For all the data we typically track in a numbers-obsessed sport like baseball, spring training this year involves keeping an eye on a statistic that has sadly forced its way into our national consciousness: the COVID-19 positivity rate.
MLB wanted to delay spring training by a month, followed by a shortened 154-game season, in the hope that the pandemic might be better contained during the extended pause. The Players Association, wary of the potential threat to their full salaries, declined the offer.
So pitchers and catchers will report as scheduled this week to Arizona and Florida, armed with a new pandemic operations manual for 2021, amid what remains an uncertain COVID-19 environment. As of Saturday, Arizona’s positivity rate was at 9.4% and Florida a bit lower at 7%, with reportedly decreasing rates in the number of cases and hospitalizations.
Odds are that teams will have to deal with cases in spring training, just as they did last summer during the abbreviated 60-game regular season. The turbulent 2020 featured at least three significant outbreaks and ended with Justin Turner testing positive in middle of the Dodgers’ clinching World Series win -- then joining his teammates on the field to celebrate.
These next six weeks will have plenty of those same challenges -- and a notable new one as limited-capacity crowds will be allowed in the ballparks for exhibition games. With that in mind, we’ll recap where things stand on the eve of spring training, and what lies ahead after what felt like the longest offseason in recent memory.
THE BIG CHILL
If last winter was the Art of the Megadeal, this one is more like "Let’s make a deal" as free agents didn’t command the same long-term hauls and dozens still remain on the market. A year ago, the sport was coming off Gerrit Cole ($324M), Anthony Rendon ($245M) and Stephen Strasburg ($245M). This time, the top tier was George Springer ($150M), J.T. Realmuto ($115M) and Trevor Bauer ($102M), although Bauer’s $34-million AAV was more in line with the 2020 crowd. According to the Associated Press, average salaries for players dropped for an unprecedented third straight year in 2020, and would have been $3.89 million if a full season had been played. The 2019 average was $4.05 million. As for the rest of the free-agent market, Justin Turner, Jake Odorizzi, James Paxton, Jackie Bradley Jr., Brett Gardner and Trevor Rosenthal are some of the headliners looking for jobs as camps ready to open.
Two of the biggest names available this winter weren’t even free agents. Cleveland made it known early that Francisco Lindor would be moved and the Mets grabbed him -- along with front-line starter Carlos Carrasco -- in a stealthy Jan. 7 swap. Nolan Arenado’s discontent with the Rockies had been building, despite being only two years into his eight-year, $260-million extension, and Colorado unloaded him to the Cardinals on Feb. 1 -- even picking up $50 million of his remaining $199 million to do so. The alarming trend of two franchise players getting traded the same offseason wasn’t great for the industry overall, but Lindor should make out pretty well now that he’s heading into his free-agent season under the employ of the Mets’ new multi-billionaire owner Steve Cohen.
The discussion over the universal DH won’t go away. Is it dead for the 2020 season? The short answer is no. Not completely. Not yet. It’s already been shot down twice this winter in two different rounds of negotiations between MLB and the Players Association, but that’s been due to the packaging of the DH with other bargaining points, and specifically an expanded-playoff format. Both sides understand the benefit of the DH to the sport as a whole -- more jobs for the union, protecting the pitchers, better entertainment value -- but it’s financial value in the ongoing labor battle has complicated it’s return for 2021. After being part of the health and safety protocols a year ago, MLB removed the DH from this season’s operations manual, but the two sides could always come to an agreement at some point before Opening Day, which is April 1. Probably too late to help with optimal roster construction for some teams (hello Mets) but it would be a welcome return for the DH after what everyone felt was a successful audition in 2020.
For safety purposes, MLB revamped its schedules for the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, eliminating long road trips as well as overnight stays. That dramatically reduced the competitive circles for both the Mets and Yankees, as each team will be limited to the clubs within their relative neighborhood on the same side of the state. Not only will there be no spring Subway Series in either Port St. Lucie or Tampa, the Yankees won’t make their annual two-hour drive to Fenway South to face the Red Sox at JetBlue Park. The Mets will play only the Marlins, Cardinals, Astros and Nationals -- six times each. The Yankees have just the Blue Jays, Tigers, Orioles, Phillies and Pirates on their Grapefruit schedule.
FAST AND FURIOUS
Another thing about those spring training games: According to the health and safety protocols, managers can jointly agree to end games after only five innings through March 13. After that, they have to play at least seven. Also, the defensive manager can choose to end an inning prior to three outs in games played up until March 14 as long as the pitcher has thrown 20 pitches. The radical rules are a concession to teams having fewer players in camp for safety reasons -- early on, it’s mostly minor leaguers in the later innings -- but that does cause a bit of a conflict now with fans buying tickets to these games. Be prepared that a day at the ballpark this spring could wind up being considerably shorter than you’re used to.