With Major League Baseball trying to finalize a plan to start the season amid the coronavirus pandemic, it seems guaranteed that concessions will need to be made on every side to get the game back in some form.
The Associated Press and others reported Monday that owners gave the go-ahead to making a proposal to the players’ union that could lead to the season starting around the Fourth of July weekend in ballparks without fans. Each team would play about 82 regular-season games, and postseason play would be expanded from 10 clubs to 14 by doubling wild cards in each league to four.
According to the AP, teams will propose that players receive a percentage of their 2020 salaries based on revenues MLB receives during the regular season and postseason, which will likely be the most contentious issue.
The league has already made the short-sighted move to save around $1 million per team in limiting the June amateur draft to five rounds, and it doesn’t seem to be ready to stop there. A group of players and possibly staff will be asked to risk their health during a pandemic for less than they previously agreed.
The general desire to get the game back in any form might provide cover for such hard negotiation tactics to work, however wrong that is. But most observers are just focused on what will happen when the game comes back, and what it will look like. With the Orioles, those questions are a little different.
Can the Orioles make a draft like this work?
With only five rounds and last year’s bonus structure intact, the Orioles have the most available bonus money for their six picks (including the first pick in the competitive balance round A at No. 30) with $13,894,300. That advantage isn’t as big as it would be in a full draft or even a 10-round draft, in which that money could be spread out to the later rounds, with some signings of players below their assigned draft slots freeing up money elsewhere.
It’s hard to imagine that there’s as much use for that $13 million bonus pool in five rounds. Such a short draft removes a lot of the nuance in finding third-day picks or late-round steals, and those aren’t the types of players a team would jump at in the fifth round anyway.
The Orioles can spread their pool out and target players in each round with higher demands, though other teams will be able to do that with just one under-slot signing themselves. The whole situation raises the question of whether the whole pool can be spent properly, and in a climate in which teams are likely going to be taking heat for cost-saving measures (and the Orioles do even in normal circumstances), that might not be the best scenario.
How do further reduced salaries impact a young team?
Save for veterans on big-money free-agent contracts (Chris Davis, Alex Cobb) and arbitration-eligible players (Trey Mancini, Mychal Givens and a few others), the Orioles are made up of largely minimum-salary players who would under normal circumstances be paid $563,000, or close to it, for a full season.
The players initially agreed to prorated salaries, but owners seem to be asking them to take further reductions since there won’t be fans in the stands. That will ring particularly hollow to Orioles players already making the minimum, and who did so last year before an average of 16,347 fans at Oriole Park at Camden Yards — and often far fewer than that.
It’s no insignificant amount of money considering record jobless rates across the state and country, but the players are going to be the ones traveling and putting themselves and their families at risk. It will be a unique spot for Davis, whose career earnings thanks to his $161 million contract might add up to more than the rest of his teammates combined (with the exception of Cobb) will make in their lifetimes. Davis will be speaking for them as their union representative.
Can everyone watch if no fans are in attendance?
If there are going to be no fans in attendance at all games, at least to start, it will be interesting to see whether this forces a change in how Orioles games are made available for viewing to fans who don’t have the team’s cable network, Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN). While local television ratings for the Orioles were up last year, according to Forbes, MASN has held fast in limiting in-market streaming for those without cable.
That makes the Orioles and the Washington Nationals the only teams who fall under that prohibition for fans in local markets. Even knowing how important MASN revenue is to the Orioles, cord-cutters without cable who want to watch the team but can’t go to the ballpark should have some recourse.
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If there’s any reason other than money for baseball to return, it’s likely to give the public something to enjoy as restrictive measures keep them at home and away from both work and socializing into the summer. Keeping those in the Baltimore area who don’t have traditional cable packages from both coming to the ballpark and from watching on a streaming platform won’t do much to build the next generation of Orioles fans the way the team hopes to.