It’s mid-January. Last year, the Cardinals pitchers and catchers reported for duty on February 11th with initial workouts following the next day. The first full-squad workouts came a week later, on February 17th.
Normally teams would be spending this final month polishing the fine details of their roster and payroll. Most of the major moves would be completed. The few remaining free agent hold-outs would be scrambling for last-minute deals on the cheap to guarantee their spot on a roster or at least an invite to spring training.
Instead, it feels like the winter market is just now beginning to move. The Yankees brought back DJ LeMahieu on Friday to a team-friendly deal. The White Sox made an odd deal with Liam Hendricks. The Mets brought in free agent designated hitter and former Cardinal Jose Martinez.
Even with a few recent moves, the vast majority of MLB free agents remain unsigned.
With a month to go before full squads traditionally report for workouts, MLB has a huge amount of unanswered questions. Let’s address some of them.
1. Will there be an MLB season and how many games will it include?
Reports this week indicate that Rob Manfred has advised teams to expect to play a full season of 162 games and for that season to begin on time.
The reports I read indicated that this expectation was not necessarily due to MLB’s confidence in public health, fans in stands, or vaccine-availability for players. Instead, it derives primarily from a staunch unwillingness by the Major League Player’s Association to accept anything less than full pay for the 2021 season.
Can’t say I blame the players here. Teams have known for months that there was little chance that games would be played in April with the stands full. They’ve responded by cutting spending, releasing players, declining options, and wreaking havoc on the financial landscape of the game.
Why would the players agree to additional cuts in salary? They can and should demand full pay for a full slate of games, as the agreed-upon Collective Bargaining Agreement necessitates. MLB doesn’t have much choice here. It’s a full set of games and full pay and they’ll have to find other ways to make up any gaps in revenue. (More on that below).
2. Will teams spend to sign the remaining free agents?
It was good to see a little bit of movement this week and for relatively quiet teams – the Yankees (LeMahieu) and the Angels (who signed Kurt Suzuki) – to get into the mix. At the same time, it still seems most of the action this offseason has been limited to a small number of teams who have been willing to take advantage of the depressed player market. That includes the Padres, Mets, and, to some extent, the White Sox.
Earlier this week, I read a report indicating that 88% of MLB free agents remained unsigned. That figure has probably dropped since but is likely still over 80% with a month remaining until players head to camp.
I’m starting to worry about second-tier free agents. Like Kolten Wong.
Every team has someone like a Tommy Edman – a player who could maybe sorta replace the production of an established infielder like Wong, Jurickson Profar, or Tommy LaStella and only cost the league minimum. The same applies to players like Joc Pederson or Hunter Renfroe. Most teams have MLB quality platoon-level outfielders or designated hitters with some pop but noticeable flaws. Why spend money in this economy to pay Wong or Pederson? Why not just pocket $7-10M and hope O’Neill and Emdan work out ok?
What’s happening in St Louis is happening all over the league.
So far salaries have not depressed enough to make these mid-tier players attractive to mid-market and smaller clubs. That might change as clubs near games and players, who have already taken a huge financial hit in 2020, start to get desperate for income.
My belief now is that 30-50% of MLB free agents could go unsigned, many of them in that middle-tier class who expect to be paid significantly more than the league minimum.
3. Will fans be in the stands in 2021?
Yes, definitely, though probably not in all stadiums around the game. The Cardinals have made no announcements so far about ticket sales or percentages of seats available. It does look like fans can explore season ticket packages with a team representative, but that’s as far as I was able to go into the process.
The NFL and college football were allowing individual teams and stadiums to set their ticket policy based on local guidelines, though, to my knowledge no teams have had a full array of fans in the stands.
I would guess that MLB will carry the same policy. Local teams will be left to determine their capacity and ticket policies in coordination with local and state health officials. I did read this week that it was unlikely that MLB would require any kind of proof of vaccination for ticket purchasers, though it might be something required of MLB by local governments in certain locations.
It seems like the uneven distribution of ticket sales around the game would create a significant financial disparity between clubs. Don’t feel sorry for the owners here. Revenue sharing is extensive in the game and it’s possible the owners could expand sharing among teams to help cover costs of teams who have to play without ticket revenue.
4. Will there be a DH?
As of now, the answer to that question is still no. But yes.
When the Mets signed Jose Martinez to a deal on Thursday, speculation from reporters followed that they did so anticipating he would fill the DH spot when it returns. That goes in contrast to earlier reports from MLB offices, which told NL teams to plan for no DH in 2021.
I think the owners want a DH. I know the players want a DH. Even when the owners and the players both want something, they just can’t bring themselves to agree on it. Instead, it has to be negotiated. Since MLB won’t be able to fill their stadiums or convince the Player’s Association to accept a cut in games or pay, the owners are going to be looking for alternative sources of revenue. Those new sources will initiate changes that will have to be negotiated, too.
That’s where all of this ties together. I believe that MLB is holding the DH option in reserve as a carrot-on-a-stick to offer in exchange for CBA changes that will lead to more 2021 revenue.
Speaking of which…
4. Will there be expanded playoffs?
No, there won’t be. Except there definitely will be.
Right now, there is no agreement in place for expanded 16 team playoffs in 2021. However, that’s free money right there for MLB to grab, if the owners can get the Player’s Association to go along.
The Player’s Association, meanwhile, has no reason to deny expanded playoffs as more money in the game in 2021 means more money for the players in 2022 and beyond. With the game hurting financially and many players stuck in financial limbo, the PA should aggressively pursue any revenue-adding means they can with the league.
Except, of course, that everything has to be negotiated.
So, the players definitely want the DH. The owners probably want it to.
The owners definitely want expanded playoffs. The players probably want it to.
At some point this spring, expect the owners and players to enter “tense negotiations” about “changes to the CBA for the upcoming season” that include expanded playoffs and the DH in the NL.
This should get done. And if the PA and owners can limit their arguments to those two areas, maybe we won’t suffer through another spring of extended labor disputes and public bickering. That would be a welcome reprieve before the proverbial poop hits the proverbial fan after the season when the current CBA expires.
5. Am I excited that baseball is coming soon?
What kind of question is that? Of course, I am. Break out that glove and go play catch in the snow. Baseball is supposed to be fun. Don’t get so caught up in labor disputes, free agent contracts, signings and not-signings. The Cardinals club isn’t perfect and won’t be perfect. The game isn’t perfect and won’t be perfect. It will be frustrating and in many ways wrong. But it will be baseball. I’m ready for it. Bring on spring training! Enjoy your weekend.