Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 5, 2020

For The Great Game, Winter Is Coming

Now for the hard part. Of course, to those who had a hand in Major League Baseball pulling off its 2020 season, from players and coaches on the field and in the dugout, to front office personnel and scores of support staff who toiled behind the scenes, the job of navigating a truncated sixty-game regular season followed by an expanded postseason tournament in the midst of a pandemic surely never felt easy. Against considerable odds, the Great Game’s thirty big league clubs played 898 of 900 scheduled contests despite serious disruptions to the calendars of several clubs, especially the Marlins and Cardinals, after virus outbreaks spread through the Miami and St. Louis clubhouses soon after games began in late July. But just as the short season, which was only put in place by commissioner Rob Manfred after bitter negotiations between owners and players ground to a halt, looked like it was about to be derailed, toughened safety protocols and a renewed commitment by everyone resulted in many weeks with no positive coronavirus tests, right up until L.A.’s Justin Turner was pulled from Game 6 of the World Series after the Dodgers learned of his infection.

Yet by this time next year, when MLB may very well be just weeks away from its first work stoppage in a generation, the Great Game’s shortest season since 1878 may be remembered fondly compared to what the sport will be facing. If that proves to be the case, if baseball after the 2021 World Series stands on the brink of a strike or lockout, the roots of the mutual distrust that is a prerequisite to such a dismaying state will go back years. But the ultimate catalyst may well be what happened over the preceding twelve months, a period that starts right now.

Dodger fans will continue to celebrate for a bit, and deservedly so. Thirty-two years was a very long time between championships for one of baseball’s classic franchises. But fans of the other twenty-nine franchises are already focusing on the offseason that is now underway. This week free agency began, though one would hardly know it. There have been no announcements of player signings. Instead, the movement has been in just the opposite direction. Prior to Sunday, when players not under contract for next season officially became free agents, multiple clubs chose not to exercise contract options on some notable players.

Pitcher Brad Hand was placed on waivers by Cleveland after the club decided that both his $10 million option for next season and the $1 million buyout in his contract were too expensive for a 30-year-old reliever. This after Hand posted a 2.05 ERA with a 29-4 strikeout to walk ratio. Even more telling was that not one of the other twenty-nine franchises put in a claim on the three-time All-Star who led the majors with 16 saves during the short season.

While Hand’s fate was extreme, he wasn’t alone in having his contract option declined. Charlie Morton in Tampa Bay, Adam Eaton in Washington, and Kolten Wang in St. Louis, among others, became free agents because their clubs deemed options costing between $10 and $15 million were too expensive. Even Mitch Moreland’s relatively paltry $3 million option was more than the Padres were willing to pay.

They all join a free agent class that is almost certain to have a long wait into the dark winter months before any major deals are negotiated. That’s in part because budgets have been slashed following the losses of an abbreviated season played without fans in the stands. There’s no question the balance sheets of all thirty teams suffered, but because owners steadfastly refuse to open their books to the Players Association, it impossible to know if claims of losses in the billions are legitimate.

The other reason this winter’s hot stove may never be kindled is because on top of whatever losses teams have incurred, there is, at least right now, nothing but uncertainty about next season. MLB has released a 2021 schedule, complete with the usual complement of spring training games in Florida and Arizona, and then a full, 162-game slate for all thirty clubs. But that schedule is nothing more than dates on a calendar. No one knows what the state of the pandemic will be when it’s time for those games to start. Will there be a widely available vaccine? Will packed stadiums be possible? Will it be feasible to have 2,430 baseball games take place over the long, unfolding six months of a standard season? Will there be a minor league system in place to anchor the large supporting cast needed to make a full season possible? While it’s fair to recognize that no one can answer those questions today, what’s disheartening is the apparent willingness of clubs to lean heavily on that uncertainty in negotiations with free agents, as if it described conditions that will be permanent.

The possibility of a rancorous offseason is very real. If that’s what happens, the ill feeling will inevitably carry over to the 2021 campaign, because every player and each owner will know that the current collective bargaining agreement expires next December 1st. And a bitter winter followed by a season filled with angry sniping are hardly the ingredients for productive and peaceful negotiations. Twelve months is a long time, and the bleak path outlined here is not the only one the Great Game might follow. But as the warm glow of the World Series fades everywhere but in the hearts of the Dodgers’ faithful, the early signs are that for the Great Game, the next year may make the last one look easy.

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