When baseball's winter meetings end, the countdown normally begins, so with a nod to tradition, here it is: Twins pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to camp in Fort Myers in just 68 days.
You might want to hold off on making reservations, though.
As much as baseball and the rest of the world would like to believe that the effects of COVID-19 will be restricted to 2020, reality has long since intruded into planning for 2021. Not so much yet in Major League Baseball, however — and that's a problem that will soon cast a large shadow over the sport.
The offseason is halfway over, and 30 teams are still operating with no idea about what 2021 will look like, and with little guidance about how to deal with that uncertainty. More than 160 free agents are looking for work as teams tiptoe gingerly into the market, with questions as basic as how many players will be on each team's roster, or whether the National League will continue to use designated hitters, still unanswered — or even addressed.
And as MLB learned last May and June, those issues are almost insignificant compared to the most momentous and contentious one: salaries.
Yet Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association have not convened anything but the most cursory of talks — reportedly, those what-if chats regarding a universal DH in exchange for expanded playoffs quickly snagged — as the new year draws near. The prospect of another extended round of divvying up a revenue stream that's certain to be smaller than pre-pandemic norms makes the sport's decision to schedule this year's Opening Day on April 1 all the more appropriate.
It's the headline both sides should start working to avoid: You really think baseball will start on time? April Fool!
The development of vaccines has triggered optimism that COVID-19 will be wiped out in 2021, but there appears to be little chance of that happening in time to allow full stadiums, or even any fans at all in some locales, by Opening Day. And that reality, following a season in which MLB claims to have lost $300 million, creates the conditions, no matter both sides' earnest intentions, for another lengthy stalemate.
The New York Post reported last week that MLB and the MLBPA are ambling toward opening negotiations about 2021, perhaps even within the next week, the first step of a long process. Even that prospect is mildly surprising, given that the union has motivation to drag out the process. As demonstrated last June, players understandably want to play as many games as possible and be paid their full salaries for it. But once the length of the season is on the table, as owners will surely demand if fans cannot attend, they can only go down from 162.
The expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement on Dec. 1, 2021, with the potential of a lockout or strike in 2022, adds more fuel to this potential wildfire, too. Posturing for those all-encompassing negotiations won't be easy to avoid. And though players and management worked together admirably to control the virus during the short 2020 season, protocols will have to be agreed to again for 2021.
Procedures and practices
But beyond the fundamental questions about how many games to play and how much the players will be paid, of when to open camps and whether to start the season on time, of selling tickets or keeping stadiums empty, myriad new procedures and practices must be worked out as the game moves toward a new normalcy.
For instance, the notion of staggering major and minor league camps to prevent coronavirus outbreaks has been floated, perhaps with MLB camps limited to 60 players, as last season's summer camps were. That may be a sound policy, healthwise, but it makes the normal Cactus and Grapefruit seasons unworkable.
The Twins used 100 players during 2019 spring games, including 38 pitchers, in order to limit the workload of players trying to work their way into shape. (And that's coming off a season in which many pitchers have carried normal workloads, in some cases around 200 innings; no MLB pitcher reached 85 innings in 2020.) Without the ability to draw from their minor league rosters, teams won't be able to play nine innings a day for six weeks in Florida, meaning many games will likely have to be shortened or scrubbed.
Pitchers' arm strength, after light usage in 2019, will be a concern that undoubtedly drags into the regular season, too, which may necessitate expanded rosters for a second straight season. Even so, teams may need to carry more young, inexperienced pitchers than usual, just so they can easily be optioned to the minor leagues in order to keep fresh arms available in the majors. Reducing off days in order to squeeze in games will put more pressure on pitching staffs, too.
Is 2020 the new template?
Then there are all the on-field changes that were stipulated for 2020 but may be necessary in 2021, too. If doubleheaders are necessary to complete a schedule, will seven-inning games be standard again? Will extra innings begin with a runner on second base again, a strategy to ward off extra-long games? And Nelson Cruz would like to know as he shops himself in free agency: Will NL teams need designated hitters?
October is a long way off, too, but a playoff structure must be determined far in advance. That could be trickier than it seems, since the Players Association suspects that allowing more teams to participate, even if it brings in more TV revenue, will drain their need or desire to sign free agents to qualify.
Baseball isn't alone in this purgatory, of course. The NHL still hasn't settled on how to conduct a season that would normally have begun 10 weeks ago.
That's a fate that Major League Baseball would like to avoid. It won't be possible unless, sometime soon, the sides decide it's time to play ball.
Phil Miller covers the Twins and Major League Baseball for the Star Tribune. email@example.com