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Is Spring Training around the corner for the Washington Nationals? It depends on how far we turn back the clock for the 2021 season.

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Negotiations between the owners and the players’ union are once again contentious.

MLB: World Series-Washington Nationals at Houston Astros
Commissioner Rob Manfred and baseball owners are seeking to renegotiate terms of the 2021 season with major league players. At stake is the timely start of spring training and the return of normalcy to baseball after the COVID-shortened 2020 season.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

With all due respect to the Los Angeles Dodgers and their fans, most baseball followers would like to forget about the 2020 season and turn back the clock to the pre-pandemic days.

So, apparently, do the major league owners and players, only there’s a difference of opinion on how far to turn it back. The players would like to see it turned back to 2019, just before the COVID pandemic upended life around the world. The owners, meanwhile, apparently want to turn back the clock to something more like 1960.

At stake right now is Spring Training, where Washington Nationals’ players are expecting to report in about two weeks.

Pitchers and some other players are already working out in anticipation of a return to a more normal season.

So far, however, it looks like the first thing that will return to normal for baseball in 2021 is the contentious labor negotiations. The two sides are already spinning their first major disagreement, and while the 2021 season is not yet in jeopardy, it could be headed in that direction unless either side changes its mind.

Want to know why the Nationals’ major free-agent acquisitions this offseason have all been signed to one-year contracts, as have many others around baseball? And why young stars like Juan Soto and Trea Turner are still waiting to sign long-term deals?

Both answers have a lot to do with the financial fallout from the COVID-shortened 2020 season and the fact that baseball’s current collective bargaining agreement expires after 2021. Baseball owners are now trying to renegotiate terms for the upcoming season, possibly setting the stage for cutting salaries under a new CBA that is more friendly to them.

Players and owners agreed last March that the pandemic had created an emergency, and allowed Commissioner Rob Manfred to impose the terms of the 2020 season after the two sides could not agree on specifics. The result was a 60-game season with an expanded, 16-team postseason, a universal designated hitter, and other special rules.

In addition to the terms of the 2020 season, Major League Baseball announced last July that it intends to play a full 162-game season in 2021, and in September that Spring Training games would begin this month. The rules and the postseason structure are still supposed to be dictated by the CBA the two sides agreed to in 2016.

But that was before owners made a new proposal to players on Friday, according to Yahoo Sports’ Tim Brown. The offer would shorten the season to 154 games and delay Spring Training and Opening Day by a month, although the final games would be moved back one week. That would shorten the overall time frame by three weeks. Players would reportedly receive full pay. The offer also reportedly also included a universal DH and a 14-team postseason. That’s a smaller field than the 16 teams that competed for the World Series in 2020, but more than the 10-team field called for in the current CBA.

USA TODAY’s Bob Nightengale reports that the Major league Baseball Players Association will reject that offer, preferring instead the terms that have already been announced. The players are concerned that Manfred could still cut pay this season by unilaterally canceling games if teams have COVID outbreaks. There’s also concern that agreeing to a shorter season now opens to door for future seasons to be shortened in the new CBA. Players also believe that teams will be less likely to spend money on free agents if more participants with weaker records are allowed into the postseason.

Unless the players make a counter-proposal, the next move looks like it’s up to the owners.

Commissioner Rob Manfred claims they sustained as much as $3 billion in operational losses in 2020 and are now some $8.3 billion in debt. MLB also reached a new television agreement last season that could increase television rights fees by more than $1 billion over the next eight seasons.

Owners have already cut expenses by laying off staff and contracting and reorganizing the minor leagues. Now they are looking for ways to limit their payrolls. While salaries have remained generally flat since the 2016 CBA, a shorter season would give owners a reason to roll them back.

The owners didn’t pull the 154-game number out of thin air. They’re trying to gain support by appealing to a sense of nostalgia in older fans, who remember the pre-expansion era, when that was the number of games played, and there was no free agency. Shortening the time frame by three weeks will also include fewer days off and possibly more doubleheaders. The union has already agreed that doubleheaders in 2021 will be seven innings, but playing seven-inning doubleheaders moving forward is another reason to trim salaries.

The owners don’t look like they’re about to budge on shortening the season this year and moving forward. They're also likely to want expand the big payday they already get in the postseason, which is not included in player contracts. Players on postseason teams receive a portion of the gate receipts from their series.

There is still plenty of time to work out an agreement for the coming season before players start reporting for Spring Training, but it’s looking less and less likely. Manfred may not have the power to dictate terms of the 2021 season as he did last year, but he’s indicating that he has a stronger bargaining position. The owners are clearly looking to continue cutting costs everywhere they can, including what they pay to players. If the two sides can’t agree on terms for the upcoming season, prospects look even grimmer for a new CBA after this year and more likely for some kind of work stoppage.