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COVID-19 May Bring Permanent Change to the MLB

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

With the current pandemic suspending all sports for the foreseeable future, there have been plenty of ideas thrown around about when and how to start playing baseball this year. The problems that have been caused by COVID-19 have allowed the MLB to consider ideas that could change the league for more than just this season.

There have long been complaints that the season is too long and that it starts too early in the year, even Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said as much in 2018. One reason for these complaints is that there have been a large amount of games postponed due to bad weather in April. Additionally, there have been a large amount of games that do not get postponed, but do not attract fans simply because fans do not want to watch a game for three or four hours in cold weather and rain. These bad weather conditions cause ticket sales to be at their lowest point in the beginning of the season. In order to prevent this from happening there have been proposals over the years to shorten the season or start it later. However, it did not seem likely that these changes would be made anytime soon. COVID-19 changes things, however, as it provides the MLB with an opportunity to see what a shortened season that begins later in the year would look like. Obviously this is an extreme case, but if the season is successful this season it would not be surprising to see the league make these changes on a permanent basis.

It currently appears that the regular season will consist of just 100 games. Obviously, this is not a long term solution. However, the MLB could shorten the season by 10-15 games and allow it to begin later in the year. This could mean that a few doubleheaders would be played at some point during the season, depending on how late the MLB wants to start. This would allow the weather in colder areas such as Baltimore and Minnesota and Detroit to improve before baseball is played, thus generating more fan interest in the earlier games of the season. This seems like a proposal that the MLB has been considering for a few years, and the coronavirus now gives them a chance to see what a shorter season would look like. If the doubleheaders prove to be successful and the season runs smoothly, then a 162-game season might be a thing of the past.

If the season is shortened, then every team will have home games removed from their schedule and this means less money for the owners of the teams. In order to make up for this loss of gameday revenue, the league could consider expanding the playoffs. This is also a change that is likely to occur this season due to the pandemic. Because there is so much excitement around the playoffs, the postseason generates a lot of revenue for the teams that are able to participate. Therefore, it seems likely that the MLB will make this a permanent change if it gets tested out this season. Obviously, a larger postseason will take more time, so the league would need to figure out how to prevent the playoffs from running too late into the year. If the season starts later, it is unlikely that it would end earlier, so the problem that is created for the playoffs, is what happens if a team like the Yankees or the Red Sox has home field advantage in the middle of November. This seems like something that the league would want to avoid, and one possible solution could be playing games a neutral site, warm weather location. However, home field advantage is an important thing for teams to have, so it does not seem likely that teams would agree to give that up. This season could provide a test run for this problem and it will be interesting to see what the league does. If the expanded postseason works well this season, then the league could be looking at making another permanent change.

Additionally, due to financial difficulties brought on by the coronavirus, minor league baseball seems more willing to eliminate some of its teams. This was an idea floated by the MLB earlier in the year during its negotiations with the MiLB. While it seemed crazy at first, there is now a legitimate chance that the MiLB is willing to go along with the idea. Minor league baseball provides a fun baseball experience for those in smaller cities, so this definitely affects the baseball fanbase. However, by eliminating around 40 minor league teams, there will be less players in an organization, thus allowing the other minor league players to receive better pay. Poor minor league pay is one of the more well known problems around the league. Some people believe that the poor pay is caused by the owners being stingy, and this could be the case. However, this proposal would provide a clear source of improved income for each minor league player. While nobody wants to lose minor league teams, it seems possible that about 40 of them may soon be on the chopping block.

If this happens, then an obvious result is that there will not be as many players in an organization. This means that the draft must be shortened. It is currently 40 rounds, but this is too long if teams are going to be losing one to two teams from their organizations. This is an idea that can be tested this season, however, as the draft is likely to consist of just 5-10 rounds this season due to financial problems caused by COVID-19. Obviously, this is an extreme case, as the draft would never be shortened by this much. If it is successful this season, however, then the draft could be permanently shortened by 10-20 rounds. Then, if any teams needed more young players, there could be an increased level of activity in signing undrafted free agents. Anybody familiar with the NFL draft knows that the moment it ends, teams are on the phone trying to sign players that did not get drafted. Some teams even sign as many as 15 players this way. If the draft is cut in half, then undrafted free agents could rise in prominence and the league could allow teams to fill out their lower level minor league rosters with them, instead of having a longer draft.

The pandemic situation in the United States has already had a large impact on the sporting world this season. However, its impact could spread into future season as well if the MLB decides to make permanent changes based on ideas that were tested this season. All of these options are likely on the table for the league, so in future seasons, the league could look a lot more different than it does now.