For roughly the going rate for a free-agent No. 5 starter, Major League Baseball owners could green-light a 2020 season.

Not going to happen, commissioner Rob Manfred said Thursday.

And as an added bonus, another overheated feud between the owners and players may be revving up, too.

One day after Manfred jetted to Phoenix for a face-to-face meeting with Players Association executive director Tony Clark and discussed the framework of a 60-game season in which the players, for the first time, were offered per-game prorated pay, the players union made what it termed a “counterproposal” of 70 games at the same pay scale, according to a statement Thursday that confirmed an ESPN report.

But while a split-the-difference compromise of 65 games would seem both sensible and achievable, nothing between MLB owners and players is that easy.

The owners, represented by Manfred, are unlikely to budge much, if at all, from 60 games, just as the players dug in on not reopening the March 26 agreement for 100% of their prorated salaries, especially because the owners reportedly understood Manfred’s meeting with Clark to be an agreement on negotiations within a 60-game schedule.

In a statement Wednesday, Manfred said he and Clark reached a “jointly developed framework that we agreed could form the basis of an agreement.” But the Players Association quickly put out a statement that read tersely, “Reports of an agreement are false.”

Clark’s initial statement on Thursday notably parroted Manfred’s “basis for an agreement” phrasing. In a subsequent statement less than an hour later, Clark said it is “unequivocally false to suggest that any tentative agreement or other agreement was reached in that meeting,” adding that Manfred asked for a union counteroffer.

Manfred responded by telling MLB Network and USA Today, “I don’t know what Tony and I were doing there for several hours going back and forth and making trades if we weren’t reaching an agreement.”

And so, once again, the owners and players can’t agree about what they’ve agreed about.

Maybe next time they’ll think to write it all down?

Regardless, here’s the relevant salary math:

--60 games at per-game pay is an outlay of roughly $1.52 billion for player salaries.

--70 games at per-game pay brings that total to roughly $1.77 billion.

--The $251.6 million gap comes to approximately $8.4 million per team, or slightly less than the one-year contracts signed last winter by free-agent pitchers Kevin Gausman, Julio Teheran, and Rick Porcello.

It isn’t a nominal difference, even for an industry that raked in $10.7 billion in revenue last year. It certainly seems bridgeable, though, as long as the sides continue to talk rather than revert to the nasty rhetoric and deep-seated mistrust that has characterized these negotiations and their acrimonious relationship at large.

At a minimum, this week’s dialogue sets up a few pathways to a resolution:

(a) MLB could reject the 70-game proposal, as it’s expected to do, and counter at the midpoint of 65 games, or $1.65 billion in total salaries, $135 million more than the 60-game framework.

If the players agree this weekend, and health-and-safety protocols are ironed out, it would still allow for a July 19 opening day and a reasonable window of 70 to 73 days to shoehorn in 65 games by Sept. 27-30.

(b) The owners could refuse to move off 60 games and empower Manfred to exercise his authority under the March accord to schedule the season without the players’ consent. Manfred threatened to do exactly that last week, although the presumption then was that he would set a 50ish-game season.

Imposing the season would open the door to a grievance from the players claiming MLB didn’t make “best efforts” for a longer season and seeking a billion dollars in lost wages, a case they might have made effectively considering there was enough time to play closer to 70 games rather than only 50 and still end the season by Sept. 27.

The calculation now, for Manfred and the owners for whom he works, might be whether a union grievance is less winnable after Manfred flew to Arizona to meet with Clark, presented the 60-game “framework,” and painted the players as uncooperative.

(c) Manfred needs 75% approval -- 23 or more teams -- to impose a season. If eight or more owners inform him that they’d rather cancel the season altogether, it would leave baseball at risk of going dark until next spring training.

But it also would saddle Manfred and the owners with having willingly shut down the sport in the midst of a pandemic, a sin that might be unforgivable in the eyes of fans who are already losing patience with the sides.

”This needs to be over,” Manfred said. “We’re committed to do everything necessary to play, hopefully by agreement.”

Commissioner Rob Manfred at Citizens Bank Park in June 2019.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Commissioner Rob Manfred at Citizens Bank Park in June 2019.

A source confirmed that the players’ counteroffer includes a three-week spring training beginning June 26-28; a schedule that runs from July 19 through Sept. 30; expanded 16-team playoffs in 2020 and 2021; a universal designated hitter; and opt-outs with pay and service time for players who are at higher risk for COVID-19.

The players also made allowances for quarantines and/or neutral-site venues in the postseason to guard against a second wave of the coronavirus. They asked for a 50/50 split of incremental TV revenues for additional postseason games in 2021, up to $50 million in 2020 playoff shares if the full postseason is played, and $10 million for social justice initiatives, and granted permission for teams to sell advertising in the form of uniform patches.

If they reach an agreement, the sides would also mutually agree to waive the filing of any potential grievances.

A pivot point in the negotiations occurred last Saturday. With MLB having made proposals of 82, 76,and 72 games, all seeking supplemental pay reductions from the March 26 agreement, Clark called further negotiations “futile” and dared Manfred to set a schedule and tell the players “when and where” to show up.

As “when and where” became a hashtag-able social media mantra for players, Manfred backed away from imposing a season and told ESPN that he was “not confident” that baseball would be played in 2020, a 180 from his comments to the network five days earlier that a season was “100 percent” going to happen.

In asking Clark for a meeting this week -- their first sit-down since March -- Manfred sought to cool the tensions between the sides and advance the dialogue.

It worked, if only for a day.