The MLB season should have turned one month old Sunday. Rather than lament that, let’s instead fill the emptiness with a discussion about when the season will start.
Yes, will. Over the past two weeks, as states have begun to plan their reopenings, nearly everyone along the decision-making continuum — league officials, players, union leaders, owners, doctors, politicians, TV power brokers, team executives — has grown increasingly optimistic that there will be baseball this year.
This optimism is guarded and cautious and laden with caveats. It exists in a reality twisted by the coronavirus — one that acknowledges what seems possible today may not necessarily be tomorrow. There are a million questions. Consider what follows an attempt to answer 20 of the most pertinent — some about baseball’s return and those roadblocks, others about the coronavirus’ short- and long-term impact, and a few about various odds and ends worth tying up before the entirety of our focus trains on Spring Training 2.0.
OK then. What’s the latest?
Lots. And nothing. It’s a contradictory existence in which the baseball world is doing everything it can to prepare for games without any firm plan in place for when or where those games will be played.
In a letter to those covered by the uniform employee contract last week, commissioner Rob Manfred wrote: “While I fully anticipate that baseball will resume this season, it is very difficult to predict with any accuracy the timeline for the resumption of our season.” In the letter, Manfred told the employees — managers, coaches, scouts and other non-players — that he planned to suspend the contracts this Friday, allowing teams to not pay them if they so desire.
Nearly every team has guaranteed baseball-operations employees payment through May 31 — a date, sources said, that is no accident. The next month could provide a number of answers to issues baseball is considering as it plots its return, and the long-term retention of employees across the sport may depend on having a known, or at least expected, revenue generator. The end of May isn’t a drop-dead point to have a plan in place, sources said, as much as it’s a reasonable and logical one.
Let’s consider the delicate push and pull of a return. Locking in a plan before the country reopens — before anyone understands the consequences of it, good and bad — runs a certain level of risk. Because of its calendar, MLB could very easily wait until the end of May to decide on its plan and still be the first sport to return. Of course, the sooner it decides, the more games it gets. First, there are basic questions that precipitate a return.
Where will games be played? Well, the easy answer is Arizona, where Gov. Doug Ducey has welcomed the idea of hosting all 30 teams, but logistical issues abound. There is also a wide variety of so-called hub plans, in which baseball would station teams in a set number of cities. The Arizona-Dallas-Tampa possibility that CBS Sports reported is an option. So is a four-city plan. And five. And six.
Just look at the opportunities starting in early May: Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Texas, Colorado and Minnesota are among the states slated to have stay-at-home restrictions lifted. That means more than a quarter of MLB teams could theoretically host games without fans right now. Which isn’t going to happen, of course, but it illustrates how quickly the landscape can change — and how waiting, frustrating though it may be, could allow for the widest array of routes.
MLB can learn, too, from the paths of others — in its sport, the Korean Baseball Organization and Chinese Professional Baseball League, and in its echelon of sport, the English Premier League, Serie A and La Liga. The KBO is set to return May 5 — about five weeks after its scheduled opening day — and the CPBL is up and going. The world’s top soccer leagues hope to return in June and have considered a quarantine plan similar to MLB’s, albeit with far fewer people. Serie A, according to a report, even seems to have a reasonable solution to the legitimate concern that any tests used on soccer players won’t be available for healthcare workers and the sick: donate five test kits for every one used by the league.
Speaking of testing, that’s another vital question for MLB: Will it be widespread enough that the league could reasonably test players, managers, coaches, umpires and the many others involved with making games work? It was supposed to be in April. The United States’ per-capita testing rates pale compared to the world. Baseball officials were told it would be feasible in May. It isn’t.
MLB, because of its financial might and experience with drug testing, almost certainly would be able to procure a sufficient amount of tests. The optics matter too much for it to be that simple, though. It goes beyond testing: When MLB is hunting for hundreds of smart thermometers, so are other businesses — and hospitals.
All of this gets back to having a plan by the end of May. The testing: It’s going to take time. The potential locations revealing themselves: Ditto. Some officials are convinced MLB will decide long before then, but a decision in May dovetails with a timeline that a number of people in decision-making positions see as realistic.
