Musings: Coronavirus and Baseball

I miss baseball. I miss baseball so much that on Friday, when watching a Mets Classics broadcast on SNY, I actually got angry at a lineup that was put out ten years ago by Jerry Manuel. I think my ire was justified—Jose Reyes was hitting third behind Angel Pagan and Luis Castillo, and David Wright was hitting fifth behind Jason Bay—but this is what it’s come to (click here if you want to see the box score). Complaining about decade-old lineups. Baseball can’t come back soon enough.

The whole sitting-around-and-doing-nothing thing has gotten me thinking about a handful of things related to baseball and the coronavirus, though. I’m going to run through some thoughts and discussions I’ve had over the past few weeks and if you disagree with any of it, my Twitter handle is @metsfanmax. Please let me know if you think I’m dead wrong—I’d love nothing more than to talk baseball with you right now.

We Need More Guys Like Pete Alonso

Just want to get this out of the way quickly: Pete Alonso has done an excellent job of interacting with fans and medical professionals. Here’s what he tweeted yesterday morning:

This is in addition to tweeting at medical professionals thanking them for their service, recording personalized videos, and posting videos of himself getting struck out by his fiancée in MLB The Show. We need more guys like Pete. I am also biased because I am a Mets fan and I love him. But point stands. Also I don’t know if I mentioned this but I love him. Moving on.

The Shortened 2020 Season: Timeline, Sites, Rosters, Fans

Each new day during the pandemic seemingly brings forth a new proposal for how the 2020 season should be played. The current plan that appears to be floating around has the season beginning some time in early July with the regular season extending into October and playoffs in November. Both sides (the owners and MLBPA) want to play as close to 162 games as possible and are willing to play doubleheaders if it means playing more games.

The situation is unchartered territory for everyone involved but extending the playoffs deep into November presents some issues for the players, namely a shortened offseason. The owners are likely going to want to get as many games out of the season as possible because about 30% of revenue comes from gate receipts. Players are going to want as many games as possible too because that’s how they get paid. The fans want as many games as possible because baseball.

All of the above points to baseball in November. I don’t mean to sound like a party pooper but this clearly has negative repercussions for cold-weather teams—of course I would like to see a World Series and having a shorter offseason after what is going to amount to a near 8-month layoff by the time MLB begins this year is great, but isn’t it going to be strange to see the Mets and Yankees facing off in a World Series in Los Angeles? I kid about the Mets and Yankees, of course, but the point stands: any teams not from California are going to be at a disadvantage in terms of fan support. And those teams’ fans are going to miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime: attending a World Series.

On top of all this, there hasn’t been any indication that the Division Series and Championship Series will be played at neutral sites which could pose a problem for cold-weather pitchers. These issues all need to be addressed but a wait-and-see approach might be the best way to do that if possible.

As for the semantics of the schedule, if teams are going to play as many games as possible we’ll likely end up with around 100 games. What I’ve been throwing out to my friends is having an 82-game schedule where teams face each divisional opponent 13 times and each non-divisional opponent in their league in one series (2-4 games, depending on logistics). That would add up to 52 divisional games, 30 non-divisional games, and would give some added intrigue to the playoffs because there would be no interleague play during the regular season. If games started on July 4th and went until October 4th, teams could get more than one off day per week and the season would be done with enough time to complete the playoffs by the regularly-scheduled time.

It looks as though rosters will be expanded to 29-ish players for the first month of the season to accommodate the delayed start and what will likely be an abbreviated spring training. I can get behind that.

The final issue to address is whether games can be played without fans. I think the preference would be to have games played with people in the seats but if the worst case scenario has to come to fruition, I’ll take baseball games with no fans in the seats. At least it’s baseball. And maybe we’ll have more fun announcing antics like when the Orioles and White Sox faced off during the Baltimore Riots in 2015:

Balancing games played with end date is going to be the biggest struggle with the schedule and I’m interested to see what types of proposals come from the MLB and MLBPA in the coming days and weeks.

Compensating Minor Leaguers

Minor leaguers are criminally underpaid, so it’s good to see that MLB decided to give them a raise for the next eight weeks. Earlier this week, MLB agreed to pay each minor league $400 a week with health benefits. This comes out to about $21,000 a year, certainly not enough but better than a typical minor league salary. And that’s not even factoring in the health benefits. So a step in the right direction, to be sure.

I’m not going to get into salary arguments for minor leaguers, but acknowledging that the pandemic is going to have sweeping effects beyond salary is imperative. For starters, minor leaguers don’t have any guaranteed source of income after May 31st, which is when the $400 payments stop coming in. It’s also not a given that short season leagues even play this year which could mean more salary cuts for minor leaguers, but I’ll get into that later. Keep in mind that minor leaguers won’t get to file for unemployment regardless of what happens because they are under contract.

One of the better decisions by MLB and the MLBPA in the face of the pandemic, which I think is a very reasonable solution, is that players are going to get credit for the percentage of the season that they played. That means that guys like Dustin May, Jo Adell, Dylan Carlson, and Nate Pearson are going to get 93 days of service if they get called up on day 45 of a 90-day season since a normal season has 186 days. Prorating service time like this makes the most sense since players are much more hurt by the suspension of play than owners are in the long run; owners can own the teams until they sell the team or pass it on but players are losing a season of their already time-constrained careers. And more service time for players means they will get to free agency sooner, which is when the money comes in.

