A new year means endless new questions for Major League Baseball, a sport in the midst of its most engaging free-agency period in a half-decade, nearing the punishment phase of an ugly scandal, grappling with deep-seated economic questions, ever considering the quality of its on-the-field product and prepared to overhaul its minor league system.
It's tough to imagine a better time for 20 Questions than the beginning of 2020.
So, what's going to be the biggest story this year?
This week, arbitration-eligible players and teams will parry and jostle and try to settle on salaries for the 2020 season -- and Betts should smash the record for a pre-free-agency player. Colorado third baseman Nolan Arenado set a final-year arbitration mark at $26 million last year. Betts made $20 million last year and would have a good case for a $30 million-plus salary if he and the team don't settle by the exchange date Friday, when both parties disclose the salary they will argue for should the case wind up in an arbitration hearing.
Amid all of this are ongoing discussions with teams interested in acquiring Betts, which ...
Wait, Mookie is getting traded?
Settle down. The answer is the same as it has been all winter: Probably not. Thing is, the time to do so is approaching. Most of the high-impact free agents are signed. The trade market has been a giant bust all winter. And with spring training barely a month away, Boston finds itself in an awkward no-man's-land where it has neither improved significantly nor done anything to achieve its goal of cutting payroll.
Currently, the Red Sox's roster projects to cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $225 million -- nearly $20 million above the $208 million luxury-tax threshold under which they'd like to dip. Dealing Betts would solve that. It also would make them demonstrably worse in 2020. With a barren farm system, the Red Sox, in the short term at least, may need to spend around their shortcomings.
One reasonable option is to hold on to Betts and the rest of the roster, try to win and punt in July if 2020 is more like 2019 than 2018. Dealing Betts then would save upward of $10 million in salary. Others could be moved to sneak under the threshold. And if the Red Sox win, well, it's a price worth paying.
The will-he-or-won't-he-be-traded question will dog the Red Sox until they declare he'll be in Fort Myers, Florida, on Feb. 17 for their first full workout, then will reappear until they're clearly in the American League playoff race. All the while, the focus will train on Betts' production, because he has a good chance to set a record for the largest free-agent deal in baseball history next winter.
Betts will hit the market at 28 years old. In his first six seasons, he has produced 42 wins above replacement, according to Baseball-Reference. Here is the list of players in baseball history with more WAR than Betts over that same period of their careers: Ted Williams, Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Jackie Robinson, Wade Boggs, Joe DiMaggio. That's it. Four Hall of Famers and two surefire Hall of Famers.
So unless Betts produces an extraordinarily uncharacteristic season -- and one of his hallmarks has been his consistency -- Bryce Harper's $330 million deal is going to be smashed. The Los Angeles Dodgers will want Betts. The San Francisco Giants will want Betts. The Texas Rangers will want Betts. The Chicago Cubs will want Betts. The New York Mets will want Betts. On and on and on we could go. And on and on and on they will go, past $330 million, past $350 million, probably not past Trout's $430 million, but who knows? The over/under among executives this winter on Gerrit Cole was $275 million, and the Yankees gave him nearly $50 million more than that. As robust free agency has shown this winter, anything is possible.
Enough about Mookie, Passan. Tell me: Who is getting traded?
Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! Who? Where?
There's the rub: They're not quite sure because the last remaining free-agent star could have a profound effect on teams' motivations.
Third baseman Josh Donaldson remains available, and while the Minnesota Twins aren't likely to enter the trade market should they not sign him, the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals are plenty equipped to.
Bryant would fit well in either spot. Interested teams do want to know the result of his grievance against the Cubs that would send him to free agency after this year instead of after the 2021 season. It's a tough case to win, and the ruling from an arbitrator is expected within a couple of weeks, according to sources.
Arenado would work with Atlanta or Washington similarly well, although, according to sources, conversations with the Braves have gone nowhere, and the Nationals haven't focused on acquiring him. As the Colorado Rockies search for potential trade partners, two teams in particular have intrigued them, according to sources: the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals.
