This is the latest installment of a daily series in which the FanGraphs staff rounds up the latest developments regarding the COVID-19 virus’ effect on baseball.
With work in so many industries disrupted by COVID-19 and the efforts to limit its spread, many individuals have felt the financial pressure of work stoppages or even layoffs. Those in the baseball haven’t been immune to this pressure. Earlier this week, Major League Baseball and all 30 clubs agreed to relief for the seasonal ballpark employees that have been left jobless with the delayed start to the season, pledging $1 million per team. Yesterday, after a loud and persistent public outcry, we finally saw the financial situation of the league’s minor league players addressed, if only temporarily.
MLB Announces a League-Wide Initiative to Support Minor League Players
After a handful of teams announced earlier in the week that they would continue to pay their spring training per diems, the policy was officially adopted as a league-wide, temporary solution for all minor league players:
A league-wide initiative has been announced for Minor League players to receive compensation between now and the scheduled start of the Minor League season. @MLB will continue to work with all 30 Clubs on the development of an industry-wide plan for compensation beyond 4/8. pic.twitter.com/Ck8Lv9uuzp
— MLB Communications (@MLB_PR) March 19, 2020
Every team will provide each minor league player a lump sum equal to the allowances that would have been paid until the beginning of the minor league season on April 8. There are a few exceptions, and no solution has been announced for how to handle compensation between April 9 and the beginning of the upcoming season, whenever that might be. MLB and the teams are still working on a long-term plan.
Jake Seiner of the Associated Press reported that the allowances agreed on by MLB and the teams are $400 per week across three weeks, for a lump sum of $1,200. That’s much higher than the standard spring training weekly stipend, which is normally around $100-$200 per week. Because this solution is fairly straightforward, it wouldn’t surprise me to see it extended past April 8 through the beginning of the minor league season. That would mean many minor leaguers would be paid more during this work stoppage than they will be once the season starts up again.
Service Time for Major Leaguers Looks Like the Next Battleground
With minor league pay addressed, at least in part, Major League Baseball has another looming problem to sort out: compensation and service time issues for major league players. Most major league players won’t feel the financial pressure the minor league players have felt as acutely. But players are still wondering if or when they’ll be paid. Compensation is likely the easiest problem to solve though. It’s the service time issues that have become the sticking point between MLB and the MLBPA:
1/Union’s recent proposal was that even if no games were played in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic players would receive full service time for the 2020 season as long as they'd reached certain service time criteria in 2019.
— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) March 19, 2020
With the beginning of the season still up in the air and the number of games that will be played in 2020 undecided, players are rightly concerned about how this season will affect their service time clock. This issue has many knock on effects like when they’re eligible for arbitration and free agency, which could have a significant effect on the potential career earnings of the youngest players in the league and those nearing the end of arbitration.
In the likely event of a shortened season, MLB’s proposal of proportional service given in 2020 probably makes the most sense. That avoids the awkward potential for players like Mookie Betts to miss out on free agency by a year in the event that fewer than 100 games are played. But the MLBPA is hesitant to simply accept that solution in the unlikely event that the entire season is lost. They want assurances from MLB that no matter how many games are played in 2020, the service time clock will advance. MLB will likely argue that if no games are played, no service time will have been accrued, but that would push arbitration and free agency back by an entire season for every player, something the Players Union would never accept.
Tensions are already high between MLB and the union with the Collective Bargaining Agreement set to expire after the 2021 season. The league may not want to pick an ugly fight with the players over this now with another set of grueling negotiations on the horizon.
Pitcher Health a Concern for Teams
With spring training shut down and many teams sending their players home, new concern has emerged over how best to keep pitchers healthy once things start to ramp back up. Once a start date for the season is finalized, a short spring training will be needed to get players back in game shape. But for pitchers, a shortened ramp up time could have unhealthy ramifications later on, as Eno Sarris wrote for The Athletic yesterday:
“With no games, the question is can pitchers get the needed workload to build up before the season starts,” said Casey Mulholland, founder of KineticPro Performance in Tampa, a facility that trains many major leaguers in normal times. “The repercussions of this time off could greatly alter any future season, but if not managed properly, could alter the careers of many of the game’s top athletes.”
Jerry Dipoto, general manager of the Mariners, is aware of this risk and says he is already planning on contingencies to avoid a higher injury rate for his pitchers:
If/when baseball does come back, Dipoto said they will not risk the health of any of their pitchers by ramping them up too soon. He said they go three inning starts or a 10-man rotation if they had to, to make sure pitchers stay healthy.
— Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) March 19, 2020
Minor League Baseball Faces Even More Challenges
Earlier this year, Baseball America reported that Major League Baseball had floated a proposed Professional Baseball Agreement with Minor League Baseball that would eliminate 42 minor league teams in 2021. There was a swift backlash to this proposal, but Minor League Baseball continues to face challenges with the delayed start to the season. J.J. Cooper reports that a handful of minor league teams are facing a “disaster situation” financially:
“MiLB teams already know that this season will be the most challenging financially that they have ever faced. The numbers vary, but without significant help from the government or others, estimates from people inside MiLB range from 10 to 40 MiLB clubs that may struggle to make it through the season.”
We’ll be back next week with more news. Until then, stay safe.