Sources: MLB return talks still at impasse as a mandated short season looms

Major League Baseball's latest economic return-to-play proposal left the MLB Players Association frustrated and increased the likelihood of commissioner Rob Manfred instituting a shortened season without input from the union, sources familiar with the situation told ESPN.

The league expressed similar frustration in the letter that proposed a 72-game season with a bump in guaranteed compensation and overall potential money earned. Dan Halem, the deputy commissioner, accused the players' union of causing "enormous damage to the sport" with its negotiating posture, according to the letter, which was obtained by ESPN.

Despite five official proposals -- three from the league and two by the union -- the chasm between the parties remains excessive. The players remain intent on receiving a full prorated share of their salaries, regardless of the number of games played. The league, while increasing the potential prorated shares from 70% to 75% to 80% in its proposals, has dropped the number of games from 82 to 76 to 72, leading players to accuse MLB of making the same offer in different packaging.

Friday's proposal, to which the league attached a Sunday deadline to accept, will not be accepted, according to sources. It would guarantee $1.27 billion -- the largest guarantee yet from the league -- and add $230 million more to players if the playoffs are completed. Including a $50 million pool for playoff teams, the $1.5 billion total would necessitate players take a 17% cut from their 72-game salaries.

Players are decidedly against any pay cut beyond what they'd lost already in missed games. They have coalesced around the desire to be paid full pro rata and have accepted the possibility of Manfred, in the absence of a negotiated agreement, unilaterally choosing a schedule of around 48 to 55 games, according to sources. The league has the ability to set a schedule per a March agreement between the parties, which has proved divisive in the subsequent months.

"It is clear to me," Halem wrote, "that the parties' differing interpretations of the March Agreement has been a stumbling block to negotiating a resolution that is in the interests of both sides."

The lack of a resolution caused baseball to lose valuable days in restarting the sport before other major American professional team sports. MLB has focused on playing games in home stadiums, and the absence of fans has prompted the league to ask in negotiations for players to take pay cuts. The union has refused, believing language in the March agreement entitles players to full pro rata. The league interprets the language differently but has suggested it is willing to pay the prorated share in a shorter season.

Each side has barely acknowledged the other's proposals, and Halem's letter, which referenced past letters from Bruce Meyer, his counterpart with the players' association, started with a haymaker and later accused the union of a "failure to act in good faith" -- a charge the union has levied at MLB as well.

"I received your letter dated June 9, 2020," Halem's letter began. "I acknowledge up front that I must have misinterpreted your June 6th letter. I thought the letter reflected a willingness on the part of the Association to discuss in good faith the economics necessary for the Office of the Commissioner to waive its right under the March Agreement to resume the 2020 season only when there are, among other things, no restrictions on fan access. After reviewing the Association's counterproposal, I stand corrected."

The meat of the league's proposal concerned guaranteed money of nearly $300 million more than the previous offer and maximum compensation of $71 million more. The offer also includes a roster size of 30 for the first two weeks of the season, 28 for the next two weeks and 26 after that. Rosters had been scheduled to be 26 players this season. MLB also suggested an expansion of the playoffs from 10 to 16 teams and offered to give players the choice to keep or get rid of the qualifying offer, which has hindered players' free agencies in recent years but is likely to affect only five or six players after the 2020 season.

It arrived on the heels of the union's proposal Tuesday for an 89-game season that would pay players their full prorated salaries. The league's desire to extract a cut off of those numbers has been a consistent sticking point in the negotiations, with players digging in amid the league's ability to mandate a schedule of its desired length.

While the players are entrenched in their position on full prorated pay, the league is similarly rooted in the season ending Sept. 27 -- thus the season length in this proposal falling short of the 76-game season the league proposed Monday morning. Like the league's original plan, it had offered players 50% of their full prorated pay with a bonus pool if there are playoffs. MLB's concern over coronavirus-related issues as well as the desire of TV networks to keep the postseason in October has led to its offers decreasing in games.

Manfred nevertheless told ESPN's Karl Ravech on Wednesday that "unequivocally we are going to play Major League Baseball this year," putting the likelihood at "100%."

Both parties had hoped to be in spring training 2.0 by Wednesday. The earliest teams could gather at this point would be June 22, and with a three-week period to prepare for a season, a mid-July start is the likeliest outcome for a longer season. Every day that burns off the calendar also lessens the potential length of a season, which is likely to prompt a final showdown in the coming days, according to sources.

In the absence of a deal and implementation of a short season, the union would be expected to file a grievance against the league for not scheduling as full a season as it could, as is mandated in the March agreement. The contract also allows the league to take into account "economic feasibility" and other determinants while making that decision.

Multiple players told ESPN on Friday they are preparing to play a shorter season. They believe a grievance could be a positive thing for players, particularly if it allows them a closer look at MLB's finances. Further, playoff expansion cannot be imposed unilaterally, allowing the players to block the league from reaping potential financial benefits of significantly more postseason games -- or rubber-stamp it in a deal.

Among the players with strong feedback on Friday was Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen, who posted a video on Twitter delineating the negotiating dynamics from the players' point of view. In the video, McCutchen plays both roles of a father teaching a son how to use a toilet, promising juice as a reward. After the toddler McCutchen uses the toilet, the father McCutchen offers juice instead of water before changing the container from a sippy cup to a water bottle to a coffee mug, highlighting the lack of changes between offers from the league.

McCutchen had tweeted his first reaction to the offer an hour before posting the video clip: "Lol."

Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer laid out the financial reality of the offer for players, tweeting: "Just so y'all know, 70% of prorated salaries at 72 games is the exact same as ... wait for it ... full prorated at 48. Nothing to see here. Same exact offer in different clothing. Just a reallocation of risk."

In response to the latest offer, quoting a tweet citing MLB's Sunday deadline on its latest offer, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Trevor Williams responded bluntly.

"It expired as soon as they hit send," Williams tweeted.

The discord between the sides remains high as MLB heads into a critical 2021, during which its current collective bargaining agreement will expire. The current issues could grow into even larger problems, particularly absent a deal to restart the season in the coming days.

If the union and league can strike a deal, players would report to home ballparks or spring training sites to prepare for a three-week training period that probably would include three exhibition games. Lost days on the schedule could be made up with extra doubleheaders, which players have indicated they are willing to play.

ESPN's Joon Lee contributed to this report.