Finalize a plan in May. Hash out an agreement with the players by the end of the month or early June. Give players a week to arrive at designated spring-training locations. Prepare for three weeks. Start the season in July. Play around an 80- to 100-game season in July, August, September and October. Hold an expanded playoff at warm-weather, neutral sites in November.
Now: This is not set in stone or anywhere close to it. But from the league to the players to the owners to TV executives, this, or some derivation of it, registers as the most realistic option at this point.
What are the other options?
It’s really all just mix and match. What’s important are the number of games and number of teams in play. Everything else is adjustable.
Consider a three-hub plan in a 100-game season. In July and August, with 10 teams at each hub, every team plays two three-game series against all nine opponents. That’s 54 games. With travel practically non-existent — Phoenix, Dallas and Tampa each have five stadiums within an hour radius — that sort of schedule is eminently do-able. It also offers the ability to re-assess the status of the country come September. If more states are confident they can house teams, perhaps the number of hubs grows — or teams simply go home altogether.
That’s a best-case scenario. If a second wave of coronavirus arrives and threatens to shut down the country again, MLB could try to wait it out and just hold a giant playoff.
Wait. A giant playoff?
When I said they’re considering everything, I meant everything. Everyone wants the closest thing to a 162-game schedule. The absence of that or anything resembling it, however, doesn’t necessarily preclude something truly imaginative from taking place.
“Give us 60 days,” one official said, “and we could run an amazing tournament.”
I thought about it and came up with this idea, which essentially would function as a baseball World Cup. The format: Six hubs, five teams per hub. You could choose hub teams by division, which would be easy, or by geographic location with mixed leagues if you want to get really wild. Let’s go by division for now just to make it easier to understand.
Oct. 1-20: Every team plays a four-game series against each division opponent with a day off in between. The two best teams from each division advance.
Oct. 22-Oct. 31: The six American League teams that advance congregate at one hub. The six National League teams gather at another. They play each of the other five teams twice in a round-robin format with a collective day off in the middle. The four teams with the best records in each league advance. In the meantime, the nine non-advancing teams from each league meet at a hub and play one game against the rest of the teams there. The winner of that round robin regains entry into the playoffs. In the case of a tie, hold a winner-advances one-game play-in-to-the-playoff.
Nov. 2: The play-in winner faces the No. 4 seed from the advance round-robin in a one-game wild card. Winner advances to face the No. 1 seed.
Nov. 3-9: Five-game division series with one day off between Games 2 and 3. Winners advance to league championship series.
Nov. 11-19: Seven-game LCS with standard days off. Winners advance to World Series.
Nov. 21-29: Seven-game World Series with standard days off. Sixty days on the dot. Happy Thanksgiving.
In this format, every team would be guaranteed at least 24 games and one full month of baseball. Further, every game would really matter — but a stumble in the first round robin wouldn’t necessarily be a season-ender, either.
Is a giant playoff ideal? Not for a representative season. Maybe not even for a semi-representative season. But … I’ve got to be honest: I kind of dig two full months of truly meaningful baseball.
So, you haven’t talked much about the Arizona plan. Is it dead?
No, it’s just suffering from enough skepticism to make it seem that way. The Arizona plan, remember, would essentially turn MLB into a city within a city. All 30 teams would travel to the Phoenix area, stay at hotels and travel only to stadiums to play games. Along with team personnel, those working at the hotels would quarantine themselves, not to mention bus drivers, food-service workers and others. The veritable biosphere would contain thousands of people and constant testing to ensure its sanctity.
In a vacuum, building a biosphere is the ideal way to operate — the preferred method of epidemiologists including Dr. Ali Khan, who, as The Athletic reported, is advising MLB on how to safely approach its season. Unfortunately, the world does not exist in that vacuum. Players do not want to separate from their families, and the MLBPA has made that clear, which would add another thousand-plus people to an already-massive contingent. Lining up logistics to ensure a smooth-running operation is also daunting when other options may exist.
What gives Manfred and others so much confidence that there will be a season then?
Incentive. It’s not just that everyone wants a season. It’s the doom and gloom over what will happen if there isn’t one.
What happens to the players if there isn’t baseball?
A few things. None particularly good.
