Within the next 36 hours, the 2020 baseball season will come to an end, and we’ll begin the long countdown to next season’s Opening Day. At least we’ll begin the countdown to when we think Opening Day will be.
The 2021 season is currently scheduled to start on April 1, but the country where 29 of the 30 teams call home is currently being ravaged by a pandemic that the federal government is making no effort to control. One would hope that a vaccine would be ready by then and baseball could be carried on safely. At the very least, MLB has apparently figured out how to play with minimal risk to players and coaches (and it only took two teamwide outbreaks to do it). The season could start on time even if things look more or less the same.
Safety concerns, of course, will not be the reason the 2021 is delayed. If the season is suspended for any amount of time, it’s going to be about money. With or without a vaccine, stadiums aren’t going to be filled with fans. Whether the stands are at 0 or 75 percent capacity, owners will argue that they’re losing money. It doesn’t matter if losses are recouped by ancillary revenue streams like regional sports networks or if these losses will be made up in two or three years, so long as tickets can’t be sold, owners will cry poor.
Baseball might have had a bad year business-wise, but it’s still a profitable endeavor. Steve Cohen just agreed to pay $2.4 billion for the Mets, the most an American sports franchise has ever sold for. Current ownership can still cut current costs even if a future windfall is a near certainty. Ownership will be fine, but the same can’t be said of who they won’t pay.
If you thought the 2018-19 offseason was slow for free agent spending, just wait until this winter. With the start date of next season in flux and the prospect of not making as much money as they normally would, ownership doesn’t have to approve any blockbuster signings. This offseason was already going to be lighter than the previous two years. Neither Trevor Bauer nor George Springer are at the level of Gerrit Cole or Bryce Harper, but just as many teams are going to take themselves out of the running for the top free agents of this class based on price tag alone.
Some players might lose millions because they hit free agency in a bad year, but they’ll get paid eventually. Marcus Stroman isn’t going to be out of a job, but hundreds of baseball operations employees already are. According to reporting by Evan Drellich, some of these positions that are being eliminated might not ever return.
40+ minor league teams will almost certainly lose their major league affiliation this winter as well. Not only is removing baseball from these communities is a myopic, callous decision, but it’s also putting people who have devoted their lives to baseball out of work.
The owners are never going to have to worry about where their next paycheck is coming from. They’re going to come out the other side of this wealthier than they ever were, and Bob Nightengale is going to write a story about how John Henry or Arte Moreno weathered adversity and had to make Tough Decisions to lead their ship through the storm when the truth is the crew was thrown overboard before they could mutiny.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.