Why MLB’s Most Expensive Salaries Could Belong to Retired or Inactive Players in 2020

Jordan Cohn
May 14, 2020 - 9:30 am

You know how every year on July 1, Mets fans dread and other baseball fans celebrate and laugh at the quirky event known as "Bobby Bonilla Day"? The somewhat banal, overused piece of trivia where, on the first day of July every season leading up to 2035, the Mets are required to pay former All-Star Bobby Bonilla around $1.9 million in order to make up the terms of a deal made in 2000?

In 2020, Mets fans may be spared of hearing all about the dreaded "holiday", but that's only because the highest-paid players in baseball may be other retired players making up to $18 million, $24 million, even $26 million given the potential for pay cuts of the league's active stars.

According to MLB insider Ken Rosenthal, this is because a March agreement between the league and the players called for prorated salaries in 2020 based on games played. With it looking like a shortened, 82-game season is a legitimate possibility, this agreement would result in players receiving just over half of there agreed-upon salaries -- though it's worth noting that the players have not yet agreed to the terms of an 82-game season. However, inactive players would receive full pay under the same agreement, barring any revisions.

Rosenthal mentions that Gerrit Cole, whose nine-year, $324 million contract dictates that he would be the highest-paid MLB player under normal circumstances, would make a touch over $18 million with this deal in place.

To sum this up: 2020 could mean $18 million for the most dominant pitcher in baseball aiming to lead his team to a World Series ring. 2020 could simultaneously mean $18 million for Troy Tulowitzki, $24 million for Prince Fielder, or even $26 million -- given a victory in a union grievance -- for former Yankee Jacoby Ellsbury. It's a weird, weird situation.

Scrolling through the MLB section of Spotrac.com, a great place to find all the information you could possibly seek involving sports contracts, salaries and payrolls, it thus becomes understandable why names like Prince Fielder appear in the trending contracts section. You may think that's also why Barry Zito is in there, but that's just because he appeared on "The Masked Singer".

However, nothing is set in stone. As I mentioned before, the players have not yet agreed to an 82-game season, though talks are ongoing. It's also not like Fielder, Tulo and others wouldn't be paid these heaping salaries -- or at least portions of them -- in a normal baseball season. It's the fact that they could potentially receive the league's highest salaries in 2020 that makes this situation just so bizarre.

Fielder is represented by super agent Scott Boras, who shared his thoughts on how players feel about the negotiations (video above).

"Tony Clark, with the strong support of the players that I represent, sat down with ownership in March to address the public health issue and really reach an early compromise so we wouldn't be discussing economics going forward," Boras said. "Essentially, players compromise because they are giving away anywhere from 30%-50% of their salary by agreeing to take a lesser number of games and being paid per game.

"Really, we have a very solidified effort and agreement and program going forward which allows us to really focus on the health and safety issues and getting players back into Spring Training and getting the season going."

However, it does seem that economics will be a primary component of discussions going forward considering another clause in the league's proposal, asking for a 50-50 revenue split between owners and players. This could further impact salaries should revenue be lower than expected, which is a possibility that can't be discounted given the volatility of the pandemic.

Of course, all these hypotheticals depend on whether or not the players agree to take these risks and potential pay cuts in the first place. It could mean jeopardizing the season, but if the union feels as though the league is not being just in the terms of its agreements, there could be a pretty ugly fight between the two sides. Blake Snell was particularly outspoken regarding his views on the matter. You can hear another player's thoughts on it here, in an interview with Pirates starter and union representative Jameson Taillon on 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh.

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