1. Instead of the $4 billion-plus in collective salary they’re owed, they get the $170 million they negotiated in a late-March agreement with MLB. That money runs out at the end of May, which, for leverage purposes — you’ll see why later — again aligns with there being movement toward a plan around that time.
2. The players will head into a year in which the collective-bargaining agreement expires and owners will be bracing for a fight to reap as much money as they can to make up for losses in 2020.
3. Everyone gets a year older, and while the agreement grants players a full year of service in the event of a lost season, those who reach free agency are greeted with a depressed market.
Now, Nos. 2 and 3 are still possible even if games are played, but they’re far likelier in an environment where the sides haven’t worked together to create a forward-looking partnership.
Again and again, I hear that word from people around the sport who consider themselves pragmatists. They see amid the awfulness that COVID-19 has wrought — the death, the sickness, the economic ruin, the fear, the uncertainty — a chance for baseball to do some good. They sat rapt this week watching the NFL draft, which was as much an extraordinarily well-produced three-day-long Zoom call as it was sports. And yet here were 55 million people, eyeballs glued. Imagine games — real, live games — and what they could mean.
They envision both sides recognizing that amid a nightmare is baseball’s dream: a sporting landscape with literally nothing else. A rapt audience. A chance to sell the sport with a blank canvas of television production. An avenue to make the stars they’ve lacked. An investment in the future, even if this year is a loss for all parties.
And not just a partnership between players and owners, who have their differences, but among players. Unequivocal unity in a 1,200-person union is impossible, but the fractures in the current one are easy enough to spot. As Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw and others decried the Arizona plan, hundreds of players shook their heads in disagreement. They want to play. They’ve got bills to pay and skills to hone. If they have to live in quarantine, so be it.
The teams need to be partners, too. Some local regional sports networks that carry games could seek amendments to their rights fees to make up for broadcasts without fans and perhaps at awkward times. National TV deals may change as well. Finding a fair distribution of revenue to ensure teams can pay players will take working with one another.
Because while one year without baseball is unlikely to bankrupt any team, according to sources, the financial situations of several are shaky. Whether it’s an inability to pay down debt or a lack of resources from other businesses to generate cash flow and help cover the team, several teams fear the cancellation of a season. Teams could lose lines of credit next year in such a scenario, and the lack of access to cash is compounded by the possibility of no fans, or at least fewer than the pre-coronavirus days.
Clearly, then, if both sides’ incentives align, once there’s a plan in place this should be rubber-stamped.
Not even close.
Uh, so this is a problem how?
Seriously. This is going to fall apart because of money.
Probably not, because it would be so catastrophically stupid, so indescribably short-sighted and so terribly selfish that some adult in the room will ensure it never got to that point. But once MLB hatches its plan and gets ownership approval, money is going to be an issue. And it all goes back to the deal signed by the players and owners in late March.
Some teams contend that they could actually lose money if games are played. Their rationale is that local and national TV money will not cover their operating costs. And if that’s the case, they would like players — who already have agreed to be paid a prorated portion of their salary depending on the number of games — to take an even greater pay cut.
Multiple officials with the union simply do not believe MLB will lose money by playing games. They flatly reject the idea of taking any sort of financial haircut. This position is seen as intransigent, sources said, not just because the union believes it is on strong legal ground but because it has told players as much.
Three passages of the agreement and their relationship to one another are in question, according to lawyers briefed on the agreement.
1. On the first page, under the section “Resumption of Play,” the agreement says: “Absent consent by the Office of the Commissioner, the 2020 championship season shall not be commenced unless and until each of the following conditions is satisfied.”
2. The final of those conditions says: “The Commissioner determines, after consultation with recognized medical experts and the Players Association, that it does not pose an unreasonable health and safety risk to players, staff, or spectators to stage games in front of fans in each of the 30 Clubs’ home ballparks; provided that, the Office of the Commissioner and Players Association will discuss in good faith the economic feasibility of playing games in the absence of spectators or at appropriate substitute neutral sites.”
3. Later in the agreement, the section for “Player Compensation and Benefits” begins with the words: “If and when the conditions exist for the commencement of the 2020 championship season … “
MLB could argue that the similar language (“2020 championship season,” “conditions,” “commenced” and “commencement”) ties together the resumption of play with player benefits, and that the resumption of play depends upon the good-faith discussion of how economically feasible it is to play in front of no fans. The revenue issue with no fans is real.
