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Cubs institute pay cuts, Pirates announce furloughs amid coronavirus pandemic

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CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates are trimming payroll while they await word on the fate of the Major League Baseball season.

The Cubs are instituting pay cuts because of the coronavirus crisis, but there will be no furloughs through the end of June. The Pirates announced Thursday they are instituting furloughs for several employees in business operations beginning on June 1.

Chicago’s cuts were based on compensation, a person with direct knowledge of the situation said. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein and president of business operations Crane Kenney took the highest reductions.

The person, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, says 80% of associates are taking a pay cut of 20% or less.

The MLB season has been ion hold since spring training was suspended March 12 because of the pandemic. The commissioner’s office and the players’ union are talking a deal to resume, and teams could take more drastic employment measures with administrative staff if the negotiations are unsuccessful.

Pirates president Travis Williams says the team also will be reducing pay for many of its remaining employees in business and baseball operations beginning next month.

The Pirates’ executive staff had already accepted voluntary pay cuts for the remainder of the calendar year.

“We care deeply about all of our employees and understand the impact this will have on them,” Williams said in a statement. “These decisions are very difficult, but are necessary for us to endure this crisis and emerge as strong as possible when we are able to resume normal operations. We look forward to welcoming our employees back to work at that time.”

Williams says the team will cover medical, dental and vision benefits for furloughed employees and their families, and help them with securing unemployment benefits. No baseball operations staff with the Pirates were furloughed.

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What sweeping cuts mean for minor league baseball and its players

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News came out Thursday that hundreds of minor league baseball players were cut and hundreds more are expected to be released in the coming days. While many of these moves typically would have come at the end of spring training in March had baseball not shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, the numbers appear to be significantly higher than usual, and all of them coming at once was jarring.

We asked ESPN baseball reporters Jesse Rogers and Bradford Doolittle to try to make sense of it all, asking what this means for the players in the short and long term, and what it says about the future of the minor leagues in general.

Is there any chance there will be minor league baseball this season?

Jesse Rogers: No, but there are a few diehards still holding out hope. Teams are beginning to release dates for games so they can use their stadiums in other ways. Some will host youth travel tournaments or be used as drive-in theaters. Minor league teams will simply try to squeeze a few dollars out of their facilities in a lost season.

Bradford Doolittle: Not a chance, unfortunately. Teams are trying to figure out different ways to generate revenue using their facilities, like hosting collegiate wood-bat leagues, and have cut back on staff. The protocol seems to be to wait for MLB and the MLB Players Association to declare their intentions before the plug is officially yanked. Lower-level teams are just trying to figure out how they will continue to exist, or given the contentious negotiations underway for a new Professional Baseball Agreement, if they will even have the option of continuing to exist.

What do the prospects do if there’s no 2020 season?

Rogers: Spring facilities will be used for some of them, while others might be part of that extra group of players who are around the big league team — but not on the initial roster — in case they’re needed due to injury. It simply won’t be a season like they’ve ever had before. The top prospects will be handled with kid gloves, but many lower-tier players will be let go if they haven’t been already.

Doolittle: Depending on how far things open up on the pandemic front, top prospects could get some work in some form of the Arizona Fall League. They also could get in work at MLB spring training facilities. Some will be needed for expanded MLB rosters and the proposed taxi squad. Whatever happens, it’s a lost year for players in the age range during which they are most apt to improve. Lesser prospects and non-prospects, as we saw Thursday, are being set adrift and will wait to see what the professional baseball landscape looks like a few months from now.

Minor league players literally have had no voice in any of these talks and some teams have done a better job of communicating than others. Beside the $400 per week stipend that teams have been paying — and most will continue to pay beyond the end of the month, with only the Oakland Athletics ending that policy at the moment — there is also the question of minor league service time. Will players who have been working toward Rule 5 eligibility be given some kind of credit for staying ready this season, even if there are no games? It might be low on the list of talking points between MLB and the MLBPA, but it sure matters to those whose futures are affected by this question. And right now, it’s unclear whether it has even come up.

This looks really dramatic, but if a lot of these guys would have been cut in March anyway, is this really a big deal or does the timing make it seem worse than it is?

Rogers: Yeah, it definitely looks worse now but, who knows, maybe guys cut in March would have been able to find jobs on other minor league teams. That can’t happen now. It really is as dramatic as it sounds. And the thought of some careers ending in this fashion is hard to fathom. Players don’t always get to go out on their own terms, but this takes things to another level.

