The work output, and lack of it, from a squad of applied mathematics undergraduates in Baltimore are all the proof you need of the heightened state of uncertainty that swirls around baseball’s minor leagues.
Members of the Johns Hopkins Minor League Scheduling Research Team are trying to create a new batch of pandemic-shortened 2020 schedules for eight Triple A, Double A, Single A, and Rookie leagues. They’re working with a moving target of start dates that begin no earlier than July.
That’s in progress, but what’s stuck in neutral is work on a schedule for the 2021 season, a schedule that should have been in the hands of leagues and teams for review months ago.
Turmoil from the contentious negotiations between Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball over a new operating agreement that could reshuffle leagues, teams within leagues, and, significantly, reduce by 42 the number of total teams has rendered that 2021 exercise of complex algorithms and heavy-duty computer programming virtually useless until the conflict can be resolved.
The schedule shows these are strange times indeed.
“It’s been quite a 1-2 punch for Minor League Baseball," said Tony Dahbura, who oversees the scheduling team and is also executive director of the university’s Information Security Institute. “All sports are reeling, but I’d say minor league baseball stands out.”
The work on the 2020 schedules comes at the behest of MiLB, which has postponed games officially only through this month. Now, MiLB is seeking to obtain the fairest and longest schedule possible — as soon as it’s safe to return.
“In most cases, what we are doing is, the leagues are saying, ‘OK, what if we pick up on July 1? With the current schedule, what would it look like?’ ” said Dahbura. “We’re looking at how we can make use of off days and how we can make use of time at the end of the season, after Labor Day when we would normally have the first round of the postseason.
"The leagues almost universally are thinking of contracting the postseason and trying to get an extra week of regular season in, if there’s any baseball at all this year.”
The current thinking is that teams will need at least two weeks of a mini-spring training. That seems to preclude a start before July.
“Most people are not thinking June,” said Dahbura. "Around the All-Star break, for full-season leagues, the middle of June is the halfway point. That would be nice, but no one’s thinking that.”
Dahbura and the students travel to the winter meetings each December, when they make presentations to representatives of the leagues that use their schedules; currently, that’s the International (Triple A), Southern and Texas (Double A), Florida State and Carolina (High Single A), South Atlantic (Low Single A), and New York-Penn and Appalachian (Rookie Short Season), with hopes of working for the Pacific Coast, California, Eastern, and Midwest leagues soon. Teams in those leagues need to know home and away dates in order to plan for college baseball or non-baseball events.
But this past December in San Diego was different when it came to presenting drafts of a 2021 schedule because MLB and MiLB had already locked horns on the controversial 42-team contraction plan.
“There’s a widely known minor league directive to ’hold off,’ " said Dahbura, who is also a co-owner of the Single A Hagerstown (Md.) Suns, who are on the list of teams to be contracted. "We knew that we were going to be sort of against the wall.
“We’re currently planning an intensive summer program, with students working during the summer and at this point creating contingency schedules for 2021. As you can imagine, most of the leagues would have had 2021 schedules in the bag by now. Those teams need those schedules as early as possible to be able to sell dates, plan promotions, and all those good things.”
Dahbura has no insight into what MLB will do or wants to do when it comes to its current thinking on league realignment, contraction, or letting the current PBA expire at the end of the 2020 season.
All he knows is that his students have work to finish this spring and then more to finish this summer in order to deal with the double whammy of the pandemic and PBA talks.
“I would think that one scenario for each of the leagues would be to assume the status quo and generate at least one schedule based on that scenario,” said Dahbura. “And after that, I don’t have a directive from leagues of what they would like to do.
"We’re planning to begin work in early June and work through August for 2021.”