COVID-19 has MLB at a standstill

by Dan M | Posted on Friday, March 20th, 2020

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     DALLAS, Texas – The landscape of baseball is changing as fast as our government on how to deal with the Coronavirus effect.  When MLB suspended spring training last week, they announced the start of the regular season would be pushed back two weeks.  Even at the time, we all knew two weeks was a hoped for date.  

     Over the weekend, the CDC issued a statement urging no gatherings of more than 50 people for 60 days.  MLB announced on Monday the start of the season will not occur before May 10 in deference to the CDC statement.  This date is another hope.  

    Once the coast is clear for baseball activities, the teams will need to resume spring training for at least three weeks before starting the season.  A start in June or perhaps even July is more realistic.  It’s even possible that there will be no season.

    One immediate question was what does the shutdown mean?  There was one school of thought to keep the Major League teams intact at the spring training facilities.   Super-agent Scott Boras strongly endorsed this idea.  He noted that the players would have access to workout equipment and facilities, and they would have access to quality medical treatments and nutrition.  The Rangers were one team that voted to stay together.

    Another school of thought was that if they stayed together and one player contracted the virus, the entire team would need to be quarantined.  The initial edict was to end baseball activities.  Ultimately, MLB came down with a directive to send the players home.  They would not be allowed to stay at the spring training facility even if they wanted to.  There were a few limited exceptions such as minor league players from foreign countries.  

     Jon Daniels said this week that the Rangers have worked out a contact schedule with the players communicating with the team at least three times each week.  They are staying in touch about their workout routines.  These vary from player to player.  Obviously, workout facilities like gyms are difficult to access. Some Rangers have worked out at the team’s West Dallas Youth Academy.  The facility gets cleaned daily.  The new Globe Life Field is not ready for workouts yet, but should be soon.

    The Rangers, like a lot of teams, have a handful of players remaining at the spring training facility in Surprise, Arizona.  Daniels said about three-fourths of them are Venezuelan minor leaguers, and they literally have no place to go. 

    If the 2020 season does play in some form, there are still many questions.  How many games will be on the schedule?  Will they add on to the season after September to make up some of the missed games?  Will they pick up the schedule at the date games resume?  Will they throw out the current schedule altogether and make a new one of 100 games or so?  There are no answers yet, and there won’t be until the number of Coronavirus cases peaks.

    One of the other problems is of course money.  Players want to be paid.  Owners don’t have games to be televised and to sell tickets to generate the income to pay those salaries.  The players union and MLB are negotiating on this subject.  But there are other issues between the players’ union and management.  A big one is service time.  If for instance, the season is shortened to 100 games, will players receive service time for an entire season or just the number of games they were on the roster?  There’s a lot of money at stake here.  Players on track to be free agents after this season may not qualify if a full season of games isn’t credited. 

    A similar question arises in regard to arbitration.  Players are usually paid the minimum salary of close to $600,000 when they arrive in the Majors.  Very few players see a salary of more than $1,000,000 until they become arbitration eligible after three years of service time.  If the season is shortened, players that would otherwise be eligible for arbitration after this season may not have the service time required to be arbitration eligible.

    A further arbitration problem arises in the process itself.  In cases that actually go to a hearing, the players’ representatives make their case for the salary requested based on the player’s statistics.  They make the salary demands based upon the salaries of players with comparable statistics.  Next year when the arbitration hearings are held, a player that was active all season in 2020 which was only 100-130 games will not have comparable statistics to comparable players that accumulated their stats on a 162 game schedule. 

    Another question is vesting options.  Many players have vesting options in their contracts.  If a hitter bats so many times, or if a pitcher throws a specified number of innings for example; a team option for 2021 becomes vested and the player is guaranteed the money for the ensuing year.  These targets are usually set on a reasonable expectation for the player if he is healthy and all goes well.  However, if the season is shortened to 130 games or less, the player may not have a reasonable opportunity to reach the target levels.

    A similar problem arises in regard to performance bonuses.  Players often have contract incentives that can be earned.  Again, if the season is materially shortened, will they have the opportunity to reach those targets even if they perform far better than expected?   

    Another question is the amateur draft scheduled for June 10-12.  With most high school and college programs shut down for the spring semester, there are no scouting opportunities available to prepare for the draft.  MLB went so far as to prohibit all scouting of amateur players including the foreign players that can be drafted in July.  One reason for the prohibition is to keep the playing field level.  MLB doesn’t want any teams getting a scouting advantage because of the Coronavirus crisis.  Another reason is for the scouts themselves.  Do they really need to be travelling around the country increasing their exposure to contracting the disease?

    One idea is to drop the draft altogether this year.  That presents huge problems for this year’s seniors both in college and high school.  High schoolers that go to major colleges are committed for three years.  Is it fair to the top prospects that would command be drafted in the early rounds and receive signing bonuses that would be life changing money to have that opportunity taken away?  Would MLB create a special waiver to the rule to allow them to be drafted after one year of college if this year’s draft is scrapped?

   There is the thought that if play resumes, the team rosters could be expanded for a period of time at the start of the season.  This will allow teams to carry extra pitchers as their starting pitchers stretch out to 100 pitches or more.  This might shorten the time frame of a resumed spring training and get the season started earlier. There is precedent for doing this.  In 1995, the players’ strike that ended the 1994 season lasted long enough to delay the start of the 1995 season.  The rosters were enlarged for the early part of the season.  

    No one really knows where this Coronavirus situation is going and how long it will last before life can get back to normal.  Until that time frame is in sight, there will remain many questions and few answers.  In the landscape of life though, there are things much more important than baseball.  Dealing with the health crisis is far more important and timely than speculating on when the 2020 baseball season begins.   

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