MLB coronavirus shutdown: These nine lingering questions must be answered before baseball returns

Major League Baseball, like many sports leagues around the world, has been shut down indefinitely because of the growing threat that is the coronavirus (COVID-19). Spring Training has been suspended and Opening Day has been pushed back to at least mid-May, and that remains subject to change as the situation develops. 

At some point there will be baseball again, and I am hopeful there will be baseball in 2020. MLB will play as many games as possible in order to make money. The league won't punt an entire season's worth of revenue unless absolutely necessary. Even if they have to play games without fans in the stands, they'll do it.

Whenever baseball does return, MLB and the MLBPA will have a ton of questions to answer and logistics to figure out. Owners reportedly hope to play a full 162-game season, though that seems incredibly unlikely, and an abbreviated schedule would require fundamental changes to the sport. Maybe even an overhaul.

Here are nine lingering issues MLB and the MLBPA must work out should baseball return in 2020.

1. How many games will they play?

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MLB's doors will remain closed indefinitely due to COVID-19. USATSI

TBD. Our Matt Snyder laid out five potential schedule scenarios, starting with the best case (Opening Day on Memorial Day) and ending with the worst case (no baseball in 2020). Obviously the schedule length will be tied to COVID-19 containment, and once we have an Opening Day and we know how many games will be played, the league can begin working through other issues.

It should be noted MLB is big on precedent and historic considerations. The league prefers a full 162-game season to keep statistics and records consistent. Presumably, MLB would like to play a number of regular season games they have played at some point in the past. Here are various season lengths used throughout baseball history:

  • 162 games: Modern standard season.
  • 154 games: Pre-1961 standard season.
  • 144 games: Used after work stoppage in 1995.
  • 112-117 games: Used prior to work stoppage in 1994 (total games varied by team).
  • 103-111 games: Used around work stoppage in 1981 (total games varied by team).

All indications are MLB wants to play a full 162-game season, even if it means playing games at neutral sites deep into November (and December?). Here's what New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone said during an MLB Network radio appearance Monday (transcription via ESPN's Marly Rivera):

"They're going to want to try to get in as many games as possible, so it's going to tack on to the end of the season. The season is going to carry on longer, so you're going to potentially be in warm weather spots or domed situations. That may lend itself to some neutral-site situations. This is an opportunity to be creative; maybe at the end of it all we'll get to look at it and say, 'Hey, this worked, this is something we'd like to implement moving forward.'"

For now, MLB and the MLBPA are in wait and see mode. What's the required level of COVID-19 containment to play games, even with the stands empty? No one knows, and it may be weeks until we get an answer. The schedule length will remain TBD for the foreseeable future. 

2. What's a fair postseason format?

The shorter the regular season, the more general baseball randomness wreaks havoc on the standings. The 162-game schedule usually sorts that all out but MLB may not have that luxury in 2020. Here, for example, are what the 2019 postseason brackets would've looked like at the 80-game mark:

AL Wild Card Game: Rangers at Rays
ALDS1: Wild Card Game winner at Twins
ALDS2: Astros at Yankees

NL Wild Card Game: Phillies at Rockies
NLDS1: Wild Card Game winner at Dodgers
NLDS2: Cubs at Braves

Only two of the five eventual National League postseason teams were in postseason position at the 80-game mark -- the Rockies went from postseason position at the 80-game mark to 18 games out of the postseason at the 162-game mark -- and one of them was not the eventual World Series champion Nationals. They were 2 1/2 games out after 80 games.

Weird things happen in small sample sizes and, in baseball, 80 games can constitute a small sample. MLB and the MLBPA figure to cook up a revised postseason format should the regular season have to be abbreviated, and, in this case, a revised postseason format almost certainly means an expanded postseason field. There are two benefits to an expanded postseason field:

  1. It's more fair. In a shortened season, each team's true talent level may not have a chance to fully shine through. An expanded postseason field would give good teams a chance to overcome a slow start.
  2. More games equals more revenue. Baseball is going to lose a lot -- a lot -- of money during the shutdown and creating additional postseason games would be a way to recoup revenue.

Remember, MLB is already trying to expand the postseason. The league recently floated the idea of seven postseason teams per league with a best-of-three Wild Card round. This is something that is already on the radar and MLB could use 2020 essentially as a test run, with that specific format, or another one.

