Earlier this week, the Major League Baseball Players Association decided to reject a proposal from MLB that would have delayed the start of spring training and the regular season by a month.
While the decision closed the door on a 154-game schedule that would pay the players for 162 games while pausing their arrivals to camp until March 22 and the first regular-season games until April 28, many questions about the status of spring training, the regular season and proposed rule changes remain.
We asked ESPN MLB reporters Alden Gonzalez and Jesse Rogers to examine the most pressing issues baseball is facing in its attempt to return to a full 2021 season after the shortened 2020 campaign.
Teams are scheduled to report in two weeks. What are the chances that spring training actually starts on time?
Rogers: It’s looking more and more like camps will open as scheduled, with pitchers and catchers scheduled to report as early as Feb. 16 for some teams. Only two things could prevent that from happening, and neither is likely to occur.
First, if local governments in Florida and Arizona deem their communities are taking a step backward and need to invoke some sort of stay-at-home order, then clubs won’t be able to operate under those conditions.
The other issue is about the health and safety protocols for the players as they train all spring in the midst of the ongoing pandemic. Like last summer, the league and the players’ union have to agree on how to keep everyone safe and decide on how often players will be tested and the protocols for a positive test. It’s likely everything will be signed off on in order for camps to open on time using the framework from last summer.
Gonzalez: Outside of local government implementing the type of health and safety restrictions that would prevent teams from congregating at their facilities — don’t count on it, given that the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes are fully operational, the latter with partial attendance — it would have to come from the MLBPA agreeing to delay the start of spring training.
The Cactus League doesn’t have the authority to do so. MLB, beholden to the terms of the collective bargaining agreement and a schedule that has long since been announced, doesn’t have much wiggle room, either.
The events of this past Monday, when the union rejected the league’s proposal to delay the season, made it strikingly clear: The players want to start on time. Barring them changing their minds, that’s exactly what will happen.
Is the regular season currently on pace to start on time, and how likely is it that it will do so?
Rogers: Yes. Just like spring training, the regular season is scheduled to begin on time. We are still two months from April 1, though, so things could change — mostly related to the pandemic, now that negotiating a delay has been ruled out.
Considering that the other major sports leagues were able to begin their seasons, expect baseball to as well — unless something major and unforeseen occurs.
Why did the MLBPA reject MLB’s recent proposal of a 154-game season with a delayed start?
Rogers: In simple terms, the MLBPA had no incentive to change the calendar. Pitchers were already ramping up for a mid-February start, and remember, teams are back to traveling cross country for games.
The last thing players want is a compressed schedule, and some even wonder whether waiting a month would help all that much in terms of the pandemic anyway. They’re going to have to follow the health and safety protocols then just as much as they do now. The league’s guarantee of full pay, well, is the same thing the players are getting right now.
Gonzalez: I will add, too, that expanded postseason proved to be a major sticking point.
Another, which granted Rob Manfred additional power to cancel or suspend games with regard to the ongoing pandemic, was cleared up when the league offered to change its language on the subject on Monday.
But the MLBPA didn’t want expanded postseason, at least not this year. Lots of players believe expanded playoffs will only further disincentivize teams from spending and thus further shrink baseball’s disappearing middle class. And, perhaps more to the point, the union doesn’t want to set the precedent of back-to-back years of expanded playoffs going into the negotiation of a new CBA, considering it’s potentially the union’s biggest bargaining chip. The cynic’s view from the union: If this really was all about health and safety, why do you have to attach expanded postseason to the negotiation?
How much time do players really need to get ready for Opening Day?
Gonzalez: Relievers don’t need much, and neither do the position players. The concern is the starting pitchers and whether they would have enough time to adequately build up enough length to safely enter a regular rotation spot during the regular season.
The common theme among players is that spring training is basically two weeks too long in a normal year. You can shave that off and I don’t think you’d hear many complaints. Some starters might not be fully stretched out if that is the case, but that can be mitigated by more roster spots early in the season.
