To illustrate the paralysis currently gripping Major League Baseball and the players, one need look no further than the designated hitter rule.
The virtual Winter Meetings begin Monday, and a lack of agreement between MLB and the union regarding whether the DH will be used in 2021 is already impacting the free agent market. The stance of the MLB Players Association right now is that the players have a contract for at least one more season, and the universal DH is not part of the Basic Agreement. The annual meetings had been slated for Dallas this year but were scrapped as an in-person event as the coronavirus continues to surge across the U.S.
There is little opposition among the players to using the DH in both leagues again, a source with knowledge of the ongoing conversations between MLB and the union said. This was the case during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, when the DH was utilized in the National League for the first time. (It has, of course, been a mainstay of the American League since 1973.) Whatever form this coming season takes, the players believe it’s good for health and safety to keep pitchers from hitting and running the bases.
“All it would take is one call [about the DH] from MLB and everyone could move on,” the source told Sportico.
Because MLB may want to swap the DH for another bargaining chip, such as once again expanding the playoffs beyond 10 teams, that call has yet to be made.
The indecision is having a ripple effect on all 15 of the NL clubs, which are trying to build their 40-man rosters for the coming season. In 2020, the universal DH was agreed upon so late prior to the July 23 start of the season that NL teams had to adjust on the fly.
The Arizona Diamondbacks, for instance, didn’t have one. Even the World Series-winning Los Angeles Dodgers shuffled players at DH, with Joc Pederson getting the most reps. After batting .190/.285/.397 last season, Pederson is now a free agent.
The uncertainty around the DH issue is again paralyzing the market, where there are currently 291 free agents available after a record 59 players were non-tendered contracts early last week.
The top four—DJ LeMahieu, J.T. Realmuto, Trevor Bauer and George Springer—are still on the market.
The Chicago Cubs might have tendered Kyle Schwarber if they were certain he could be used as a DH. A marginal defensive outfielder, Schwarber slashed at .412/.500/.471 as the DH in four games at Cleveland in 2016, when the Cubs won their only World Series in 108 years.
“I called Kyle and it was a hard conversation,” said Jed Hoyer, who recently replaced Theo Epstein as Chicago’s president of baseball operations. “I expressed that we’re definitely going to keep the door open. We have and will continue to talk to [his agent] about ways to bring him back.”
To DH or not to DH? Like Schwarber, that factor alone might keep the Dodgers from re-signing free agent Justin Turner, who could be used as a DH if Los Angeles fills his role at third base. The Dodgers are looking at acquiring All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado from the Colorado Rockies or shortstop Francisco Lindor from the Cleveland Indians. Turner, 36, is in limbo.
Lindor will be a free agent after this coming season. Arenado is going into a third year of what was supposed to be an eight-year, $260 million contract, but he could opt out after the season.
Arenado probably won’t do so, not with collective bargaining for a new Basic Agreement pending for next year. The current five-year pact expires next Dec. 1, and though it’s unlikely there will be a strike, the players fully expect to be locked out after that date if the two sides haven’t come to a deal.
To be sure, the DH is not the only hurdle to surmount prior to the coming season. With the possibility of a vaccine being made available to prevent spread of the coronavirus, there’s now some optimism about playing an entire 162 games.
How many fans will be able to attend is still to be determined and may be at the crux of how many games are played. This past season, only the National League Championship Series and World Series were played with fans in attendance, at about 25% of the 41,000 capacity of Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.
After its virtual executive council meetings with the players last week, the union is continuing to elucidate a position staked out by executive director Tony Clark to Sportico last month: They have a contract and expect to be paid for a full 162-game season, no matter how many games are played.
“Our players anticipate arriving in spring training as normal and a 162-game season as they otherwise would,” Clark said.
Commissioner Rob Manfred said during the World Series in October that the 30 MLB teams had assumed $8.3 billion in debt and sustained as much as $3 billion in losses just to get through the shortened season and playoffs played in four soft neutral-site bubbles.
“It’s going to be difficult for the industry to weather another year where we don’t have fans in the ballpark and have other limitations on how much we can’t play and how we can play,” Manfred told Sportico.
MLB has sued its insurance providers to recoup some of those losses.
The union has reserved a grievance from earlier this year, regarding the negotiating tactics used by MLB to implement the abbreviated season with players paid on a prorated basis for 60 games.
Manfred used the national emergency caused by the coronavirus to justify opening the unified players’ contract. Back in March, the owners had no idea whether a season would even be played at all. Manfred may not be able to use that tactic again, the union is saying, with litigation a possibility if he does.
Meanwhile, as the clubs have seriously downsized business and baseball operation staffs, MLB is considering the same. At present, the league is offering retirement buyouts to anyone in the commissioner’s office and across its content platforms who are at least 50 years of age with five years of MLB experience.
Finally, there’s the restructuring of the minor leagues and the elimination of at least 40 of the 160 teams. The litigation about all this is just beginning, with the Staten Island Yankees suing their parent club and MLB last week after losing support and affiliation. MLB has yet to sign a new minor league agreement and hasn’t indicated when the minor league season will begin.
Starting with the DH, this is what all lies ahead for MLB in 2021.