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The MLB Offseason Is Dark and Full of Terrors

A looming CBA dispute, owners crying financial hardship, minor league contraction, and the ever-present specter of the pandemic have baseball looking at a hot-stove season more unsettling than we’ve ever seen

Getty Images/AP/Ringer illustration

Rob Manfred couldn’t wait for the World Series to end before setting a dispiriting tone for the winter. Exhibiting the deft feel for public relations that would earn him a raucous reception from the fans he insisted on allowing into Globe Life Field, the MLB commissioner gave an interview to Sportico that ran the day before Game 6. Manfred could have refrained from upstaging the series or, alternatively, used his platform to plug what makes the sport’s signature event special: the career-capping accomplishments of superstars such as Mookie Betts and Clayton Kershaw; the exploits of lower-profile players like Brett Phillips and Randy Arozarena; the prospect of handing a piece of metal to some lucky owner. Instead, Manfred focused on the financial fortunes of the billionaires who employ him, claiming that the league’s 30 teams have accrued a record $8.3 billion in debt and that their collective operational losses will amount to $2.8 billion to $3 billion in 2020.

It’s unfortunate but fitting that the MLB postseason’s positive stories competed with the commissioner crying poor, reports of sweeping layoffs, and COVID concerns, and that an all-time-great team’s on-field performance was almost immediately overshadowed by its bad on-field judgment. In a tumultuous and often tragic year, the good goes with the terrible, and baseball, as ever, reflects the rest of society. Although MLB and the players eventually found a workable way to mitigate the dangers of playing through a pandemic, the season’s status was day to day from the first out to the last. As long as games were going on, protocols were being followed, and positive tests were being averted, it was possible at times to lose oneself in the game’s sights and sounds, despite the jury-rigged rules and discordant roars of fake crowds. Now that the action is over, though, the underlying ills aren’t counterbalanced by anything, and the headlines highlight what may be in store for the next several months. Welcome to MLB’s fraught stove season.

The overnight transition from the Fall Classic’s showcase of baseball’s best teams to tweets about declined or exercised options was disorienting in pre-pandemic times, but the feeling of foreboding is deeper than usual this year (and not just because of the looming election). Thanks to the pandemic, the customary countdowns to spring training that start as soon as the series ends seem more aspirational than reassuring; no one knows whether next season will start on time or whether it will be safe to sell tickets. That sort of uncertainty isn’t specific to baseball, but Manfred and the 30 lords of no shame have reliably wrung the maximum frustration from challenging circumstances by making unsubstantiated and apocalyptic pronouncements about the pandemic’s impact on the viability of their businesses.

“It’s absolutely certain, I know, that we’re going to have to have conversations with the MLBPA about what 2021 is going to look like,” Manfred said to Sportico. “It’s difficult to foresee a situation right now where everything’s just normal. And obviously, if it’s not normal we’re going to have to have conversations about it.”

Those conversations are essential, but considering the adversarial and often petulant tenor that the talks between the two entities took this spring and summer, the resumption of their dialogue is reason for dread. Much of the foot-dragging and sniping in the lead-up to the season that became such a turnoff for fans stemmed from the owners’ reluctance to abide by an agreement to pay the players prorated salaries, exacerbated by their usual refusals to open their books. The owners appear determined to cut costs significantly this offseason, and the ramifications could be dire not only for non-uniformed team personnel but also for free agency—and, by extension, for labor relations and the odds of avoiding a work stoppage when the CBA expires in December 2021.

Because its season hadn’t started when the coronavirus struck and its games couldn’t plausibly be bubbled, MLB faced impediments to play and to pay that some major sports leagues escaped. MLB isn’t immune to the financial effects of the pandemic, and it’s easy to believe that teams took on more debt and suffered some losses in a year when the season was shortened to 60 fan-free games. It’s far from clear, though, that the clubs’ current debt load is unmanageable or even directly attributable to the pandemic. Owners have repeatedly made misleading claims and painted an incomplete picture of team finances (which is nothing new) and their ominous statements—which more fans have started to doubt—never acknowledge the years of record revenues, healthy profits, and steady franchise appreciation that preceded the pandemic (or the massive TV rights extension signed during the pandemic).

If owners were eager to trim payrolls prior to the pandemic, one can only imagine how low offseason spending can go in a year when circumstances provide more motivation and a better excuse for austerity. (It doesn’t help that COVID-caused opt-outs, the cancellation of the minor league season, and the small-sample major league season may make player performance projections less precise.) And if players were willing to take to social media and form a united front when the CBA was still years away from expiring, it’s likely that their rhetoric and resolve will ramp up in the coming months, escalating tensions between the two camps. “This winter, then, could introduce kerosene to an already combustible environment,” The Athletic’s Evan Drellich wrote on Friday. Drellich reported that the union is expected to file a grievance over the league’s implementation of the 60-game season, and that while owners may try to postpone the CBA talks, players have little incentive to, considering their dissatisfaction with the current deal.

