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What we lose in the fire, we gain in the flood

Baseball is staring down a reinvention

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MLB Still In Limbo Due To The Covid-19 Pandemic Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Once more amid the backdrop of a country beset by racial violence, deadly and highly-infectious disease, and the seeming inability of many leaders to do anything overly effective about either, we find ourselves longing for sport. Its return alone cannot cure what ails us. But by now, you’ve seen your share of letters of yearning, penned in desperation and hope, published with the wish that their agenda — a return to the “normalcy” or “escape” of sports — can somehow be posted into existence. Right about now, wishful thinking is all we’ve got.

For baseball, things seem particularly bleak. The Players’ Association and the Commissioner’s Office, two mortal enemies that form the gears of MLB’s machine, gears that spin in opposite directions but must nonetheless find a way to interlock, are once more finding a way to imperil the future of the game by feuding with one another over how to return to play. On the players’ side, there’s an unwillingness to accept further pay cuts in a shortened season given the (very real) hazard of returning to work in a very-not-socially distant environment. On the league’s end, the interests of team owners and all of the balance sheets therein falling a few million extra dollars short. The complications stemming from those headline issues are also myriad. Really, as we hit June without a single game played and no idea when, where, or how the first might happen, optimism about having a 2020 MLB season of substance is dwindling.

The sport will not die if no professional baseball is played in North America this year. It will suffer critical wounds, absolutely, but baseball will continue to exist. Despite all its shortcomings and mismanagement, it still feels too big to fail.

What version of baseball is coming out the other side, though? What kinds of transformation will it undergo? What effects will we see immediately upon its return, and what others might take a couple extra years to materialize? These are the things that are tougher (if not impossible right now) to answer with a lot of confidence.

Take one aspect of the agreement that (we think) is in place for the two sides upon their return to playing games: Granting a full year of Major League service time (typically 172 days) to players on MLB rosters for the 2020 season regardless of length. It doesn’t seem to be clear yet what will happen if no games are played at all, but that’s certain to be another contentious issue: Players may want to capitalize on their ability to become free agents or, conversely, try and recoup some of the money they were set to be paid this year by playing 2021 under similar terms.

Picture this: J.T. Realmuto, in his walk year, could be granted the final ~135 days of service time needed to allow him to become an Article XX(B) free agent. What might happen if he is or isn’t given the necessary days?

  • J.T. gets the service time. He doesn’t receive the $10 million he was awarded in a critical arbitration case that, somehow, only happened a little over three months ago, and so his eyes turn toward testing the market. Without a 2020 season to reinforce his stats, he’ll be trying to match or exceed the high-teens/low-20s AAV he was likely targeting in an extension with the Phillies. As he enters his age 30 season — a number that looms larger for catchers than most other positions on the field — the length of that next deal is probably going to be shorter than originally thought. And will the new free agent market economics, after a year of severely hampered income across the league, still reflect those of recent offseasons? Maybe they still could, but teams are likely to try and suppress those values further in the wake of all this.
  • J.T. doesn’t get the service time. He hangs at 5 years, 38 days. Is the arbitration value for 2020 carried forward? Are the two sides forced to re-arbitrate? How do both sides’ approaches to the negotiations that might happen get colored by the looming labor stoppage following the 2021 season? We don’t know any of those answers yet.

There’s another huge dilemma looming over players in Realmuto’s position, with eyes on free agency. If there is a shortened season, one that will always be regarded with an asterisk for its peculiarity but also played with the specter of serious health consequences hanging over every single game and road trip, no matter how abbreviated...why play? If you’re someone like Realmuto, universally regarded as no worse than the second-best catcher in the game and coming off a season in which you won both the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger at your position, is this 80-game season something you want to jeopardize your largest payday over? The scales tip in favor of sitting out the smaller that number of games gets, too. It’s difficult to improve on that resume, even if fans would be certain to take affront to a player valuing his safety and well-being over entertainment. J.T.’s a bit of an exception for his ability, reputation, and proximity to free agency, but players like Mookie Betts, George Springer, Marcus Semien, and D.J. LeMahieu might also be giving it some thought.

And cases will differ from player to player, sometimes hugely. Think about how different the situation will be for someone like Jake Arrieta. Arrieta, 34, was set to make $20 million this season, likely his last with the Phillies under any circumstance. If the entire season is lost and Arrieta becomes a free agent, what sort of market could he expect for his services as he advances through his mid-30s after a few years of mostly steady decline since his 2015 Cy Young Award? Is his career ostensibly over? The same questions face other guys who were in camp like Francisco Liriano, Neil Walker, Anthony Swarzak, Drew Storen, and more. And, obviously, this isn’t only a problem facing players on the Phillies: Teams across the league are releasing minor leaguers en masse, and while that’s a pretty typical occurrence under normal conditions, nobody’s hiring right now. The lack of open jobs to fill in other organizations is going to leave just about all of these players in the lurch. Many have played their last professional baseball game without getting a shot to say a proper goodbye.

There is no truly apt comparison to this situation, because none of us have lived through anything like it. But the aftermath of the baseball landscape post-2020 reminds me of the NHL following the 2004-05 lockout and season cancellation. There were some 200 free agents, and any personal sense I had of what players were on what teams was just about obliterated; I couldn’t keep up with the scramble. Even just on the Flyers, only 16 players who were on the 2003-04 squad appeared in a 2005-06 game for the team, a turnover rate of about 60 percent.

While baseball’s free agency and player control structure might prevent a reshuffling quite that dramatic, a 2020 season cancellation guarantees plenty of new looks for ‘21. Some teams might be a little familiar, while others feel wholly unrecognizable. We’ll also probably need to reset our ideas of where each team stands in its window of contention, with Major League rosters upended and the development of prospects at every level interrupted (an entirely different topic with ramifications this sport will feel for a long time, no matter how this ends). It will take a good deal of patience to reacquaint ourselves with the new landscape, and many fans might not have the endurance for that.

The title of this post is borrowed from a 2010 album title of the same name, by the Mynabirds. Appropriately, the album was conceived in the wake of the dissolution of singer Laura Burhenn’s former group, Georgie James. The band name itself is a gentle variation of the Mynah Birds, a supergroup that once consisted of Neil Young and Rick James, among others. Short of bluntly titling the project something phoenix-related, the Mynabirds were instead a reinvention for Burhenn and a modern re-imagining of the folk/Motown blend of the band’s namesake. Similar, but different; Burhenn’s old group had burned off, but the extinguishing of that fire led to a cleansing.

Maybe that’s a bit of a tortured metaphor for what we’re all facing as baseball fans, combining thoughts of a completely different sport with mid-2010s deep-cut indie band names, but the concept at its core will hold true. Baseball will undergo a transformation, and parts of the old game will burn away. The flood that puts out those fires may even be a little destructive, too. But there will be baseball when the waters recede and the embers finish smoking. Just how much that game resembles the building we’ve known as a shelter for the past couple decades is yet to be seen.

As a brief aside, this is my final piece here at The Good Phight. It’s been an awesome past six years, and a privilege to be able to lend some words and thoughts to this space, experimenting with projects and styles along the way. I’m taking a step back from writing about baseball for a bit, but I hope to see all of you back at CBP real soon. Take care of each other!