When MLB, union would need deal to start 2022 season on time
I’ve been pretty pessimistic about spring training, and maybe regular season, starting on time. This has been my instinct since the start of the lockdown, although people in the know insisted there was plenty of time to get a deal done and no game would be lost because both sides acknowledged at how destructive that would be. Translation: Both parties would start losing money.
My sadness, however, is based on the last time MLB and the players had to make a deal to return to play. This was in 2020 amid the first wave of COVID-19 and after the sport shut down in March.
The parties have never had more reason to work together. They had a common enemy – a virus that was sweeping the planet – to bond and fight. They had the ability to return to the field before any other sport, which promised a strong following with everyone trapped at home. But there would also have been praise for showing the country that – with protocols – there were ways to get back to work. They could have done it in time to start the regular season on July 4 weekend, which would have allowed the American pastime to wrap itself in the flag.
But the mistrust and aversion were too thick despite all the motivation to find common ground (and a common good for the game). The 4th of July was missed and a deal only came when the alternative was to play no seasons at all in 2020. So forgive me if I don’t see the kumbaya moment popping up anytime soon. MLB made a contract offer on Thursday that the players found disappointing.
An optimist would say that neither side is really going to show their best offers until a deadline, and there will be a lot of rhetoric until then. But a deadline is in the eye of the beholder (I think Casey Stengel said it first). Spring training camps are scheduled to open on February 16, the first spring games on February 26 and the regular season opener on March 31.
One thing management and players agree on is that the rushed 23-day Spring Training II in July 2020 was too short, especially to prepare the pitching arms. So let’s say March 1 – which would allow for a month of spring training – otherwise the date camps have to open, that’s pretty close. But it’s not like the parties can agree on Feb. 28 and everyone shows up the next day. It will take at least a week. That’s roughly February 22 as the date a settlement would be needed to at least keep the regular season opener on its scheduled date and play a full 162 games.
Now think about what the industry will face even after a settlement. Every organization has worked during the lockdown to eliminate issues that can be fixed. So, for example, all layoffs and hires of staff across the system, focusing on last Saturday’s international signing date, devoting more resources to project preparation, and working on analytical and scientific projects that need to be filed while so much else is going on.
However, when the lockdown ends – and it will end at some point because not everyone involved in the game will be going into selling plumbing supplies – think about what will happen simultaneously in a condensed period. By themselves, none of these are overwhelming. But there will be a Running of the Bulls-like frenzy on several fronts:
1. Remember how NFL and NBA free agency looked like MLB free agency in the days leading up to the Dec. 2 lockdown, as players and teams tried to meet a deadline ? Expect Part 2. There are still over 300 free agents. If the traditional numbers hold, you can expect another 60 major league contracts and around 125 minor league contracts.
Historically, with the cost certainty that comes with a new collective agreement, landlords tend to spend, and no one should be surprised if there’s another $1 billion more granted as large market forces such as the Yankees, Dodgers, Phillies and Red Sox have done little so far this offseason, and others are expected to not be done spending yet — beware the Blue Jays.
Of course, the longer without a CBA, the less money can be spent. One agent speculated that MLB could just kick off in April when it’s struggling to sell tickets, accept the losses and then make up for those losses by simply spending less on the rest of the free agency.
Whenever he arrives, there will be a need for a lot of signings in a tight window. So you can imagine, for example, Freddie Freeman’s reps quickly asking the Braves to show their best offer, and if they don’t offer at least six (or more), Freeman actually pivots to consider clubs like the Yankees, Dodgers and Blue Jays. more seriously. We are still facing a period of several major signings per day.
2. There are still around 200 players eligible for arbitration. A date will need to be set when players will need to be signed or teams and players will exchange arbitration figures. During the last work stoppage, in 1995, hearings were held during the season. The internet wasn’t the internet back then. Now imagine that, say, Edwin Diaz has a teleconference hearing in the middle of the afternoon of May 7 in which the Mets knocked him down to plead their case, then asked him to close a game tonight- the. I suspect having the internet the way it is now will make this even more uncomfortable.
3. Teams have been unable to communicate with their players who are recovering from injuries. So when an agreement is reached, each organization will have to catch up on where each rehabber is in the process. Imagine, for example, that the Braves were unable to monitor, supervise and verify Ronald Acuna Jr.’s rehabilitation after surgery to repair a torn ACL. As one agent told me, executives have become big fans of social media practice clips of their rehab players in order to get a sense of what rehab centers are like.
4. Spring training is traditionally when teams try to find overtime with players who haven’t yet reached refereeing or free agency. Could this be minimized in the frenzy of the other job and maybe a shorter version of spring training?
5. The parties have yet to decide whether there will be draft Rule 5 this year (it normally takes place at winter meetings, which have been canceled due to the lockdown).
6. Foreign players must obtain visas. The organizations had a strong hint that a lockout was coming and as a result most (if not all) did the work in November to file petitions – and many players who had a choice stayed in the US to avoid problems. However, those outside the United States will need to attend their consular appointments to obtain visas. COVID-19 makes the process longer and more complicated, with different countries having different rules. Expect logistical headaches and probably a few late players.
Additionally, MLB will still need to know what will be allowed in Canada for Blue Jays games this year.
7. Finally, there’s the COVID-19 of it all. Teams have become more adept at setting up what is needed and familiarizing players with the following protocols. Still, it takes time to set up and for all the admission protocols needed to join the camp. It’s likely that there will be players who have COVID-19, who will need to self-quarantine, which will further limit their spring training and complicate overall preparation. And what if a few teams endure what we’ve seen in the NFL, NBA, and NHL, with multiple club players getting it at the same time? Especially if spring training is cut short, it will create difficulties in properly preparing for a season.