 games, guaranteeing the players about $1.5 billion, but the recent surge of positive tests will further delay the start of the season. The resumption of spring training now will be no earlier than June 29, with the season starting July 26. The sides had agreed the season would start July 19 in their last exchange of proposals.

“I really believe we are fighting over an impossibility on games,’’ Manfred said to Clark in his e-mail obtained by USA Today. “The earliest we will be ready for players to report is a week from Monday [June 29] given the need to relocate teams from Florida. That leaves 66 days to play 60 games. Realistically, that is the outside of the envelope now.’’

The fear among the players is that while they have been assured of receiving their full prorated salary, COVID-19 could force the season to be shortened to fewer than 60 games, further reducing their pay.

If the season is shortened, Manfred promised Clark that the postseason would not be expanded from 10 teams to 16 teams in 2021 and that the designated hitter would not be used in the National League in 2021.

Manfred also promised Clark that players on non-guaranteed contracts who are released during spring training, and who were salary-arbitration-eligible in 2019, will receive full termination pay.

If the sides are unable to reach a deal this week, Manfred is expected to simply mandate a season of 54 to 60 games.

Positive tests in the camps of the Phillies and Yankees in the Tampa area forced MLB to shut down all the spring-training facilities. Every team, with the possible exception of the Blue Jays, will have spring training at their home ballparks, according to a high-ranking official.

MLB, recognizing the possibility that the season can’t be completed, offered to cancel its plans for an expanded postseason and universal DH in 2021, if the season is shorter than 60 games.

MLB and the union still are finalizing health and safety protocols but have agreed on a radical change to extra-inning games and might even permit games to end in ties.

Regular-season games that enter extra innings will now start with a runner on second base beginning in the 10th inning. In the postseason, games will revert to traditional rules. It’s possible the extra-inning rule will become permanent, but the union agreed to change the rule only for 2020.

The union also wants to discuss with MLB the possibility of ties in lengthy extra-inning games, as well as permitting free substitution, which would allow players to re-enter games.

MLB and the union already agreed to implement a universal DH in 2020 and 2021, as well as expanding the postseason to 16 teams.

Also, in their latest exchange, the union is asking that players who cohabitate with “high-risk’’ individuals, including a spouse who’s pregnant, would also have the right to opt out of the 2020 season and still receive their prorated salary and full-service time.

MLB already has agreed to allow “high-risk’’ players for COVID-19 to opt out and still be paid. Other players who aren’t considered “high risk’’ still can opt out but won’t be paid or receive service time. Two of the game’s biggest stars, Angels outfielder Mike Trout and Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole, have wives who are pregnant and due this summer.