There were way too many pitcher injuries last year, but many believe that was due to shutting down in the spring and building back up in the summer more so than “summer camp” not being long enough.
Will MLB have a leaguewide stance on fans in the stands during spring training and the regular season?
Rogers: Fan attendance will be determined by local municipalities, but clubs will be required to submit a plan to the league office that must be approved as consistent with the advice of their health experts.
Spring training is expected to start with limited fans throughout Florida and Arizona, pending local approval. The Boston Red Sox announced plans to have 24% capacity at their games in Fort Myers, the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals have spring training tickets on sale now, and the Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies, Miami Marlins, Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals are among teams that have announced plans to start spring with limited fans in attendance.
While it is too early to know what attendance will look like during the regular season, the Rays are one team that has announced a specific plan — in their case, 7,000 fans allowed at Tropicana Field — for the start of the season in April.
Gonzalez: This is going to be a fascinating element coming off a year with no fan revenue, and it’ll be interesting to watch how the five California teams navigate the exceedingly strict protocols that were prompted by elevated COVID-19 cases coming out of the holidays.
San Francisco Giants CEO Larry Baer took the first step there, sending a letter to fans in which he wrote that the team “can see a pathway to welcoming our fans back to Oracle Park.” The letter highlighted modifications to stadium entry, food and beverage purchases made exclusively through an app, an “enhanced wayfinding program” that would allow fans to navigate the ballpark while remaining 6 feet apart and socially distant seating charts.
The Giants — and the A’s, and the Dodgers, and the Angels, and the Padres — still have a long way to go. But we at least have an early glimpse into what the ballpark experience might look like in 2021.
Where does the 2021 NL designated hitter decision currently stand?
Rogers: As of this moment, it’s not happening. There will be no tradeoff of an expanded postseason for the NL designated hitter. That much is clear. It is possible that could change based on how spring goes.
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Say, for example, several teams or even the entire Cactus or Grapefruit League has to shut down, and pitchers are thrown off their routines. Then, for safety concerns, the DH could be implemented. In fact, there’s a chance it still might be in anticipation of such problems. But the league won’t just hand the players 15 well-paying jobs without something in return unless it has to.
What about expanded playoffs? Could we see 14 or 16 teams in the postseason again this October?
Rogers: It’s doubtful at this point, unless something dramatically changes to shorten the season like it did in 2020. It’s a huge bargaining chip for the players — not all like the idea anyway — so it will be part of a bigger discussion for the next collective bargaining agreement, which needs to be negotiated before next season.
How are teams handling not knowing the rules entering February?
Gonzalez: National League teams have basically been operating under the impression that the designated hitter will not be implemented for the 2021 season simply because it’s the safer approach.
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Outside of that, the one thing teams are hyperfocused on is possessing as much pitching depth as possible (within the financial constraints of their respective owners, of course). A full season would mean a year-to-year jump from 60 games to 162 games — from a minimum of 510 innings to a minimum of 1,377 innings. Coaches, executives and medical personnel throughout the industry are exceedingly concerned about the threat of injury with such a significant jump looming. There are no clear answers for how to attack it right now.
Which other rules are still unclear for 2021?
Rogers: As of this moment, the 2021 season will revert back to pre-2020 rules with the exception of the three-batter minimum, which was permanently implemented before the pandemic.
However, there is plenty of time between now and the regular season to bring back seven-inning doubleheaders and a man on second base to begin extra innings. Unlike the DH and expanded postseason, there really isn’t a monetary component to those changes. With the likelihood of the pandemic having an impact on games at some point between April and October, the league and players are likely to agree to the rules, which help get games completed.
Another one to watch: Games that begin and are delayed by bad weather are likely to be suspended no matter when the delay occurs. That way, teams don’t have to start the game over if they’ve played less than five innings.
All of this still has to be worked out before Opening Day.