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This offseason and the 2021 season aren’t likely to look like any semblance of ‘normal’

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If you’re looking for teams to spend money, or to do things they normally would in the winter, think again.

Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

We’re now in the first week of Major League Baseball’s offseason and today is the first day that teams can make actual offers to free agents, the five-day “quiet period” after the World Series was completed has now ended.

If you think today — or even the next few days or weeks — is going to result in a flurry of offers to big-time (or even small-time) free agents, I’m here to tell you it won’t. I read this ranking of the Top 30 free agents yesterday and its predictions of $100 million-plus offers to various players and my first thought was, “Where does this writer think all that money is coming from?”

Teams are going to be retrenching and cutting player payrolls, not increasing them. That’s not true only for the Cubs — who, I think we all assume, will not be shelling out big dollars this winter — but for other usual “big-money” ballclubs, all of whom are in the same boat. That was noted in this article in The Athletic by Evan Drellich:

“I think next year is going to be really bad,” one club executive said. “We’re going to have a strike year or a lockout year the following. … Teams have lost hundreds of millions of dollars. The big markets have lost anywhere between $150 to 200 (million), middle markets about $100 (million), and the small markets really, haven’t lost anything. They got crushed because they got no revenue sharing.”

And then there’s this, by Drellich, about what the 2021 season could look like. Just because 162 games are on the schedule (released very early, in July) doesn’t mean they’ll all get played that way:

Say the league concludes that a vaccine cannot be widely distributed until June, and therefore playing games before June does not make financial or practical sense. Perhaps players would decide they want to wait, as well. But if they would rather play the whole slate, and are comfortable with the health risk, the CBA does not allow the league to hold fewer than 162 games on the basis that holding those games would be more costly than expected, or simply arduous.

The CBA does, however, include language pertaining to a national emergency, giving the league a pathway to attempt to suspend player contracts. That language is what led to the so-called March agreement in 2020.

It’s unknown whether the U.S. will still be in a state of declared national emergency next year. But if it is, MLB could attempt to leverage the language if it wants to play fewer games than the union does. But the union likely would fight any such attempt, and suggest that there’s no reason contracts should be suspended, because everyone has now seen that games can be played without fans in the stands.

And so then we wind up in the same situation we had last spring and early summer, when there were contentious negotiations between owners and players that resulted in the 60-game season we eventually got. And don’t forget — that season wasn’t negotiated, it was imposed by Commissioner Rob Manfred. About that:

At some point this offseason, and perhaps soon, the union is expected to file a grievance over the league’s scheduling of a 60-game season in 2020, on the allegation that MLB did not make its best efforts to play as many games as possible. MLB was obligated to do so per a deal between the two sides from the spring called “the March agreement.” That grievance would be worth a significant amount of money — presumably hundreds of millions — and would proceed in the background, rather than halting any current discussions. The grievance likely would not be resolved for months, if not longer, but could also be settled as part of larger CBA talks, making it a potential form of leverage.

I think you can see that’s not going to make relations between MLB owners and the MLB Players Association any better going into those “larger CBA talks,” which have to happen at some point in 2021 — because the CBA expires 13 months from now, on December 1, 2021.

And then there’s the minor leagues. There was no minor-league season in 2020 (apart from a couple of independent leagues), so the only way MLB teams had any information about any players in their own pipeline was from whatever performances those players had at the “alternate sites,” where players would play intrasquad games. That’s not anything close to what a normal season provides in terms of player development. Also, scouts weren’t allowed at those sites, so any team wanting to trade for a prospect or two doesn’t have any updated information on those players past the end of the 2019 season.

Here’s what might happen to minor leaguers, per another article in The Athletic by Drellich:

Plans are still fluid on all fronts, but if a vaccine is not available in time for the start of spring training, Triple-A players and major league players might be the only ones to report for the standard beginning of camp, likely in February, people familiar with the current planning told The Athletic. Players at lower levels of the minors would then report once the major league and Triple-A teams clear out. The thinking is that staggering spring training would be safer than having all the players on hand at once.

Major league teams need to have replacement players available in season, and so it would be difficult to play a major league season without a Triple-A season starting concurrently. Ideally, the Triple-A teams would be able to play in their regular stadiums, but the alternate-site system that was used in 2020 could be used again if necessary.

Players at lower levels of the minors, meanwhile, would likely report to spring training at the end of March and begin their regular season after they finish their camp, starting by mid-May. Ideally, that would be in their regular stadiums as well. Schedules haven’t been determined yet, but it’s possible lower-level minor league clubs could play a shorter schedule than Triple-A teams, or finish later.

None of that seems optimal for any players or teams — and that’s not even noting MLB’s desire to eliminate 40 existing teams from the Minor League Baseball structure that existed before the pandemic. Some of those teams have already been sliced from MiLB. The Appalachian League has been turned into a collegiate wood-bat summer league, and just last week the Buffalo News posted this article saying the same thing could happen to the NY-Penn League, a league whose history dates to 1939.

And the other leagues? They still don’t have 2021 schedules or any idea what sort of players they’ll have. Per Drellich:

At least some minor league owners are in contact with MLB on scheduling issues, but because the major league clubs control the players as well as the spring training facilities and plans, MLB will ultimately lead the decision-making. The central entity that was Minor League Baseball is likely going to become a direct arm of Major League Baseball moving forward, once the PBA is finished.

This is what Rob Manfred has wanted all along — control of all professional baseball in this country:

One Baseball is suddenly larger than removing the inefficiencies within Major League Baseball. One Baseball is about MLB having a hand in all things baseball from cradle to grave.

The biggest fear for fans would be some homogeneous corporate beast where things like the creativity of minor league promotions turns into Minor League Promotions Sponsored By (slap a corporate name on it). Major League Baseball is—and always has been—insular. The idea that all things baseball will be as exciting as a pair of beige khaki pants becomes a real possibility.

And if there is leveraging of public taxpayer dollars at every turn in MLB for new or upgraded ballparks, how will that look in smaller markets where minor league clubs remain?

None of this is good, I don’t think. One of the best things about Minor League Baseball is its quirkiness, the different promotions the teams have, run by owners and managements who know their local communities and program accordingly. This isn’t something I’d want to see run out of the Commissioner’s office, I don’t think.

Baseball is on the cusp of major changes, whether we want them or not. Some of those changes could be forced by the pandemic, and as I write on November 2, I don’t think there is any guarantee that MLB will open its season as scheduled 150 days from now. Other changes are being pushed on all of us — fans, players, team owners, gameday staffs — by a Commissioner’s office that I don’t think really understands what any of those groups wants.

It’s not going to be a normal offseason and winter for professional baseball at any level. Fasten your seat belts.