I think it was in the fine Roger Kahn book “Boys of Summer” when he talks about his early sports writing career where he was supposed to be covering high school sports, but due to a teachers/coaches strike there were no sports being played. His editor basically told him that when you have nothing to write about, that you write about the nothing. So, he did stories about the strike and the effect of it on all parties.
Today we are in what has been even for baseball a very dead period in the off-season. Before COVID, the signing of free agents had already been moving to the right on the calendar. But the current off-season is giving vibes that take us back to the owner collusion days as there is a lot of product on the shelf and the owners are taking a look, but not buying at the moment.
It is obvious that all parties are floating in uncharted territory. Of course, part of the uncharted portion of the trek is due to the fact that the owners’ books are mostly closed. But there can be no doubt that both players and owners were hurting in 2020. The players’ pay was tied directly to the number of games played, which left them at 37% of their regular pay. The owner’s earnings were slashed by the limited number of games and the very limited number of fans in the stands. Some numbers thrown around said the teams lost $100 million apiece in 2020. Taking a slightly jaundiced eye about losses and accounting figures, that may be high, but even $50 million apiece is a big number.
One of the biggest reasons things are going so slowly right now is that the owners and players may be wanting to wait and see what the 2021 season will be. The big uptick in COVID cases at the end of 2020 did not bode well for an on-time start to the season in 2021 or on how many games will be played. The appearance of the vaccine at roughly the same time gives some hope for 2021, but when will that distribution gather traction? Would a two-month delay in starting the season give them all more hope that there might be more normalcy to attending games? This would make the owners much happier than the players, because the players want more games, while the owners want more games with fans and would not mind if there were fewer games overall.
So, for the 2021 season, moves are happening slowly. As a friend of the blog Old Pro pointed out, there are a lot more free agents available than open roster spots, which backs up the proposition that a lot of major leaguers will be taking minor league deals and hoping to make a roster. But it has also been slow for players like George Springer, who will have a roster spot with a team at a price and length to be determined. Until some bellwethers like Springer agree to a contract, the pool of sure to sign free agents may remain stagnant. The gut feeling is that the longer things go, the lower the eventual contracts for most of the players. But of course, the agents will be wanting contracts like before COVID and advise their clients to hold on for bigger bucks and longer contracts.
The size of the contracts really does not bother Mr. Average Fan more than it ever has. What should bother them is the way the league and the union have not been in agreement during the pandemic. They could not reach agreement on the length of the season, so the commissioner mandated it. This should be a concern because the MLB players labor agreement runs out at the end of 2021. The renegotiation of those terms cannot be mandated by either side and if the two sides cannot come to an agreement on terms for one year in this time of uncertainty, how will they ever agree on another agreement like the current one of 5 years?
Watch closely to the interactions this off-season and how the two sides interact leading into the 2021 season. It may well be a harbinger of things to come.