So it’s settled, right? With Major League Baseball and the Players Association having proven unable to reach agreement on a plan for a 2020 season, commissioner Rob Manfred has implemented a 60-game season, and the sides on Tuesday night finalized an agreement on health and safety protocols.
Play ball, right?
Not quite. Even though MLB has defined the length of the season — assuming, of course, that said season can be played without interruption by the COVID-19 pandemic — that resolves one issue while amplifying the volume on several others.
“There are so many different questions that have yet to be answered,” noted one American League executive.
MLB teams are likely to spend the coming days scrambling on a number of fronts in anticipation of launching Spring Training 2.0 on July 1 and the regular season July 23 or 24. What’s on their agendas?
Distancing at parks
First and foremost, the outbreak of COVID-19 cases at Phillies camp at the end of last week underscored the fragility of the season. All other preparations are secondary to creating an environment in which players can play while minimizing the risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
The rash of infections last week led nearly all teams, including the Red Sox, to commit to conducting their training reboot in their home ballparks. But the facilities at Fenway Park were not designed with social distancing in mind. For players to gather safely, clubs must reconfigure how their ballparks work and where players can go to get ready for a season.
Teams may have to set up additional sites — perhaps nearby minor league facilities or other fields — to divide their rosters and create even more distance between players and team personnel.
Bringing everyone back
A couple of x-factors loom. In late May, professional athletes in several sports were declared essential employees by the federal government, thus removing a barrier to travel. But while most players will be able to get to their teams’ training sites with no problem, a small number may experience delays, much as visa issues crop up every year in spring training.
Presumably, any players and/or coaches will have to test negative before they can start using a facility, which means that MLB must have a full complement of testing kits as well as a working lab.
On top of that, there’s the question of whether all players and coaches will choose to report. Some might be inclined to opt out of the 2020 season based on their assessment of the health risk to themselves or family members. Teams might have to scramble to address roster holes they hadn’t anticipated.
For the first time since MLB froze transactions in March, front offices must determine not only how to shape their rosters but how to maintain depth for a three-month sprint of a season. As of late Monday, according to one AL executive, front offices had yet to receive official guidance on rules — not just for the active roster but also for a taxi squad.
Some form of expansion beyond the anticipated 26-player roster is anticipated, but it remains to be seen how much larger it will be (28? 30?) and how long the expanded rosters will be permitted.
There are sizable implications here, with game strategy — including the extent to which teams can rely on openers and/or lean heavily on bullpens, and how widely they can use platoons — and the luxury tax.
Yes, the luxury tax is still a consideration for some teams — including the Red Sox, who reined in their offseason spending to move below a $208 million projected payroll. While teams won’t spend anywhere near that in actual salary, with a 60-game schedule resulting in players receiving about 37 percent of their full-season earnings, the luxury tax numbers will still be determined by what they would have spent in a full year.
As such, expanded rosters complicate things. Teams will have another million or two or three — at least for luxury tax purposes — committed to their payrolls, pushing them closer to the threshold. Based on the projections of Spotrac.com, the Red Sox and Phillies are the two teams that have to proceed with the greatest care regarding the back end of their rosters to avoid going over the threshold. (The Yankees, Astros, Dodgers, and Cubs are already over.)
A 30-player roster would offer the benefit of depth, but at what might be a high price. Could this make it difficult for the Sox, for instance, to add catcher Jonathan Lucroy, whose major league contract calls for him to earn $1.5 million if added to the roster?
Lucroy’s situation is particularly interesting. As a player who signed a minor league deal, he has the right to opt out of his contract if he isn’t selected to the active roster before the season. What happens if Lucroy opts out? Would the Sox be able to replace him in their pool of available big league players (either with someone else in the organization or by signing a player from outside) or would they simply have a diminished pool?
Teams are eagerly awaiting word on roster substitution rules.
The questions extend well beyond the active roster, given the likelihood that there won’t be a minor league season but that teams will have taxi squads. Will those taxi squads (likely to be based out of a nearby minor league affiliate’s facility) have 20 players? Thirty?
The size will confront teams with a number of fascinating choices.
How many players must be on the taxi squad to address major league depth? If there is no minor league season, can a team afford to put a few or even several top prospects on the taxi squad — even if they are unlikely to contribute in the big leagues in 2020 — just to provide them with formal in-person instruction?
The safety protocols are expected to restrict severely the number of ballpark personnel who can come into contact with players and field staff. Once teams get definitive guidance about how many people can interact with field personnel, and in what capacity, they’ll need to identify who will be brought into the semi-permeable membrane of the player bubble and who will remain off-site.
It’s the sort of detail-driven question that won’t be directly reflected on the field, but one that teams must confront before rebooting spring training.
A busy week is in store for teams that have to reactivate gears within their organizations that have been largely dormant for three months.