During a radio interview last night, I was asked broadly about the upcoming offseason and what I expect the Cubs to do given their limited financial resources. But when I began to formulate a response, it finally all hit me: There isn’t just one issue facing the Cubs (and the other 29 teams in MLB this offseason), there are many – and each one bleeds into the next.
Worse, while some issues spawned at the outset of the pandemic, others were simply exacerbated by the virus, and still some others are completely unrelated. Unfortunately, that means that even an unexpected silver-bullet – like the credible promise of a safe and effective vaccine – won’t alleviate all or even most of the tension. This is going to be an incredibly difficult offseason to navigate (let alone predict), and that goes double for a team whose president still hasn’t decided if he’s coming back for his final season in Chicago.
1. Free Agency Freeze Out
Among the more straight-forward issues is free agency. By now, you should already know that the free agent market today looks considerably different than it did even a week ago, as legitimate regulars like Kolten Wong, Brad Hand, and Charlie Morton have already been added to the pile (that’s 3 of the top-33 free agents according to MLBTR). But if you remember, those were just option decisions.
Who’s Actually Available?
The tender deadline is still ahead of us (December 2nd), and it’s expected to be a non-tendering bloodbath. One club executive literally told The Athletic: “You’re going to have a record number of non-tenders ….”
So from thing one, we have to accept that (1) free agency looks markedly different than it did even a week ago and (2) the non-tender deadline is still a month away. I’m not sure how any team could plan a conclusive offseason strategy with a full month to go before knowing who’s actually going to be available. If you agree that there is going to be a record number of non-tenders, you’d be foolish not to wait unless you can get a steal … but how can you know what a steal looks like with so much uncertainty?
Who Spends, Who Doesn’t?
And then there’s the question of who’s actually going to spend this offseason. Agents and players may have caught a break when the league and city approved a sale of the Mets to billionaire Steve Cohen, but he can’t single-handedly save the industry. We know Cohen’s pockets are deeeep (he’s now the richest owner in MLB, by far), but let’s be real: he’s not going to pay any one player more than he has to and he’s not going to sign or trade for everyone. Buster Olney seems to imply that the Blue Jays could be ready to spend, and I’m sure the Yankees and Dodgers will get somebody, despite their protestations, but there *will be* more teams cutting payroll than ever before.
Francisco Lindor’s Impact
In fact, payrolls may be so tight this offseason, that Olney even believes “a move of Lindor’s salary will probably affect other moves ….” To expand on that, Olney believes the Indians are very likely to move Lindor this offseason (at this point, that’s the consensus belief), but because he’s going to make over $20 million next year, his trade, alone, could take one even moderate spender out of the market. Think about that. Things are ROUGH when one singular trade might take an entire organization out of the rest of free agency.
The same thinking can be applied to any other costly trade candidate, making those trade candidates – like the ones on the Cubs – all the less attractive.
Again, imagine trying to plan your offseason right now, given the impact on the rest of the market for just one trade that’s very likely to happen. Impossible.
Young players forced into extensions?
Of course, there will be opportunistic organizations out there that try to hold the feet of their youngest talent to the fire on long-term extensions they’d otherwise have no problem rejecting. But even if that’s actually enticing to the more cold-hearted fans among us, I’ll remind you that deals struck with one side at an extreme disadvantage is rarely ever actually a good thing in the long run. If you need an example, look no further than the current CBA.
Which brings us to the second half of these issues …
2. The Fight Hasn’t Even Started
The pandemic-crunched budgets may have created many of the above short-term problems, but they merely exacerbated everything that comes next. Remember: The 2016 CBA – the rules that govern the relationship between the players union and the league, itself – expires after the 2021 season.
CBA Negotiations on Hold
Historically, the league and the union would begin negotiating the next CBA this winter, so as to give themselves as much time as possible to iron out a deal ahead of the 2022 season and avoid a work stoppage. However, those negotiations have been put on hold, because the pandemic has lingered on and created uncertainty about the 2021 season, which may, itself, require a side agreement not unlike 2020 did.