The counterargument believes the agreement answers that. There is, the argument goes, a very specific cutout in the deal for “Player Compensation and Benefits.” The good-faith provision in the resumption-of-play cause, the players could argue, has to do with MLB having agency to shut down the sport if it worries that playing will lead to it losing money. If MLB wanted anything to do with what players were getting paid, it should’ve included that in the compensation section.
Now that you’ve done your sample paragraphs for a Lawfare internship, can you please explain what this all actually means?
Hopefully that this is much ado about nothing and amounts to a situation of mutually assured destruction, where both sides recognize that their weapon — a grievance that allows an arbitrator to settle the dispute — could do an incredible amount of damage and both holster it accordingly.
The case for the owners is simple. Their businesses already are suffering. They don’t want to suffer more. And the long-term financial consequences are real.
The players certainly have a more emotionally resonant argument. If they play … they’re going to be ones potentially sequestered for months at a time. If they play … they’re the ones whose health could be at greater risk. If they play … they’ve done nothing to prompt a lessening of their salaries.
Is there a compromise?
Far be it from me to play lawyer and financial advisor in the same column, but if nobody bends after the posturing and bickering and they’re staring at a scenario in which the sport will not return if they can’t find a financial deal, perhaps they consider deferrals.
Right now, the issue for owners is two-fold: present cash flow and future earnings. Projecting those earnings isn’t easy, but saving money right now is — if players agree to delay payments slightly. Minimum-salary players could get their full salaries and those in arbitration and beyond receive percentages in 2020 and the rest spread out over the following five years.
Present money, of course, is worth more than future money, so players would ask for interest to, at the very least, keep up with inflation. Such a plan would ensure that teams’ balance sheets this year don’t bleed out and guarantee players their full 2020 salaries. No less luminaries than Max Scherzer, Ken Griffey Jr., Stephen Strasburg, Todd Helton and Matt Holliday agreed to deferrals. Baltimore is paying Chris Davis through 2037. The king of the deferral, Bobby Bonilla, gets $1,193,248.20 every July 1 from the New York Mets from 2011-35.
Look, this isn’t perfect. Players want their money now. Owners want players to take a commensurate bath. Know what? Perfect is impossible. Compromise may be the closest thing to perfection we’ve got.
You’ve spent 3,200 words on players and owners and law and finance and bad jokes in which the questioner is all antagonistic and you fight back and it’s super tired, and you really haven’t even mentioned fans?
I’ve actually mentioned them a half-dozen times, and every one alludes to no fans being in stadiums. That’s certainly the likeliest outcome.
The notion that fans won’t come to games until there’s a coronavirus vaccine — meaning deep into next year, according to most doctors who project such things — does not sit nearly as well with owners. Does that mean we’re really going to have to get used to half-filled stadiums that include social distancing before we can return to sports like we’re used to, in loud stadiums with atmosphere?
Perhaps so. And not just at the major league level. That’s in all sports at almost all levels.
Uh, yeah, so the minor leagues. Are they going to happen this year?
Probably not, nope. Because major league rosters will be expanded both to account for a shortened spring training (and lack of pitchers’ abilities to pitch deep into games early on), that will take care of a number of upper-level players. Teams could theoretically house their minor leaguers at spring facilities and have them play unofficial (or official) games at all levels on backfields.
But games in cities around the country? No. There is nothing official, no announcement, probably not one until MLB finalizes its plan, but the difficulty in wrangling it, and where it stands on the priority list, simply doesn’t compute.
What are the minor leagues going to look like going forward?
All of this, by the way, is taking place against the backdrop of Minor League Baseball’s disastrous power play in which it planned to fight MLB’s attempts to cut upward of 40 teams from the minor leagues. With the backing of big-name politicians and social-media circles, the strategy actually looked relatively canny. Then the coronavirus hit.
