While the novel coronavirus pandemic still has baseball and the remainder of the sports world at a standstill, the general framework for a potential 2020 season is beginning to emerge. MLB and the Players' Association (MLBPA) have been in talks about how to proceed. Already they've forged agreements regarding service time, the draft, and salary advances, and now they're reportedly coming to terms on how the 2020 season itself will take shape.
While everything obviously depends upon the trajectory of the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, owners and players are proceeding as though playing some semblance of a 2020 season will be possible. As for the MLB and MLBPA agreement to that end, here's what we know so far.
The MLB and MLBPA will only proceed with a 2020 season under certain conditions
MLB will have a season in 2020 only if the following things happen, per Jeff Passan of ESPN:
- There are no longer any bans on mass gatherings in place that would prevent games from being played in front of fans at the ballpark.
- There are no relevant travel restrictions in the U.S. or Canada.
- Medical experts determine playing games would not present health risks for players, fans, or other team personnel.
Based on what we know about the coronavirus thus far and the necessity of social distancing to limit the spread of it, it seems highly unlikely that those three conditions can be met anytime soon. Even if social distancing guidelines are relaxed in some locations, they likely won't be in others, at least to the extent that heavily attended sporting events are possible. Even after social distancing policies are relaxed, it's highly possible we'll see flare-ups of the virus from time to time. As such, getting medical professionals to declare no health risks for games seems like an ambitious bar to clear.
Based on these stipulations, it's easy to take a pessimistic view on the prospects of having a 2020 MLB season at all.
That said, the agreement does leave some wiggle room
Those firm pronouncements may not be so firm after all. Here's a follow-up from Passan:
* The caveat agreed to by the players and league is that they will consider playing games at neutral sites instead of home ballparks -- and will consider the feasibility of playing in empty stadiums and just how proper a solution it may be for both sides and especially fans.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) March 27, 2020
So playing games at neutral sites and in empty ballparks would at least come close to nullifying those three conditions listed above. As of early Friday, MLB was still hoping to play a 140-game regular season with a 14-team postseason, according to Jon Heyman. That's going to be almost impossible under any circumstances, let alone after waiting for those three stipulations above to be satisfied. Passan's follow-up suggests that there's some adaptability built into the MLB-MLBPA agreement, and that seems like a requirement if a season of any meaningful length is to be conducted.
The 2020 season probably won't look like any other season
In addition to what figures to be the significantly abbreviated length of the 2020 season, should it come to pass, a number of structural wrinkles may be necessary or at least beneficial in order to pull it off. Some details:
The agreement between MLB/MLBPA includes: promise to begin immediately discussing an accelerated spring training sked, split DHs, expanded rosters, potential elimination of the All-Star Game, and extending the regular season into October.— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) March 27, 2020
As well, neutral-site playoff games in November are possible, depending on whether cold-weather teams in ballparks without roofs are involved. The aim is going to be to squeeze as many games as possible into the calendar, and that's where the doubleheaders and lack of an All-Star break come in. And to accommodate the extra load, rosters could be bigger. In general terms, more games mean more money, and that's the objective for owners and players alike.
Salaries will be adjusted
Speaking of the players wanting to play as many games as possible, how much of their 2020 salary they take home will be dependent up how many games are played. With regard to service time, they'll get credit for a full season based on how many games wind up being played (and if no games are played, they'll get credit for their 2019 service time levels). With salaries, though, it's a bit different. Here's what ESPN's Jeff Passan and Kiley McDaniel write:
Their salaries for 2020 will be prorated. If teams play an 81-game schedule, players will get 50% of their full, agreed-upon money. If they play 120 games, they will receive 74%. Performance-bonus clauses will be prorated too.
If there's no season, then players will keep the $170 million salary advance they'll receive in April in May but get no more.
The Dodgers could be hit hard
As noted, players will receive 2019 service time credit if there's no 2020 season at all. Should that come to pass, then Mookie Betts will become a free agent. That in turn would mean that the Dodgers would get nothing from Betts even though they pulled off a blockbuster trade for the star outfielder.
As well, you'll recall that the 2020 All-Star Game is scheduled for Dodger Stadium. Even if there is a 2020 season, it's still possible and perhaps even likely that there will be no All-Star Game. The emphasis is going to be on compressing as many regular season games into the cramped 2020 calendar as possible, and that likely won't leave time for extravagances such as the Midsummer Classic.
Again, it's the virus and the public health responses to it that will determine the timeline. While MLB and MLBPA seem to have a blueprint for the 2020 season, it remains to be seen whether it's a feasible one.