Unanswered Questions Hanging over MLB Amid Unprecedented Uncertainty

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 17, 2020

Unanswered Questions Hanging over MLB Amid Unprecedented Uncertainty

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    As in all other walks of life, the coronavirus outbreak has cast a cloud of uncertainty over Major League Baseball.
    As in all other walks of life, the coronavirus outbreak has cast a cloud of uncertainty over Major League Baseball.Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    The 2020 Major League Baseball season will not start on time. Beyond that, everything about the league's immediate future in the face of the coronavirus outbreak is unresolved.

    All anyone can do is ask questions, of which there are about a million pertaining to baseball alone.

    Rather than address each and every last one of them, we sought to boil everything down to just seven. These deal with when the 2020 season might begin and how long it will last as well as the many financial implications of baseball's ongoing suspension of operations.

    Let's take 'em one at a time.

What's the Earliest the 2020 Season Could Start?

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    Not April 9, according to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred.
    Not April 9, according to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred.John Raoux/Associated Press

    In response to mounting pressure, MLB announced Thursday that it would cancel the remainder of spring training and delay the start of the 2020 season by at least two weeks.

    However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention essentially nixed that idea Sunday, as it recommended all gatherings of 50 or more people within the next eight weeks be canceled or postponed. Accordingly, MLB announced Monday it will follow that guideline.

    Opening Day was originally set for March 26. If MLB follows the CDC's recommendation to the letter, then May 10 will be the earliest possible date for Opening Day.

    Yet the league surely won't go straight from zero operations to playing regular-season games in front of thousands of people. Spring training would have to be resumed in some capacity, which would require another delay.

    As such, the earliest scenario for Opening Day might be Memorial Day, which falls on May 25. But June may be a more likely target, and Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported several general managers are expecting a delay that lasts into July.

Will There Be a 162-Game Schedule?

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    Short answer: Probably not.
    Short answer: Probably not.Associated Press

    Somewhat surprisingly, MLB and the MLB Players Association apparently haven't yet had earnest discussions about the possibility of shortening the season.

    "I think the commitment of the clubs is to play as many baseball games in 2020 as we can, consistent with the safety of our players and our fans," Commissioner Rob Manfred said Monday, according to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

    But with the way things are shaping up, a 162-game season seems at best far-fetched.

    Per FanGraphs' Craig Edwards, MLB is looking at a minimum of 48 games being lopped off each team's schedule. The league can recoup some of those by extending the season into October—but not all of them. Maybe the difference could be made up with scheduled double-headers, but that would be a big ask of the players.

    It's more likely that MLB will shorten its season, as it did in response to World War I in 1918 and work stoppages in 1972, 1981 and 1994-95.

What Will Happen to Key Dates on the Baseball Calendar?

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    For instance, the MLB draft.
    For instance, the MLB draft.Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Apropos of the previous slide, the 1995 season is the most relevant precedent for MLB's current predicament.

    Granted, a work stoppage and a global pandemic are two very different things. But because of the 1994-95 strike, the '95 season was shortened to just 144 games and started April 25.

    Given the circumstances, it's difficult to imagine 2020 will be a carbon copy of 1995, wherein the draft (June), All-Star Game (July 11), trade deadline (July 31) and postseason (Oct. 3-28) all remained in their typical time slots.

    According to Keith Law of The Athletic, there are advocates within baseball for moving the draft—which has further been thrown into disarray by the cancellation of high school and college baseball seasons—back and those for moving it forward.

    If the season doesn't begin until late May or even July, it would make sense to delay the All-Star Game (slated for July 14) and the trade deadline. The postseason might still be contained within October, but any attempts on MLB's part to lengthen the regular season could necessitate playoff games in November.

How Will the Delay Impact Competition?

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    Aaron Judge and the New York Yankees could benefit.
    Aaron Judge and the New York Yankees could benefit.Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    If there's a benefit to the delayed start of the season (other than containing the spread of COVID-19), it is that some teams won't have to worry about playing games without key players who are recovering from injuries.

