Opening Day came and passed with no baseball.
I missed it and I’m sure I was not the only one. Opening Day is a holiday for me that ranks just slightly below my anniversary and my children’s birthdays; roughly equivalent to Christmas and Easter.
Even though the players were not competing on the field, they were working. The Major League Baseball Player’s Association, led by Tony Clark, spent the day closeted in intense negotiations with Rob Manfred and MLB on the fine points of an agreement for a delayed baseball season.
Both sides made what they view as significant sacrifices to broker a deal quickly and with as little discord as possible. ESPN’s Jeff Passan reports that both MLB and the Player’s Association did not want to be seen as bickering over billions of dollars and potential lawsuits in the middle of a global pandemic and economic collapse. The negotiations did not center so much on a potential start day as the details of salary payment, service time, free agency and player movement in light of a delayed or even canceled season.
MLB agreed to grant players a full season of service time regardless of the number of games played in the 2020 season, even if that number reaches zero. This is a significant concession on part of the owners.
Consider the case of Mookie Betts. Rumors persisted all winter that Betts, a pending free agent in 2021, was likely to be traded by the Red Sox, who were searching for salary relief. It was nearly spring training before a deal was finally consummated with the Dodgers, thanks to some assistance from the Minnesota Twins.
Here were the final details, according to CBS Sports:
- Dodgers get: Betts, Price, cash (all from Red Sox) and Brusdar Graterol, outfielder Luke Raley, 2020 Competitive Round B draft pick, (from Twins)
- Red Sox get: Alex Verdugo, Jeter Downs, Connor Wong (from Dodgers)
- Twins get: Kenta Maeda, catcher Jair Camargo, cash (from Dodgers)
The Dodgers gave up a significant package to acquire Bett’s services. Now, the Dodgers might only get to see Betts appear in a handful of Spring Training games. The agreement reached between MLB and MLBPA would allow Betts to enter free agency next season regardless of what happens with the current season. The same would apply to all other pending free agents.
Other issues of service time – from arbitration to pensions – would follow the same rules. 2020 will count as a full season for all players on the active roster.
This was a significant concession made by the owners in the players’ favor and yet, reports indicate that clubs were overwhelming supportive of it. Why? Wouldn’t the Dodgers be better off fighting for a hold on service time to retain Betts for another season? The answer is no and the reason is the same as it always is: money.
While the owners sacrificed player control, the players themselves agreed not to sue the owners for salaries that could go unpaid if games are canceled. Reports indicate that salaries will be prorated according to the final number of games played. MLB agreed to advance its players $170M over the next few months. This money will be counted against the players’ final salaries once games resume.
Essentially, this deal assures that MLB won’t go bankrupt having to pay billions in guaranteed contracts to players if the season is canceled in exchange for a full year of service time earned for the players with or without games.
Other aspects of the deal include a shortened major league draft. Passan reports that the deal gives Manfred the ability to cut the draft’s length to as few as 5 rounds and to move it from June to July. Team rosters will be locked down as soon as the deal is ratified, prohibiting trades, signings, and internal moves.
How will this affect the Cardinals? The club made several moves on Thursday, optioning Alex Reyes, Andrew Knizner, Genesis Cabrera and Junior Fernandez to AAA. That leaves the Cardinals with 28 players on their active roster – 2 more than the maximum allowed for the start of the season – and includes the injured Brett Cecil, Miles Mikolas and Andrew Miller. Those moves reveal the Cardinals’ intentions for what would have been Opening Day, with Cecil, Mikolas, and Miller likely hitting the IL.
It also positions the roster to limit service time for players who were not locks for Opening Day, such as Dylan Carlson and Cabrera. Austin Gomber is probably the 26th player in this scenario, which indicates the club’s intention for him to take on a bullpen role even without injuries to Cecil and Miller, with Cabrera starting in Memphis.
Pending free agents for the Cardinals include club stalwarts Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina, and role players Matt Wieters, Brad Miller and Brett Cecil. There was no indication at this time as to what will happen with player incentives and vesting options. Andrew Miller, for example, is 73 games into a 2021 option that will vest at 110 games combined in ’19 and ’20.
Passan also indicated that MLB would like to begin an abbreviated “spring training” in mid-May with games potentially beginning in June, with or without fans. The season would extend into October, include multiple double-headers, and would potentially conclude with neutral-site playoff games in November. (I am assuming that would even the playing field for cold weather franchises). A few sources have whispered of the possibility of a December World Series. At this point, those details are still speculative and will depend on how long social distancing restrictions continue due to the coronavirus.