“All of our attention is currently focused on devising a plan to safely play in 2021. We look forward to collaborating with the Players Association this offseason and throughout the 2021 season to address the challenges that likely will exist until the virus is controlled.”
As such, “prominent figures in the industry” told The Athletic that the league will ask the union to delay the start of CBA negotiations this winter, possibly even hinting at the hope for an extension of the current CBA. But while that may sound like a good idea, (1) delaying the negotiations will just increase the likelihood of a 2022 work stoppage, and (2) the union is very unhappy with the current CBA, so any extension of the existing deal will be considered a concession by the players that will require some form of payment.
And seeing as historic revenue losses for the owners in 2020 and 2021 could give the players their greatest ever leverage (because a work stoppage in 2022 would mean three straight years of messed up revenue), the players leverage may never be higher. What would it cost to make them give that up?
Which rules for 2021? Do they carry over?
This is actually a very complicated topic, but let’s keep it short for the sake of brevity: If the 2021 season is going to be not normal (which is looking likelier every day), the players and owners will have to agree on alternative rules again: DH, expanded playoffs, number of games, roster spots, etc.
And the ability for the league to unilaterally change certain aspects of the sport (like season length) depends on whether or not the U.S. is *literally* in a declared state of emergency come the spring.
The 2020 Grievance
Don’t forget about me!
Oh, and if negotiating new rules for 2021, the window for negotiating the next CBA, AND a possible CBA extension wasn’t enough for you, the players are also expected to file their grievance this offseason. Remember that?
The union will argue that the league did not make its best efforts to play as many games as possible in 2020 and the league will push back. The decision of this grievance, which could take multiple months to decided, is expected to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
That decision, alone, can change everything … or it could be yet another piece of leverage the players have over the league, making a CBA extension (or even delayed negotiations) even more difficult to agree upon.
Disagreement on Financial Losses
And lastly, hanging over literally everything else, is this fundamental disagreement on the extent and impact of the 2020 revenue losses. The owner of the Rockies put it quite bluntly (via The Athletic):
“The financial losses incurred across baseball in 2020 are astounding, with losses at nearly $3 billion industry-wide and the average club losing nearly $100 million,” wrote Rockies owner Dick Monfort, the chair of MLB’s labor policy committee, in an email to ticket holders Thursday. “It will take time to rebound, and in some cases, these losses will never be recovered. As a result, there will be nothing normal about this offseason as the industry faces a new economic reality, and each club will have to adjust.”
Another club executive expanded on that statement, saying that the big markets lost between $150-$200 million, the middle markets lost about $100 million, and the small markets lost much less at the gates, but got crushed on expected revenue sharing, which was eliminated in 2020 and may be again eliminated in 2021. (The Cubs reportedly claim they lost $140 million in 2020.)
By contrast, Bruce Meyer (MLBPA senior director of collective bargaining and legal) and agent Scott Boras have both made the “long-term health of the sport argument.” And, frankly, it remains convincing. When you look at how far revenues soared in the very recent past and where they’ll likely be again in the very near future (particularly if the right steps are taken over the next two offseasons …), then owners should be willing to be less extreme this offseason to make a deal work with the players. There is no doubt that revenues are significantly down and owners shouldn’t necessarily bear the entirety of that pain, but they need to carry their fair share. And right now, no one can even agree what that means.
So as you can see, in every conceivable way this offseason could be difficult to navigate, it will be. Players have no idea what to expect from front offices, front offices have no idea what to expect in free agency or from their owners, and owners have no idea how the grievance will play out, if they can get the players to extend the CBA, if they can get the players to put off the CBA negotiations, or what the 2021 season will look like from a logistical or revenue standpoint.
And all of this after three years of free agent tension, followed by the 2020 fight, and preceding the 2021 CBA. This will get worse before it gets better.