    Take the New York Yankees, for example. They had been looking at opening the season with sluggers Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton and ace James Paxton on the injured list. That was welcome news for their competition in the American League East.

    Because of the delay, however, the Yankees should have all three for a "full" season. Likewise, the Cleveland Indians (Carlos Carrasco and Mike Clevinger) and Houston Astros (Justin Verlander) can see similarly silver linings.

    Assuming the season is shortened, players figure to be in generally better condition to compete in August and September than they are amid the grind of a typical 162-game season. That might allow for more compelling finishes to various postseason races.

    Just don't expect any records to fall. To wit, no new marks for 100-game winners and losers or for home runs by a team.

What's the Latest on Pay for Players and Stadium Workers?

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    A lot of people are missing out on paychecks.
    A lot of people are missing out on paychecks.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Most major leaguers wouldn't be dramatically affected by a work stoppage without pay.

    That's in part because they make $563,500 at minimum and $4.1 million on average. Per Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, the MLBPA is also offering as much as $1,100 per week for players on 40-man rosters and non-roster invitees who accrued at least one day of service in the majors in 2019.

    Minor leaguers are in a different boat. They're paid a pittance even under normal circumstances, and the league is only obligated to pay them during the regular season. Unless that changes, baseball's lifeblood is in for hard times in the coming weeks.

    TUESDAY AM UPDATE: According to Kyle Glaser of Baseball America, some teams are still paying minor leaguers the allowances and stipends they normally receive during spring training.

    As covered by The Athletic's Zach Buchanan, there are also many stadium employees whose livelihoods are now in limbo. To his credit, Trevor Bauer has set up a GoFundMe with the goal of raising $1 million for Cincinnati Reds game-day staff. Otherwise, only the Detroit Tigers have been proactive in clearing funds for stadium workers.

    Tuesday PM Update: According to Jeff Passan of ESPN, each of MLB's 30 teams is committing $1 million to stadium employees impacted by the delay.

How Quickly Will Fans Come Back?

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    Disposable income could be a luxury for a while.
    Disposable income could be a luxury for a while.Ralph Freso/Getty Images

    To be sure, MLB will take a substantial financial hit from its extended postponement. And even after it's over, the hits may still keep coming.

    This is, after all, a shutdown that has reached just about every corner of society, from big events to Las Vegas casinos to bars and restaurants and schools. Though these measures should contain the spread of the coronavirus and save lives, dire economic consequences are inevitable.

    So, when baseball does reopen its doors, how many fans will be there with cash in hand?

    Attendance was in decline even before the coronavirus crisis. Because said crisis is bound to cause a shortage of disposable income, MLB might have to lower ticket prices—which have been part of the problem in recent years—to get butts back in seats.

    Suffice it to say, an abbreviated season with discounted seats wouldn't be good for the league's short-term bottom line.

What Will Happen After 2020?

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    Baseball could be in for a complicated recovery process.
    Baseball could be in for a complicated recovery process.Mark Brown/Getty Images

    There is, of course, no question MLB made the right call in prioritizing public health over its business interests.

    Sooner or later, however, those business interests will come rushing back to the forefront.

    If not this year, the league might try to recoup its losses by reaching deeper into fans' wallets (i.e., through pricier tickets) in 2021 and beyond. Or it could try for a less blatantly callous alternative, such as cutting costs on labor.

    That could involve mass penny-pinching on the 2020-21 free-agent market, a la what happened in the 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19 offseasons. Come the 2021-22 offseason, the league could determine to make zero concessions in negotiations—which are already pre-wrapped with tension—over the next collective bargaining agreement.

    In an ideal world, MLB would simply take an "L" on its finances for 2020, and that would be that. But rather than that fairy-tale scenario, it is fair to expect that this $10.7 billion business will do what it must to get the money flowing again.

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