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MLB says its revenue is down and debt is up. Free agents could be in for a long, cold winter

The 2020 season was strange and unusual. The 2020-21 offseason is likely to be even weirder.

Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Per Major League Baseball’s agreement with the Major League Baseball Players Association, 147 players automatically became free agents Wednesday, the day after the World Series ended.

That’s a fair number of players and it’s likely going to increase over the next day or so as team options on players are declined. Among those will likely be Jon Lester and Daniel Descalso of the Cubs.

Oh, and then this happened late Wednesday:

Kolten Wong was scheduled to make $10.5 million in 2020, had there been a full season, and the 2021 option was for $12.5 million. He was coming off a 2019 season in which he’d hit .285/.361/.423 with 11 home runs, won a Gold Glove and finished 20th in NL MVP voting. That was a 5.2 bWAR season! He wasn’t quite as good in 2020, but he is still one of the better defensive second basemen in the league. Wong turned 30 earlier this month.

In past MLB seasons a team picking up an option like this would have been a no-brainer. It’s summed up very well here:

If teams are declining options on players like this — and I have no doubt we’ll see more of these in the next few days — then we are in for a long, cold winter of free-agent bargaining between teams and players.

Just have a look through the list of free-agent players I linked above. There are a number of star players who will be looking for new contracts, including DJ LeMahieu, J.T. Realmuto, Trevor Bauer and George Springer, among others. Do you think any of them are going to get offers commensurate with what similar free agents have received in the past?

What’s in this article by Barry M. Bloom at Sportico ought to disabuse you of that notion. Bloom writes that MLB clubs have an “unprecedented” level of debt, $8.3 billion, and are going to have $3 billion in operating losses for 2020, per an interview Bloom did with Commissioner Rob Manfred:

“We are going to be at historic high levels of debt,” Manfred said. “And it’s going to be difficult for the industry to weather another year where we don’t have fans in the ballpark and have other limitations on how much we can’t play and how we can play.”

Now, you can believe Manfred or not, but that’s how he and the sport are on record. In the interview, Manfred referenced the massive layoffs that MLB teams are making of off-the-field employees in both business and baseball operations. I noted the Cubs’ layoffs in this article here last week. Given the billions that baseball DID rake in during 2020 from local and national TV contracts and various ads and sponsorships they did sell, those layoffs could be viewed as a rounding error. The billionaires who own MLB teams could have afforded to keep some or all of those employees. They chose not to.

You certainly recall the acrimonious negotiations between players and owners just to get a 2020 season played. Manfred hinted that there will likely have to be similar talks before baseball is played in 2021:

“It’s absolutely certain, I know, that we’re going to have to have conversations with the MLBPA about what 2021 is going to look like,” he said. “It’s difficult to foresee a situation right now where everything’s just normal. And obviously, if it’s not normal we’re going to have to have conversations about it.”

What could possibly go wrong? And then we’re headed into further negotiations for 2022, because the player-owner collective-bargaining agreement expires after 2021. There is a non-zero chance we’ve seen the last MLB game for a long, long time.

The bottom line here is ... the bottom line, really, or what MLB teams are going to claim is their bottom line. Beyond the 147 free agents on the list above and the additions to that list from declined team options, there are likely going to be dozens more players added to the 2020-21 free agent crop when teams decide they can’t afford certain arbitration-eligible players and non-tender them. As I wrote in Wednesday’s offseason calendar article, Kyle Schwarber could be among those players. That’s something that never would have happened pre-pandemic.

Manfred is right about one thing — yes, I know you’re surprised at that — it’s entirely possible that we go through a 2021 season without fans in ballparks for at least part of the year, maybe all of the year, especially considering we’re in a phase of the pandemic where cases are increasing exponentially.

If you’re looking for a busy hot stove season with lots of trades and players signing with new teams, the stove is likely to be very cold, if not turned off completely.