Until we know how many regular season games will be played, we can't come up with a fair postseason format. It seems likely the postseason would be expanded to include more teams and generate more revenue unless MLB is somehow able to play a full 162-game season (or maybe even just 144 games?). This is an opportunity to be creative.

3. How long will spring training 2.0 last?

Following the 1995 work stoppage MLB players went through a two-week spring training crash course before the regular season. Teams were allowed to use 28-man rosters earlier that season as players got back into game shape, particularly starting pitchers who were not fully stretched out.

Teams were four weeks into spring training when MLB shut down and of course players will continue working out in the meantime. The longer the shutdown though, the longer the rebooted version of spring training will need to be. Eventually players will lose their rhythm and timing, and need exhibition games to get back up to speed.

MLB will push for the shortest possible spring training. They want money-making regular season games to begin ASAP. Two weeks of spring training following by 28-man rosters early in the season is a precedent that has already been set and I could see that being the solution in 2020. The longer the shutdown lasts, the less feasible that becomes.

4. Is there going to be an All-Star Game?

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The Dodgers are scheduled to host the 2020 All-Star Game. USATSI

I sure hope so. The All-Star Game is fun and I look forward to it (as well as the Futures Game and Home Run Derby) each season. It might not be feasible this summer, however. MLB could use the All-Star break to instead make up regular season games, and besides, how do you pick All-Star Game rosters when so few (possibly even zero) regular season games have been played?

The Dodgers are slated to host the All-Star Game this season with the Braves scheduled to host in 2021. If the All-Star Game is canceled, I would bet on the Dodgers getting the 2022 All-Star Game with the Braves keeping 2021 rather than MLB pushing everything back one year. (Sites have not yet been selected for the 2022-25 All-Star Games. The Phillies will host in 2026.)

The longer the shutdown, the more likely it is MLB cancels the All-Star Game and uses that week for regular season games. The All-Star Game was canceled once previously, during World War II in 1945. It is not something MLB would do lightly -- the All-Star Game is one of the sport's crown jewel events -- but it may be necessary.

5. When will the trade deadline be?

If the season starts early enough, the trade deadline could remain July 31. It's a fixed date every baseball fans knows, and it has some marketing value. At some point though, the deadline would have to be pushed back. MLB couldn't start the regular season in, say, mid July, and then expect teams to stop making trades a few weeks later, right?

The July 31 trade deadline is four months into the six-month regular season. To make life easy, MLB and the MLBPA could agree to move the trade deadline to the two-thirds point of the abbreviated 2020 season, if that's what they end up playing. The timing might be inconvenient -- players don't want to traded early in the school year, for example -- but none of this is convenient.

Unlike the All-Star Game, there is little chance the trade deadline will be eliminated in 2020. If MLB starts the season and plans to crown a World Series champion, teams must be given an opportunity to improve themselves during the regular season. The exact trade deadline date is TBD until further notice. There will be a trade deadline though.

(MLB is expected to implement a transactions freeze during the shutdown, though it has not officially happened yet. The NBA and NHL have both put roster freezes into place since shutting down their seasons last week.)

6. Are players going to get paid?

MLB and the MLBPA are currently working through this. The standard player contract includes a clause allowing teams to suspend contracts (and payments) during a "national emergency" and it is no coincidence MLB's press release included that exact phrase when they announced spring training is suspended and Opening Day will be delayed last week:

Following a call with the 30 Clubs, and after consultation with the Major League Baseball Players Association, Commissioner Robert D. Manfred, Jr. today announced that MLB has decided to suspend Spring Training games and to delay the start of the 2020 regular season by at least two weeks due to the national emergency created by the coronavirus pandemic. This action is being taken in the interests of the safety and well-being of our players, Clubs and our millions of loyal fans.

The White House declared the COVID-19 pandemic a national emergency on March 13 and that was likely to be necessary for MLB teams to withhold salaries. The MLBPA would've taken legal action arguing MLB itself could not declare a national emergency, and I reckon the union would've won those arguments. Now that is a moot point.

Players do not get paid during spring training. They receive a per diem instead and, earlier this week, the MLBPA sent out a memo saying players can continue receiving payments through the union until April 9 or until their team begins making those payments. Some teams have continuing giving minor leaguers their spring training allowances (more on that here), though not all of them.

