In September, Commissioner Rob Manfred told the Washington Post that MLB expected operating losses of $ 3 billion in 2020. This is the result of a regular season that was shortened to 60 games and played entirely without fans present. In the past few days it has become clear that the teams want to pass these losses on to the players if they haven’t already.
About 12 hours after the last pitch of the 2020 World Series, which was played in a neutral location for the first time in history in front of a crowd limited to around a quarter, the MLB Players Association released its list of 147 free agents. Neither of them would certainly have chosen to get to this career benchmark in the middle of a global pandemic.
By the end of last week, their ranks had grown by another two dozen when teams turned down options for players with long-term deals, including Adam Eaton, Howie Kendrick, Aníbal Sánchez and Eric Thames of the Washington Nationals. Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Charlie Morton, who went 3-1 that postseason with 2.70 ERA; and Kolten Wong, the second baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals to receive his second consecutive Gold Glove Award when the 2020 winners are announced Tuesday.
“Revenue is going down, so it will most likely be [that] Payroll will go down, ”Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak told reporters after the Wong News. “… If you go from 3.3 or 3.4 million fans in your stadium to zero, that’s a great success.”
By December 2, the list of available freelance agents will have grown even larger if teams have – or not – the deadline to post contracts to referee-eligible players on their rosters. The sport is already preparing for an influx of non-tenders that will only lead to an inundation of the pool of free agents, with the inevitable effect of depressing salaries for everyone.
Even under the best of circumstances, this free agent market would have been a step backwards from the big money rush a year ago when three superstars – pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole and third baseman Anthony Rendon, the latter two both signed 29 deals with a freelance agency – 23 years total landed $ 814 million.
This off-season, the best free agents – pitcher Trevor Bauer, outfielder George Springer and Marcell Ozuna, and catcher JT Realmuto – will be at least 30 next year. (The potential headliner of this market, 28-year-old right-back Mookie Betts, stepped off the board in July when the Los Angeles Dodgers signed him for a 12-year extension of $ 365 million.)
Given the way the industry is still paying for premium talent even in a downturn, some could still close nine-digit deals. It is the next level of free agents and the next below that who could really feel the effects of the belt tightening as the game progressed.
The best hope for these free agents is that a handful (or more) of teams – perhaps the New York Mets – will be under new owner Steve Cohen; or midsize teams that made significant advances in 2020, such as the San Diego Padres, Toronto Blue Jays, and Chicago White Sox, see the market downturn as a competitive opportunity to add new parts for 2021.
But no one has any clarity about what this season might look like, including the possibility of fans in the stands given the undetectable evolution of the coronavirus and the status of a potential vaccine. There’s a schedule for 162 games with an opening day on April 1, but the sport will likely be delivered to individual states and municipalities – and in the case of the Blue Jays, the Canadian government – as it was in 2020.
At the same time, the National League teams don’t know whether there will be a designated batsman in this league in 2021. This decision will have an impact on the markets for free agent players like Nelson Cruz and Edwin Encarnación. This is one of the few issues that needs to be negotiated with the union before next season. Another: the composition of the postseason, which is probably somewhere between the 10-team field of previous years and the 16-team field of 2020.
However, these negotiations will take place against the backdrop of deteriorating relations between the league and the union, which have performed poorly for several years and were made worse by controversial talks in April, May and June about the shape of the 2020 season. Later this postseason, the union is expected to file a complaint alleging MLB has not made good faith efforts to play as many games as possible in 2020, as envisaged in the agreement the sides signed in March to have.
Baseball’s long-term economic health appears to be strong, as evidenced by the sale of the Mets to Cohen for $ 2.4 billion and a new $ 3.75 billion television deal with Turner Sports. However, the near-term outlook is poor and deteriorating, affecting not just player markets but entire organizations. A majority of the teams have initiated at least one round of layoffs and / or vacation in their front offices as well as in the areas of personnel development and scouting.
“They have certain operating costs that just don’t go away,” said Mozeliak. “… Of course we are trying to find out how we can best forecast sales for the next year.”
It would be nice to think that once the country is out of the coronavirus crisis, baseball will be fine. In the distance, however, the end of the sport’s current employment contract is looming in December 2021. In normal times, this would be the off-season to start negotiating a new one, but the immediate crisis makes it hard to imagine. Every week and month ticked off the calendar increases the likelihood of a work stoppage before 2022.
Baseball had an ugly public dispute in 2020, a 63 percent cut season, a few major coronavirus outbreaks near the end of the season, and zero regular season attendance.
But over the coming months it may be possible to look back and see 2020 as the good old days.