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Steve Phillips

TSN Baseball Insider

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Professional athletes, broadcasters, sports team executives and owners all have feelings of invincibility at one time or another. Some have it more often than others.

But it wasn’t until Utah Jazz centre Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 that it actually became real. This was no longer something that just happened to old people, young children or those with compromised immune systems. This was something that could affect even the strongest among us. 

It made it real to all athletes in all sports. 

Major League Baseball players had a sense that the league was going to act soon after the NBA suspended its season on Wednesday night. It’s very clear that once players test positive there is no way games can continue to be played. It doesn’t matter where the games are held or whether fans are in the stands ­– if a player who tests positive for the coronavirus can potentially spread it to another player, it’s time to stop playing. 

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred held a conference call with all 30 team owners Thursday afternoon and moved forward with the decision to shut down the remainder of spring training and delay the start of the 2020 regular season by at least two weeks amid concerns over the coronavirus pandemic. The regular season had been scheduled to start on March 26, including the Toronto Blue Jays hosting the Boston Red Sox in their season opener at Rogers Centre.

Obviously, this is a fluid situation without precedent. There is no way of predicting how quickly the virus will run its course and when play will resume. 

The NBA and NHL (which opted to suspend its season on Thursday) were in the midst of their seasons and have suspended play without a projected timeframe to return. Both leagues will eventually have to decide whether to continue regular season play or go directly to the playoffs.

The governors of Washington and California have declared a state of emergency, capping all gatherings of people at events to no more than 250 people to limit the spread of the virus. Manfred and team owners in the affected regions could have considered starting the season on time and playing games without fans. But they would rather wait it out a bit to give themselves every shot at a full season with paying customers in the stands. 

Fans want to see a complete season of baseball. Players would prefer to play in front of fans. And owners would like to maintain the revenue streams.

This all led to the two-week delay, which means that the target day for the season to begin is now Thursday, April 9. One of the things to keep in mind is that if April 9 is the actual day teams return to the field, clubs will have to be willing and able to have players back in spring training not much later than March 26. This is to ensure pitchers will be prepared for the season. I suspect that whenever teams do return to the playing field they will be allowed an expanded roster (28 players).   

If by some chance this timeline pans out, I fully expect a 162-game season to be played. If the season is delayed beyond the two weeks, I think we will have an abbreviated season. The longer the delay, the more time it will take to get players, especially pitchers, fully prepared to play.

Players have been asked to stay near the spring training facilities to participate in optional workouts and to be near the club’s medical staff if needed. This sounds like a good plan but one of the risks to having all of the players together in their spring training locations is that if one player contracts the virus he may expose every other player there. Then what happens? 

There are no easy answers to this unfortunate situation. The two-week delay is an understandable plan but it’s not likely going to be enough time for the virus to dissipate. All it will take is one player, on one team, to test positive and MLB will have to reset the clock on the delay, while they wait for the quarantine period for those that have come in contact with the player to pass. 

Honestly, the more I think about this, it could take months before the virus cycles its way through clubhouses. We have to accept that there is a chance we may not have a baseball season at all in 2020. The last time MLB had its regular season delayed was 1995 when a 144-game season was played after a nearly eight-month long players’ strike also nixed the 1994 World Series.

There are a number of other practical issues that will need to be resolved as well. The MLB Players Association and the commissioner’s office are going to have to negotiate several things, such as figuring out prorated compensation, expense money during the delay, scheduling, playoff format, service time, etc.    

For instance, how will service time be accumulated? Currently, a player must accumulate at least 172 days of service (of the 187 days in the season) in a season to qualify for a full year of service. If the season is shortened because the delay goes beyond the two weeks, service time could be an issue. 

For instance, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts currently has five years and 70 days of major league service. In order to qualify for free agency at the end of the year, the former Boston Red Sox slugger will need to accumulate 102 days of service. What if the season is shortened to 100 days? Betts could come up short of free agency (five years and 170 days of service). The players union won’t let that happen but there will have to be some negotiations to accommodate for cases like this. Don’t worry, Betts will be free at the end of the year – unless maybe there are no games played at all in 2020. 

We focus so much on the major league teams, but all minor leaguers are affected by this as well. Minor league seasons will not be played for quite a while either. Clubs will likely send all of their minor leaguers home. Remember, these young kids don’t have the financial wherewithal to support themselves for a month in Florida or Arizona. They will have to return home and work out there, waiting for the camps to reopen. 

Shutting down spring training and delaying the start of the season will significantly impact the player development process. It could also really hurt the minor league owners who aren’t nearly as financially stable as major league owners.

The amateur draft will also be decimated by the coronavirus. High school and college seasons have been suspended as well. In fact, spring sports have been cancelled in many places already. This will mean that organizations will have to base draft decisions upon scouting evaluations from last year. This will lead to many high-priced mistakes.

The biggest winners of the delay in the season are the Houston Astros and New York Yankees. The Astros’ sign-stealing scandal has become an afterthought because of the coronavirus taking centre stage in MLB and around the world. Their actions seem insignificant because we are dealing with life-and-death matters with the pandemic. Astros players will still get heckled when they return to play, but it won’t be nearly as intense.

The Yankees are winners because the delay in the season will allow more time for James Paxton (back), Giancarlo Stanton (calf), Aaron Judge (rib), Gary Sanchez (back) and Aaron Hicks  (Tommy John surgery) to recover from their injuries without missing games. The Yankees would have been at a substantial disadvantage early in the season with injuries to many of their star players, but now they will play a greater percentage of games with a healthy lineup. 

At least we hope there will be many games to play in 2020.