Doolittle: The scope of cuts seems to be more than the typical levels of moves that take place between the end of spring training and the end of May, according to the initial reporting by Baseball America, but BA is also being guarded with its language in that report. If, as Jeff Passan reported for ESPN, the hundreds who were released Thursday are only the first wave of more major rounds of cuts, then we’re well beyond the bounds of normal end-of-spring releases. Also, let’s remember, with the upcoming MLB draft cut back to five rounds, if we were going to have a full group of minor league teams operating later this summer, those lower-level rosters wouldn’t be filled out by new draftees. However you slice it, the picture is ugly for minor league teams and players.

Did the minor leagues just shrink for good? There had been 160 affiliated teams. How many will there be in 2021?

Doolittle: The negotiations between MLB and minor league baseball have more or less been kneecapped by the pandemic. The political momentum that MiLB helped create with its public airing of grievances is kaput — politicians have bigger fish to fry right now. The solidarity message preached by the MiLB league office now rings hollow to some owners hoping not only to withstand a season of zero revenue, but to stand up to the reality that MLB could simply walk away and form a new system. Minor league baseball — which collectively ended last season as a wholly vibrant operation, with nothing but clear skies ahead — has had its guts ripped from it over the past six months. We’ll be sifting through the fallout for years. But to answer the question: MLB wants an affiliated system with 120 teams, so that’s what’s likely to happen.

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Minor League Baseball cuts hundreds of players amid pandemic, sources say

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Hundreds of minor league baseball players were cut Thursday and hundreds more are expected to lose their jobs as the sport grapples with the near certainty that the minor league season will be canceled, sources told ESPN.

Team officials said a vast majority of the players would likely have been released toward the end of spring training even if baseball were not halted by the coronavirus pandemic, according to sources, but the cuts en masse, which could wind up numbering more than 1,000, nevertheless reverberated around the game, sources said. Released players expressed fear that their careers would be over, and those whose teams hadn’t yet made cuts prepared for a tenuous next few days, sources said.

In recent weeks, owners of minor league teams have begun laying off front-office and gameday workers and citing the cancellation of the season as the reason, according to sources. Minor League Baseball has not officially canceled its season, according to a spokesman, though the suspension of the Professional Baseball Agreement that governs its relationship with Major League Baseball precludes big league organizations from providing players to its minor league affiliates.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said he would inform Minor League Baseball if and when it planned to allow players to join affiliated teams. He has yet to do so. Even with no players available, teams acting as if the season is over and one team renting out its stadium on Airbnb, Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner has yet to speak publicly and acknowledge the foregone conclusion in 2020, and the fallout from it.

O’Conner declined to comment when reached by ESPN.

For more than a year, MLB has planned to contract around a quarter of minor league teams before the 2021 season. Compounding that with a drastically shortened amateur draft — just five rounds this year instead of the typical 40 — and the delay of international free-agent signings until as late as Jan. 15, minor league systems could be as thin as they have been in years.

Farm directors, front-office officials and agents said that further player cuts — more related to the elimination of affiliates and leagues in 2021 — could be expected in the future. Some of the veteran players released could compete for jobs on the anticipated 20-man taxi squad every major league team will field if a season begins, but the younger players cut Thursday, sources said, may have more difficulty finding jobs in baseball.

All teams agreed to pay minor league players $400 a week in April and May to cover for wages lost during canceled games. The $400 salary was given by MLB regardless of what the players were slated to make, including to hundreds of players who had been contracted to make several times that amount. For some players, that meant a pay cut of more than 80%.

Early this week, the Oakland A’s told their minor league players they would no longer receive the stipend starting in June, drawing significant criticism. Eight teams have said they will pay minor league players through at least June, with the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners pledging through the end of August, around when the minor league season is due to end.

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Texas to let fans attend pro sports events at 25% capacity

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Texas will soon allow outdoor pro sports events to have spectators, but their numbers will be strictly limited.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has revised a decision to let pro sports leagues host events without fans starting in June as part of the states’ move to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Abbott’s new order allows outdoor stadiums to host fans up to 25% of their normal capacity. Leagues will have to apply to state health officials to be allowed to have fans. Indoor events will still be without spectators.

The PGA Tour plans to restart its season at Colonial in Texas on June 11-14 but has said it would not include fans.

The state has set up several guidelines for leagues to follow, including a recommendation that spectators and employees keep at least 6 feet apart from anyone not from their household. If that is not feasible, other measures such as face coverings and sanitation protocols should be followed.

Athletes will not be required to wear masks but the guidelines encourage them to be worn on the sidelines.

The order does not address college sports events.

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