The Cubs would make sense if they move Bryant. They are not primed for some sort of a rebuild as much as a refresh or reboot -- an always-difficult needle to thread, particularly if they hope to dip under the luxury-tax threshold. One source characterized the Cubs as doing due diligence, as they've done throughout the winter with myriad trade conversations, but the notion of trading catcher Willson Contreras and a higher-priced, underperforming player in an Arenado deal, then flipping Bryant to revitalize a mediocre farm system, squares in the short and long term. The Nationals' best trade piece, middle infielder Carter Kieboom, would be a perfect anchor for a Bryant deal if the Cubs didn't already have Javier Baez at shortstop and rookie Nico Hoerner at second base.
The Cardinals are an interesting possibility for Arenado, too. They have the major league talent the Rockies would want in return. They have a hefty contract they'd consider moving in Dexter Fowler, who spent the first six years of his career in Colorado, and another veteran in Matt Carpenter who fits. They also have the payroll flexibility to afford the seven years and $234 million remaining on Arenado's deal, with only Paul Goldschmidt, Miles Mikolas and Paul DeJong signed beyond 2021.
And then there are the Dodgers. The big, bad Los Angeles Dodgers, winners of 106 games last year, who have done nothing this winter but sign reliever Blake Treinen for $10 million and take a $1 million flyer on Jimmy Nelson. Which is plenty to win the National League West, even after the Arizona Diamondbacks got Madison Bumgarner and the San Diego Padres improved. And which could be plenty to win the National League still, because they're that good.
The Dodgers are also patient and cunning and understand that the Red Sox and Cubs have a desire to get under the luxury-tax threshold and that there is a finite number of teams with the financial wherewithal and prospect capital to help them do it. They understand no team can put together a prospect package for Lindor like they can. They understand that if the Rockies weren't afraid of seeing him 19 times a year, Arenado's perfect destination would be Los Angeles. He certainly wouldn't exercise the opt-out he has after the 2021 season with the Dodgers; it's something another team could negotiate away in a trade if so inclined.
In other words: The Dodgers, for all of the hand-wringing and complaints about their offseason inaction, are actually sitting quite pretty when it comes to leverage. They can use it now. They can use it in July. They can be opportunistic. They do not have to feed the hot stove beast simply because it has hunger pangs.
Also, aren't post-New Year's trades, like, rare?
Great point. The two biggest trades last offseason were Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano to the Mets for Jarred Kelenic and Justin Dunn, and the Dodgers shipping Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood and Matt Kemp to Cincinnati for Homer Bailey's contract and two excellent prospects, pitcher Josiah Gray and infielder Jeter Downs. Both took place in December.
In fact, the last January trade of great consequence was when Toronto dealt Vernon Wells to the Los Angeles Angels -- and that was a money dump. The two biggest post-New Year's deals in the last quarter-century actually came in February. On Feb. 16, 2004, the Rangers traded Alex Rodriguez to the New York Yankees. It came nearly five years to the day after Toronto sent Roger Clemens to New York.
Certainly it's a different era. Teams are much more open-minded and find any transactional strictures to be silly. If you can improve your club, you improve your club. Yet if any of the four big names do move, it will be the biggest January (or February) trade in a generation.
Enough with the trades. Who are the best remaining free agents?
Donaldson is in a class of his own. He should get four years. He should get $100 million-plus. All three of the favorites really could use him. Minnesota would shift the lumbering Miguel Sano from third base to first and allow Marwin Gonzalez to play his super-utility role. Atlanta would avoid relying upon Austin Riley (who slashed .204/.260/.394 after the All-Star break) or Johan Camargo. Washington would fill the sizable gap left by Anthony Rendon when he signed with the Angels.
Next are two hitters: Nicholas Castellanos and Marcell Ozuna. After that, there won't be but a handful of multiyear deals. It will be hundreds of millions of dollars meted out a few million a year at a time. The relief market has thinned out. Alex Wood, who threw less than 40 innings last year, is the best starter. Yasiel Puig will get a big league deal. So will Domingo Santana, Brock Holt and Brian Dozier. Robinson Chirinos should sign soon. There are dozens of names, many of whom will help major league teams and do so at bargain rates.