Whether one assigns some of the responsibility to the owners or simply chalks the situation up to the travails of 2020 doesn’t change the likelihood of good news about baseball being scarce this offseason. Signs of a spending downturn already abound. Last week, the Braves declined a $3.5 million option on effective right-handed reliever Darren O’Day, opting to pay a $500,000 buyout. The Cardinals declined a $12.5 million option on slick-fielding Kolten Wong in favor of paying a $1 million buyout. The Rays declined a $15 million option on Charlie Morton less than two weeks after his ALCS Game 7 start helped send them to the World Series. Cleveland placed lights-out lefty reliever Brad Hand on waivers, hoping that another team would claim him and spare them the expense of paying a $1 million buyout in lieu of exercising his $10 million option. And a record low of six players received qualifying offers.

“Teams, players, and agents as a whole are concerned that there will be a severe cut in spending throughout the game this winter,” wrote Cardinals beat writer Derrick Goold, who—like a team executive quoted in Drellich’s piece—forecasted a rash of non-tendered arbitration-eligible players flooding the free agent market. Expect much more payroll slashing ahead, and prepare for franchise players like Francisco Lindor and Nolan Arenado to be dangled or dealt. Whatever movement does occur will likely develop slowly, in part because the in-person general managers meetings, owners meetings, and winter meetings, which tend to spur transaction activity, have all been canceled because of the coronavirus. To make matters more demoralizing for fans, the owners will seek to boost revenues by making playoff expansion permanent, which may actually discourage spending on players and will also make the regular season seem like an inconsequential slog.

The most immediate and acute consequences of the cutbacks will be felt not by the fantastically wealthy men who control the teams or even by established big leaguers, but by the team employees who’ve lost their jobs in droves. Many teams cut or furloughed personnel prior to or during the season, and several clubs, including the Cubs, Athletics, Red Sox, Orioles, and Giants, have recently laid off large swaths of staffers on both the business and baseball operations sides, with the latter subtractions coming largely from scouting and player development.

The player development cuts have proceeded in part from the contraction of the affiliated minor leagues, which was likely bound to occur but seemed to accelerate as MLB sought to consolidate its control of organized baseball at a time when the pandemic deprived desperate minor league clubs of their leverage. Fewer affiliates means fewer affiliated players, and many minor leaguers have also lost their jobs. The story of this winter in baseball will be one of downsizing across the board, especially in the smallest tax brackets. Baseball isn’t the only industry experiencing tough times, but the extent of the damage done to the people and the longstanding structures inside the sport will become clearer in the absence of broadcasts and box scores.

On top of the discourse about COVID concerns, shrinking budgets, and unemployed players and personnel, MLB is also in for a second straight winter of fallout from the sign-stealing scandal. When the World Series ended, so did the suspensions of former Astros GM Jeff Luhnow and former Astros and Red Sox managers A.J. Hinch and Alex Cora. The Tigers hired Hinch on Friday, confirming pre-offseason expectations that he and Cora (who’s reportedly talking to the Red Sox about a reunion) were likely to be welcomed back to baseball immediately. Luhnow will have a harder time being embraced, but that won’t stop him from airing his grievances or MLB sources from firing back. The demise of Quibi may have at least temporarily spared us a second documentary on the Astros, but one has already arrived, and multiple books about the team and the scandal are due out next year.

The free-agent market’s top position player, George Springer, is an ex-Astro also, and although Springer posted his best offensive seasons in 2019 and 2020, his presence on the 2017-18 teams—and his apparently active participation in the banging scheme—will surely lead to press-conference questions whenever and wherever he signs. The top pitcher available via free agency, frequent Astros antagonist Trevor Bauer, will milk the sweepstakes for the greatest possible publicity, which will mean more opportunities for trolling and bullying behavior on Twitter and more scrutiny of his highly suspicious spike in spin rates, which could incite a foreign-substance scandal. I’m already tired.

In the aftermath of the Dodgers’ drought-ending victory, COVID-infected third baseman Justin Turner’s maskless face made the celebration difficult to watch. That episode embodied the country’s rudderless response to the virus, but it also served as an apt and unseemly segue to a winter that may be similarly unsettling. MLB succeeded in completing its season, and the players’ performances helped brighten the past few months for the fans. But while they’re staring out the window, waiting for spring, and hoping that unlike last spring, it actually brings baseball, those fans may find that the offseason is dark and full of terrors—or as Andrew Friedman put it on Tuesday, “not good optics at all.”