The MLB Draft and Short Season Baseball

Amateurs tend to get the worst end of any collectively bargained agreement by the MLBPA and MLB. It only makes sense that this is the case; amateurs don’t have a seat at the bargaining table and if the MLBPA needs MLB to make concessions, the easiest way is to give some amateur benefits away. The current situation is no different. Here are the most notable draft changes:

  • The draft was shortened to five rounds but Commissioner Manfred has the option to increase the number of rounds at his discretion.
  • Undrafted players can sign for no more than $20K.
  • Players’ signing bonuses will be partially deferred which is a negative for the players and positive for the owners simply due to the time value of money. They will receive 10% of their bonus up front and then 45% in two installments over the next two years.

I actually don’t have a problem with shortening the draft, forty rounds is far too many, but five is too few. My hope is that Commissioner Manfred extends the draft to somewhere around 10 rounds but that seems unlikely at this point.

Undrafted players are extremely hurt by this deal. Typically, undrafted players sign for close to nothing but given that there will still be a lot of players who would have normally signed for six figures available after the five-round draft concludes, the bonus cap greatly decreases the odds that college amateurs will sign as undrafted free agents.

A smaller draft class means fewer new players in each organization which may mean no short season baseball in 2020. If big league baseball doesn’t get started until the beginning of July, I wouldn’t expect short season baseball to start until somewhere around the same time. Of course, it’s possible that short season teams just start around the same time and play a regular schedule but in order to play games you need a team. A shortened draft and bonus caps are going to make that incredibly difficult.

Just as an example, take the Brooklyn Cyclones from last season. Of the 26 players who had a plate appearance for Brooklyn in 2019 (that weren’t on rehab assignment), 10 were drafted in 2020. Of 30 pitchers threw at least one pitch and weren’t on rehab, 14 of them were drafted in 2020 or UDFAs. That means that 2019 signees made up about 40% of Brooklyn players last year and Brooklyn is just one of three Mets short season clubs. Shortening the draft and making signing as a free agent less financially attractive are going to make it difficult for MLB clubs to fill out short season rosters.

Amateurs: College Baseball, Summer Ball, High Schoolers

College baseball was cancelled, which sucks. The College World Series is one of the best baseball events of the year, period. The good news is that the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to spring athletes. The bad news is that it doesn’t help smaller schools or athletes as much as people probably think it does. The Ivy League refused to grant graduate student eligibility for current seniors, so that’s out as an option for current Ivy Leaguers. Some students can’t afford to take a fifth year or go to graduate school and seniors that play at expensive Division III like the NESCAC schools and NYU are going to have to pay tens of thousands of dollars for one more year. The additional year of eligibility helps kids whose parents can afford to pay for another year of school and kids who are on scholarship but doesn’t really aid smaller Division I schools that might not be able to afford to give out more scholarship money or students who simply can’t afford to pay for another season. And on top of all of this, the extra year and relaxed financial rules don’t do anything for Division III schools that can’t give out athletic scholarships. This might be the most interesting baseball situation to watch as the pandemic continues to unfold.

If MLB doesn’t get under way until the beginning of July, it seems unrealistic to expect any amateur summer baseball to be played. This presents a problem with scouting for the draft: we’re going to have four weekends of 2019 games for college players and zero summer baseball. The Cape Cod League has indicated that it plans to go forward with its season as planned, but I think that’s just about as likely as waking up tomorrow and seeing that the virus has magically disappeared. Summer amateur ball is nothing more than wishful thinking at this point.

The draft agreement may hurt high schoolers the most. Teams are probably less likely to take a gamble with one of five picks on a high school player who hasn’t played in 2020. Teams are going to be going off junior numbers and projections for high school guys, that’s it. Pop-up prospects and helium guys will cease to exist for the 2020 draft. In 2019, Keoni Cavaco, a high school senior, entered the spring ranked outside of the top 200 prospects and was drafted 13th by the Twins. High school senior Josh Wolf’s fastball started approaching triple digits and that was enough for the Mets to make him their second round selection. You can kiss those storylines goodbye for this year.

The fact that seniors in high school won’t be able to perform their magnum opus makes it more likely that we’re going to see some high school seniors opt for junior colleges. It also means that the college ranks are going to get much more competitive in 2021; fewer day-two high school picks means more college commits actually go to college. This is also a negative for high schoolers because it increases the chances that prospects get injured before a big payday. I can’t say I’m surprised that amateurs ended up with the short end of the stick but it’s an unfortunate reality that seems to present itself nearly every time MLB and the MLBPA negotiate some sort of agreement.

Houston Astros: Jeff Luhnow, A.J. Hinch

Last but certainly not least, I want to talk about our favorite cheaters. MLB sources have indicated that if the 2020 season is cancelled altogether, Luhnow and Hinch would be able to return for the 2021 season. Technically, it makes sense since Luhnow and Hinch’s suspensions end after the 2020 postseason, not 162 regular season games. That doesn’t change the fact that everyone, barring Astros fans who do mental gymnastics to justify the cheating, wants these two suspended for a season. Does it seem fair that they don’t have to sit out a singular regular season contest because of a pandemic? It doesn’t to me. I know that MLB is supposed to follow the letter of the law it has created, but if the league can make exceptions in other areas, it can certainly make exceptions here. Lifting the suspensions if the 2020 season is cancelled wouldn’t mean Luhnow and Hinch will be able to find work in baseball, but it would certainly draw heaps of criticism from fans.

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Follow Max on Twitter: @metsfanmax

Header Image: Gail Burton—AP

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