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Getting Ready for a (Rumored) 48-Game Season

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Baseball is inching ever closer to the point of no return. A rumored 48-game season seems increasingly likely. What would that season look like?

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball is inching ever closer to the point of no return.

I wrote about this on Thursday, calling for the need for compromise and charting a path for an 82-game season with deferred money and creative revenue sources. A million things have happened since then.

First, the NBA reached a deal to resume their season, with 22 teams vying for playoff rounds that will stretch into October, right into prime MLB TV territory. Even MLS reached a deal to return to action, though the details of that plan have not yet been released.

For weeks baseball commentators (including myself) have talked up the possibility of MLB being the first sport back and capturing extra income by negotiating with networks to fill empty broadcasting space. You can kiss all that potential revenue goodbye. Baseball, if it returns (and that’s in question), would be among the last professional sports leagues to take the field and will likely have to do so with its current TV contracts.

Extra income will be limited to the expanded playoffs and that’s what all of this is about. It’s become increasingly apparent that MLB plans to enforce a short regular season – the most precise rumor is 48 games – in order to get to the playoff windfall as fast as possible.

Remember, players get bonuses for playing in the postseason. Their salary is based on the regular season. I really do think that the owners, if they could do it without violating labor agreements, would go straight to the playoffs without a regular season.

Why? Money. It’s always money. And the postseason is the largest remaining revenue source for baseball and it has the lowest expenses.

The players seem to recognize this threat. Earlier this week the owners formally rejected the player’s 114-game proposal with full prorated salaries and two seasons of expanded playoffs. While many (including myself) believed there were concessions for future negotiations evident in the preliminary proposals from each side, MLB has now gone in the opposite direction and refused to offer a counter to the players.

The Player’s Association then held a council meeting on Thursday and provided the following statement in response to the owner’s non-proposal:

So, there we have it. We’re exactly in the same place we were in April. Three months of salary given up by the players is not enough blood for the owners. They would rather sacrifice 70% of their baseball season than find creative ways to pay their employees or offer their products to fans.

Even the most optimistic voices – including Passan – have grown darker in just 24 hours. Since researching my article on Tuesday-Wednesday, the attitude by commentators has gone from “there’s so much money at stake, surely they’ll reach a deal!” to near-universal resignation that owners are going to have their way.

As the title says, get ready for a (rumored) 48-game season.

What would that look like?

Schedule

Keep in mind that MLB’s goal is to start the season and get to the playoffs as fast as possible. Part of their concern is to squeeze the playoffs in before a coronavirus causes another shutdown.

Last year, the Cardinals played 48 games between July 1 and August 26. MLB has eyed an early July return since March. If the 48-game season is dictated to the players next week, MLB would have time to prepare clubs, implement their safety protocols, and then hold a two-week Spring Training 2.0. Games could start the first week of July and the playoffs could begin on Labor Day weekend, just before the NFL season kicks off and dominates the sports landscape.

Most likely this schedule would be focused around current divisions. However, with 5 teams per division and 15 teams per league, there would have to be interleague games all the time. These games would be played within each teams’ region.

This is a guess, but it makes some sense to play at least one home and away three-game series against each divisional opponent. That is 24 games or half the season devoted to the Pirates, Reds, Brewers, and Cubs.

Each team could then play one series against their counterpart division in the other league. That’s 15 additional games. This would pit the Cardinals against the Royals, Twins, White Sox, Indians and Detroit.

With 39 games covered, what happens with the other nine? The easy solution is to turn at least some of those in-division match-ups into four-game sets — add 6 games. It’s also possible that the league could turn regional rivals into a home and away series. That would mean another three games against the Royals. There is your 48 game season.

Playing to Win vs. Player Development

We know that MLB plans to use a 30-man roster with a 10-man taxi squad and that players on the active roster will receive a full year of service time. 48 games are just long enough to allow managers to plop players into pre-determined roles and then pray things work out. There is no space for experimentation and little room for adjustment.

That has huge implications for player development. Take Dylan Carlson as a case study.

Carlson is easily one of the best 30 players in the Cardinals’ system. But are 48 games enough to justify losing a year of control over an elite prospect? Especially if he can’t break into the lineup over Dexter Fowler or the other young players in left field?

The Cardinals have two options: Their either focus completely on future and play Carlson and other young players as much as possible or they punt a season of player development and give priority to established players.

Personally, I’m all for getting the young players ready. I want Carlson to play. I want O’Neill and Lane Thomas to have as much space in the outfield as possible so the club can have as much information as possible heading into the 2021 season.

This will be very unpopular, but I would give KK priority rotation space over pending free agent Adam Wainwright. Genesis Cabrera and Austin Gomber should get regular work in the bullpen at the expense of Tyler Webb and Andrew Miller.

Yes, that also means Andrew Knizner should start regularly over pending free agents Yadier Molina and Matt Wieters.

Will any of that happen? No, almost certainly not.

The best use of a wasted season is to prepare the club for the next real season. 48 games are a roll-of-the-dice regular season followed by a crapshoot postseason. It’s a meaningless sample size that will only hold historical significance to the World Series winner (and that’s probably not in the Cards). This lost 2020 season will be followed by a 2021 campaign where the owners try to recoup as much lost money as possible in the middle of a down economy. Expect teams to slash payroll. There will be free agent blood. Who will clubs turn to then? They’ll turn to the young players that they hopefully used 2020 to get ready.

Am I Overreacting?

It’s possible that I’m misreading the room and the PA and MLB will come around and give fans a 75-82 game season. If so, I’ll be the first to file this post under “takes that didn’t age well”. Nothing would make me happier.

If I’m wrong, let me know. Give me a reason for optimism. Convince me the owners will (not should) take on more expenses. Explain why the players will (not should) cut their salaries (again). We’re way past the “here’s what they should do” territory.

I’ll give this another week. June 12th. That’s my prediction. That would be the 12th hour cut-off if the league wants to resume games in early July and squeeze in a meaningless regular season to get to their postseason windfall. Beyond that, the league will likely have to cut their season down even more. Even with that projected deadline, I think we’ll start hearing about schedules and formats by next Wednesday.

I’ll try to keep you up to date. I don’t really have anything else to write about.

As always, thanks for reading. Thanks for sticking with us at VEB during this incredibly trying time in our nation’s history. Hopefully, we’ll have real baseball to talk about soon.