Momentum dissipated. Minor league franchise owners, fearful their businesses could collapse, started looking out for themselves. Now, as MLB looks to consolidate the minor leagues and take a larger role in how they’re run, the cutting of teams is inevitable. Owners are politicking to stay in particular leagues. They see MLB as their lifeline. And MLB, in turn, can prove it wasn’t being disingenuous and hold the remaining organizations accountable by ensuring they have the representative facilities and paying minor league players more.
Speaking of things that are a total mess: How about Boston getting docked a second-round pick and losing its video guy for cheating during its World Series-winning 2018 season?
Jeff Passan breaks down MLB’s punishments for the Red Sox for stealing signs in 2018.
Are the Red Sox innocent?
No. Of course not. They cheated! It says so right in Manfred’s report. They used technology to help steal signs. That is explicitly against the rules. Breaking the rules is cheating. This isn’t difficult.
What is hard, it seems, is differentiating levels of cheating. What the Red Sox did was wrong. It is also the sort of thing, players believe, that was relatively common among teams in 2018. Which does not in any way absolve the Red Sox. They did it. They got caught. They deserve punishment.
And that punishment was … the loss of a second-round draft pick and their replay coordinator, J.T. Watkins. One can argue the punishment fit the crime — that the video picking Boston did was essentially jaywalking. That, of course, ignores that the Red Sox were patient zero of electronic sign stealing with the illicit use of an Apple Watch in 2017. Or that a year before that they ran afoul of international signing rules, too.
Even if Red Sox executives, as Manfred wrote, endeavored to stay on the straight and narrow, they still are responsible for the entirety of what happened in the same way Houston’s owner, Jim Crane, and ex-manager AJ Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow are to their organization.
What Houston did was undoubtedly worse than Boston. The Astros fed pitch types to hitters at the plate. The Red Sox fed sign sequences to runners on second base. Again: One’s felonious, the other a misdemeanor. And yet a second-round pick and targeting nobody but the low man on the totem pole? If MLB wanted to disincentivize teams from using technology to steal, hitting the organization harder — even with then-GM Dave Dombrowski and then-manager Alex Cora gone — to send a message would at the very least have made up a little for the league not pursuing discipline against the players who participated in all of the schemes.
“I don’t want to cheat,” one executive said, “but it almost feels like it’s worth it now.”
How does losing a draft pick affect the Red Sox?
Actually, that’s a question made much more interesting because the MLB-MLBPA agreement allowed the league to shorten the draft to as few as five rounds. That makes each pick incredibly valuable, especially for a team like the Red Sox that has a bad farm system. The 52nd pick, which they lost, carried a $1.4 million slot value, too, which is money the Red Sox won’t be able to spend as they try to retool under new chief baseball office Chaim Bloom.
Opportunity isn’t entirely lost. MLB teams get to sign undrafted players for $20,000 this year — a ridiculously low sum — and the Sox have a very good sales pitch: plenty of opportunity to excel in a historic, successful, big-market organization.
So while it hurts, it may not hurt Boston as much as it might others.
Can you wrap this up?
Fine. But with some things to keep an eye on.
1. Most teams have done right by paying their employees for May, but officials are concerned that cash-poor teams could start eliminating jobs and give cover to the rest of the league’s worst impulses. “The last thing our game needs,” one official said, “is one weak owner that everyone can follow to the dark side.”
2. How will teams handle the stats-vs.-scouts balance when play returns? Will teams insist on scouting presence at games? Scout-heavy organizations will lobby for that. Teams that jettisoned most of their scouting presence before coronavirus believe the shift is coming.
3. If the season goes through November, what does that do for the free-agency calendar? Or spring training? Does the Rule 5 draft still happen at the winter meetings?
4. If the hub system includes a number of stadiums without robust in-house technology, is instant replay not happening in 2020? What about Statcast? And video clips getting cut and distributed to video coordinators? Speaking of video, would any 2020 setup restrict players from watching video during the game, as MLB was about to do before coronavirus hit?
5. One more thing to remember as MLB and the MLBPA look headed toward a fight about money during a global pandemic. The draft could see an 87.5% decline in players selected. The elimination of 40 teams could result in 1,000 baseball players being out of jobs. For as much as some owners believe the draft is a money pit (it decidedly isn’t) and for as rational as some of the reasons to cut those teams may be, fewer people playing baseball is never, ever a good thing.