COVID-19 Roundup: MLB’s Plans Begin to Take Shape

This is the latest installment of a series in which the FanGraphs staff rounds up the latest developments regarding the COVID-19 virus’ effect on baseball.

MLB To Communicate Return Plans Early This Week

Major League Baseball owners and commissioner Rob Manfred will convene over a conference call Monday to approve plans for the league’s return, according to a report by Ken Rosenthal at The Athletic. If approved, a proposal will be passed on to the players’ union on Tuesday.

The details of the proposal, Rosenthal says, are likely to address many of the questions that have been batted around in the public sphere over the last few weeks. Spring training would get rebooted for three weeks in mid-June, setting up a regular season that begins in early July and lasts between 78 and 82 games. Teams would open in their home ball parks where possible, and play regionalized schedules that include only teams in their typical divisions and those in opposite league’s corresponding division (AL East teams would face AL and NL East teams, and so on). Teams whose home cities are not containing the virus at the level the league requires could temporarily locate to their spring training sites. Rosters could be expanded to include 45 to 50 players.

This proposal would also expand the playoffs from five to seven teams in each league. Each No. 1 seed would get a first round bye, while the other two division winners and the top Wild Card team would host the three other Wild Card teams in a best-of-three Wild Card round.

Logistical issues aside, the plan’s biggest hurdle is going to be finances, as ESPN’s Jeff Passan noted previously. The proposal will involve asking the players to take a greater pay cut than the prorated salary they have already agreed to, with owners claiming that holding games without fans will put them at too much of a loss. The union has been consistent in its belief that their previous salary agreement is final, making it likely any negotiations will be tense.

The brewing fight between owners and players will certainly cause disillusionment with fans who are left to choose sides, and while it might be tempting for some to sympathize with owners who oversee astronomical payrolls and suddenly have much fewer opportunities to make money themselves this year, it’s also important to remember which side is actually putting their health on the line if play commences.

While MLB players don’t typically fit into the group that are the most vulnerable to serious illness or death as a result of a COVID-19 infection, there is still some risk there, particularly for those with pre-existing health conditions. It’s easy to picture professional athletes as the pictures of flawless health, but as a story by Rosenthal shows, that’s not always the case. In the majors, there are players with Type 1 diabetes, cancer survivors, and those who have had organs removed or who have heart problems. Those players are prepared to play if the season resumes, but the fact remains that they and every other player will be subject to a more dangerous work environment than usual.

Those financial battles need to be waged there likely won’t be fans in attendance at any point this year; there is still hope on MLB’s part that a point will come when fans are allowed back in ballparks in the U.S. this season, but that remains a very distant possibility. While the CPBL on Friday became the first baseball league in the world to allow fans to attend games during the pandemic, their country’s control over the COVID-19 pandemic is superb — Taiwan has reported just 440 cases and six deaths in a population of 23 million people. And even with that record of success, their gameday setups are far from a return to normalcy. Fans wore masks and were required to sit three seats apart, concession stands remained closed, and outside food was not allowed.

For the time being, that’s seemingly as good as it gets. Even in South Korea, which had one of the best coronavirus responses in the world and which saw the KBO begin its season last week, the notion of fans attending games keeps getting delayed. Thanks to a weekend outbreak caused by nightclub and bar attendees, South Korea reported its highest single-day infection total in a month on Sunday. That delivered a blow to the KBO’s hopes of getting fans into stadiums as early as next month.

MLB Will Shorten 2020 Draft to Five Rounds

It was widely reported Friday that Major League Baseball will shorten this year’s draft from 40 rounds to five. The draft will take place on June 10.

The number of drafted players will go down from 1,200 to just 150. Undrafted players are eligible to sign, but for no more than $20,000. And those who are drafted will be subject to delayed signing bonuses, as teams will pay a maximum of just $100,000 to players within the first 30 days of them signing — just 50% of the remainder of their signing bonus can be paid before July 1, 2021, with the balance due before July 1, 2022. Slot amounts will be pegged to 2019 values.

College baseball’s immediate future will be hurt even more, as our own Eric Longenhagen referenced when the notion of shortening the draft first came up back in March. While the very best college players and elite high school prospects will still be drafted this year, everyone else will be filtered back into the collegiate ranks. This will cause a serious headache for schools that must now figure out away to divvy up their already-meager number of scholarships among even more players.

What are the benefits to making such a decision? There aren’t many. The slot values for picks in rounds six through 10 amount to less than $1 million per team. And it should go without saying that major league teams are potentially foregoing tons of talent by forcing so many players to either return to school or accept such low bonuses. According to Rosenthal, 46% of all players to appear in at least one major league game in 2019 were taken in the sixth round or later. Those players include two-time defending NL Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom, as well as other stars like Paul Goldschmidt, Marcus Semien, Lorenzo Cain and Dallas Keuchel.

Results of MLB Antibodies Study Are Published

Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, the professor of medicine at Stanford University who organized a study testing employees of nearly every MLB organization for COVID-19 antibodies last month, released his findings over the weekend. Of the 5,754 people who submitted samples for his study, just 60 tested positive for coronavirus antibodies, a total of 0.7%. About 70% of those who tested positive were asymptomatic.

The test population did have its limitations. About 60% of respondents were male, and 80% were white. That minimizes an important segment of the population, given that communities of color have been shown to be more susceptible to the COVID-19 pandemic. The tests used in the study also were not FDA-approved, and Bhattacharya’s findings have yet to be peer-reviewed. However, thanks to MLB’s swift participation, researchers were able to gain access to a wide range of geographic regions of the country, as well as different social distancing habits, to track how the virus spreads.

NBA: Cavaliers, Trail Blazers Unlock Practice Facilities

About half of NBA teams were given clearance to unlock their practice facilities on Friday, but just two did, with Cleveland Cavaliers and Portland Trail Blazers players representing the first to trickle out after the league shuttered in mid-March.

Cavs forward Larry Nance Jr. was one of those to work out on Friday, and said he underwent a temperature and symptoms check before entering the facility. League rules state that anyone with a temperature above 99.1 degrees is barred from entry.

Commissioner Adam Silver is expected to make a decision in June regarding whether and how the 2019-20 season will continue.





Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

8 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Creamymember
2 years ago

This seems encouraging . .