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MLB is at a crossroads and so are the Cubs

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The next year will be critical for baseball’s future.

Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

We have just finished two seven-game League Championship Series, the first time that had happened since 2004. The baseball and back-and-forth was generally compelling and, for a moment, took our minds off the fact that the 2020 baseball season was pandemic-shortened and played without fans in attendance, save for some small gatherings at the NLCS in Arlington, Texas.

The World Series begins tomorrow between two worthy teams, the Rays and Dodgers, and we hope we have another week’s worth of compelling baseball before one of them is granted the “piece of metal” by Commissioner Rob Manfred and we put this weird season to bed.

All of that covers up some serious undertones that threaten the future of baseball.

First is the pandemic. MLB didn’t have to have fans in Arlington and it can’t be about money, not with a total of about 77,000 fans so far and maybe another 77,000 during the World Series. No, baseball is testing fans’ tolerance for being in (somewhat) close contact with each other and seeing if there will be any COVID-19 outbreaks coming from these games. This article indicates fans weren’t social-distancing during batting practice during at least one of these games. Looks like a lot of them weren’t wearing masks, either. This Jesse Rogers article says the Cubs are “planning” for around half capacity at Wrigley to start 2021, and we simply don’t know, today, on October 19, 2020, whether that will even be possible.

Let me just put this out here right now. If you are going to tell me that you personally are “willing to take the risk” and go to a baseball game, I am going to tell you that the risk is not solely yours. If you do so and contract COVID-19 and are asymptomatic, you could unknowingly — not deliberately, of course — pass it along to friends and family members. That’s exactly what’s happening right now from people who attended the motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota in August.

This might sound harsh, but the bottom line is that it’s not all about you. Having fans in attendance at sporting events has to consider public health and everyone involved, not just specific individuals who want to “take the risk.” Read the Sturgis article for some examples of people who did that, contracted COVID-19, and regret going. I’d just ask those who think going back to sporting events now or in early 2021 is a risk only to themselves, to kindly think of others. It might not be completely safe to go to large-scale events like baseball games until there’s an effective COVID-19 vaccine. (Also, kindly keep your comments on this topic non-political.)

So we might not see fans at baseball games until mid-season 2021 or even later, depending on what happens with the pandemic. That will cause more revenue losses for baseball — not overall “losses,” as MLB can perform many accounting tricks with their balance sheets — and that leads me to my next point.

This offseason is very much likely not going to go the way players are expecting it to go. The top 10 free agents this offseason, per this MLB.com article, are J.T. Realmuto, Trevor Bauer, George Springer, Marcus Semien, Marcell Ozuna, DJ LeMahieu, Marcus Stroman, Didi Gregorius, Liam Hendriks and Blake Treinen. (Jose Quintana, the highest-ranked Cub in that list, is 18th.)

I am going to go out on a limb here and say that not one of those players is going to get an offer commensurate with what they (and their agents) think is fair market value. Teams lost 40 percent of their revenue in 2020 — and yes, I understand that doesn’t mean they “lost” 40 percent overall this year, because they also saved some expenses such as player salaries, travel, etc. — and could be looking at similar losses in 2021.

Beyond that, the MLB/MLBPA collective-bargaining agreement ends after this season and based on the contentious negotiations between owners and players this past spring and summer just to get a 2020 season started, I do not hold out much hope that we will see baseball uninterrupted by a labor dispute in 2022. In fact, I think there’s a real chance that MLB could see a NHL-style completely lost season.

If that happens, MLB will spend the rest of the decade just trying to get back to where they were in 2019 — and there’s no guarantee they get there.

So what about the Cubs? Well, the Cubs claimed they lost 70 percent of revenues in 2020, and while that might be possible, the overall “loss” by the team is likely far less than that, due to the cost savings I mentioned above. Nevertheless, the team is very likely going to retrench on salaries. The overall player payroll, had the 2020 season been played as normal, looked like it would be in the $210 million range, based on this estimate made here in January. That would have put the Cubs in luxury tax territory, at least over the first level. Everything got pro-rated this year and honestly, I am not sure where the Cubs stand luxury-tax wise, though I’m reasonably certain in the end they’ll go over whatever the pro-rated level is for 2020.

You can be certain Tom Ricketts doesn’t want to go over the tax thresholds three years in a row. Thus there is almost certainly going to be a reduction in player payroll for 2021. Yes, some salaries will be subtracted via free agency, but if you’re looking for the Cubs to add anyone — it’s not gonna happen. More likely is the trade of one or more of the core players to try to reduce payroll. Sometime soon I’ll put together (along with Deputy’s help!) a more detailed look at the Cubs’ estimated 2021 player payroll.

So what does that mean for Cubs contention in 2021? President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein has said the Cubs do want to contend next year, but at what price? And then there’s the whole thing about him likely headed out the door at the end of the season.

What the Cubs did get out of hiring Theo, and later Joe Maddon, was six straight winning seasons, five postseason appearance and a World Series championship. While we’d have liked more, maybe that’s just the way baseball goes these days. The supposedly invincible Yankees haven’t been in a World Series since they won in 2009, and have made the ALCS four times in the interim, losing all of them. The Dodgers, winners of eight straight division titles, have now made three World Series in those years and didn’t win either of the first two.

“TANG” — “There Are No Guarantees” — used to be a meme around here. But that’s essentially what baseball is. Even with a powerhouse team, even with spending all the money you possibly can, you are not guaranteed winning. The Cubs did pretty well over the last decade. If the 2016 World Series is “it” for a while, I can live with that. I don’t think they’ll go back to 2012-13 levels; at the very least, Theo has put in place a modern organization that understands baseball as it is in 2020.

That is, if the furloughs and layoffs haven’t decimated all that. And it’s not just the Cubs who have done that, it’s everyone in baseball.

Enjoy the World Series. If you can.