Opening Day was scheduled for March 26. Once that dates arrives, the conversation will shift from spring training allowances to actual salary. No one will feel bad for the big leaguers -- even MLB players early in their careers are well-paid -- but minor leaguers are in a much different boat. They are paid poorly to start with. Now they don't know when their next paycheck will arrive.

MLB is going to lose money during the shutdown -- when there are no games, there's nothing to generate revenue -- and that's a burden that should be shared between the owners and players. Pro-rating player salaries would seem to be the easiest solution, though that's just me speculating. Player compensation (for major and minor leaguers) will be a significant issue.

7. What happens with service time?

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Mookie's free agency could be on the line during the shutdown. USATSI

Along with salaries, service time will be among the most significant issues MLB and the MLBPA will need to resolve before baseball can return. It takes 172 days to receive credit for a full year of service time. Players need three years of service time to qualify for salary arbitration (a handful qualify with less under Super Two provisions) and six years to qualify for free agency.

There's a chance, probably even a good one, the MLB season will not be 172 days in 2020. The MLBPA will want their players to receive credit for a full season no matter how many days they play. MLB and the owners will push back. Neither sides wants to lose something (service time for players, team control for owners) to a shutdown that is neither side's fault. It's a tricky situation.

Mookie Betts will be an oft-cited case for any public service time discourse. Betts is one year from free agency. He'll want credit for a full year in 2020 so he can hit the market at age 28. The Dodgers won't want to sacrifice any team control to the shutdown, however. If 2020 is wiped out, they'll want Betts in 2021, which in turn means delaying his big free agent payday. See the problem?

Service time negotiations could grow contentious. They're already a sore spot in labor relations. Teams manipulate service time to keep their best players around as long as possible and the MLBPA doesn't like it. I have no idea what a sensible solution is -- could it be as easy as pro-rating service time? -- but coming to a service time resolution will be a Very Big Deal.

8. Will free agency be affected next offseason? 

As noted earlier, MLB is going to lose money during the shutdown, and the financial burden will be shared between between the owners and players. They're in this together (even though they seem to be at each other's throats quite often). The less teams make in 2020, the less they figure to give free agents in the offseason, and potentially in offseasons beyond that.

It's too early to worry about the shutdown's impact on free agency -- we have plenty of pressing things to worry about now -- but there will be an impact. It's all but certain. Less money is coming in and that means less money will be spent. Econ 101. The future of free agency isn't necessarily something that must be resolved before they can play baseball. It is surely an item on the MLBPA's agenda, however. 

9. What's going on with the draft?

Baseball's annual amateur draft was scheduled to begin June 10, however the NCAA canceled all winter and spring championships last week, including the College World Series. College baseball across the country has been shut down and most high school athletics either have been suspended or canceled as well. Amateur baseball has come to a halt.

Earlier this week MLB sent a memo to all 30 clubs directing them to shut down their amateur scouting efforts. That includes draft coverage as well as their international operations (the international signing period opens July 2 each year). Here's a snippet of the memo via Baseball America's Carlos Collazo:

(E)ffective immediately, the Commissioner's Office hereby imposes a temporary prohibition on all Club scouting activities, both domestic and international. During this time, Clubs may not hold tryouts (public or private) or attend non-Club amateur baseball events (e.g. games, showcases, workouts). Clubs also may not conduct in-home or other in-person visits or administer any tests or assessments of amateur players that are done as part of the pre-draft or pre-signing process. In addition, Clubs may not encourage players to conduct tryouts, workouts or games that Clubs would be able to watch remotely.

Even if a team wanted to break the rules and scout amateurs, there are no games or workouts to scout. Everything has been shut down. MLB's memo says there has been no decision made regarding the draft and international signing period, and that the league will "provide guidance" in the future. They're still figuring out what to do, basically.

In a perfect world, MLB would push the draft and international free agency back into the offseason. That would (hopefully) give players an opportunity to play in summer and fall leagues, and in MLB sanctioned workouts. It's not ideal, but it might be the best solution given the circumstances. Amateur scouting is currently on indefinite hiatus.

MLB and the MLBPA have a lot to figure out these next few weeks and I suspect the amateur talent acquisition process is a low priority. They want to figure out their major-league issue first because those will make (or cost) them money. The draft is a crucial day, however. It's an important issue among many important issues that must be resolved once things start to return to normal.

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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