This is the landscape of major league free agency now: Upward of two-thirds of deals will be for one year. Just five offseasons ago, about half the free-agent deals were multiyear pacts. In 2010, it was about the same. The more one-year deals there are, the more crowded free agency is the next year. The greater the supply, the lesser the demand, except for the outliers, who have gotten capital-P paid.
Speaking of, why are teams suddenly spending?
First off: They are, which on the surface bodes well for labor peace. The total outlay this offseason is around $1.95 billion. Include extensions locking up young players, and it goes past $2 billion. That does not sound like a sport with any economic problems.
It's also a confluence of a few specific events. A pretty strong free-agent class with high-end talent coming off superlative walk years. The can't-stop-us desire of the richest team in baseball, the Yankees, to sign Cole. The emergence of other shoppers has plenty to do with it. Beyond the Yankees, Nationals and Angels, who signed Cole, Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon, here are the biggest spenders on free agents this winter:
Chicago White Sox: $201.5 million
Philadelphia: $132 million
Toronto: $108 million
Arizona: $103.6 million
Cincinnati: $100 million
Atlanta: $99.75 million
That's a lot of teams that typically don't spend combining to nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars. And why? The White Sox think they can win the AL Central. The Phillies are in the extraordinarily competitive NL East. Toronto is transitioning from rebuilding to winning. Arizona is on the cusp of a team that can be a sustainable playoff contender. Same with Atlanta. And Cincinnati loves its place in the vulnerable NL Central.
In other words: They're trying to win. Such a novel concept. Even with half the teams more or less sitting out free agency thus far -- or at least spending less than $20 million, which 16 have done this winter, with the Cubs, Rockies and Orioles combining to pay a grand total of $0 on fully guaranteed big league deals -- the return of a fairly engaged market certainly beats questions about collusion every few days.
So maybe there's not going to be a lockout after the 2021 season?
Let's not go too far. The labor war drums have been sounding for two years. One good winter does not a friendly labor negotiation make, especially with the failures of the attempted midterm discussions that took place last year.
Further, there is a chance, even with well over $2 billion to be spent this winter, that year-over-year payrolls actually drop. If the player share goes down in a year when free agency is that bountiful, imagine how bad it could get for players during a relatively poor free-agency year. (Like, uh, next offseason.)
There was a lot of discussion among executives and agents this week about center fielder Luis Robert's long-term deal with the White Sox. On one hand, Robert secured around $47 million for his arbitration seasons. George Springer, a three-time All-Star center fielder, widely considered a top 25-or-so player in baseball, is going to make about $50 million in arbitration. Manny Machado, who later fetched $300 million from San Diego in free agency, got $32.5 million in arbitration.
Robert's deal, which guarantees $50 million, also includes a pair of club-option years at $20 million apiece that can take the total to $88 million. If both options are exercised, Robert will be a free agent at 30 instead of 28. And while that by no means precludes him from cashing in, it does lessen the likelihood of a megadeal and keeps another player out of the arbitration system, which depends upon players to continuously advance salaries.
More than that, it offered another clear look at the perverse incentive that exists for all minor league players. Had Robert not agreed to the deal, he likely would have started the 2020 season at Triple-A and languished there for a few weeks so the White Sox could secure control over his rights for an extra year. The White Sox didn't need to say that him signing the deal was the only way he'd start in center field at Guaranteed Rate Field on March 26 against Kansas City; he just knew it, like all players do.
Robert, 22, could have said no. He could have waited and played 140 games this year and a full season in 2021 and another full season in 2022 before hitting arbitration. He could've turned down $50 million. But he didn't. Few would. Teams know this, and such deals, particularly among top prospects, may wind up more the norm than the exception.
You didn't answer the question.
Oh yeah. Labor stoppage. Tough to say. MLB and the union are preparing for the most important negotiations since 2002, and much of this year will be devoted to mapping out a strategy. With the sport expected to exceed $11 billion in revenue come 2020, there are a lot of reasons to find peace. The union also has indicated that it plans to adopt a hard-line posture on the necessity for an economic overhaul, and commissioner Rob Manfred has planted his flag that the system is just fine, thank you very much. By this time next year, the status of baseball in 2022 should be at least a little clearer.
With that potentially on the horizon, is free agency going to be bad next year?
Free agency may be disappointing, but that probably has more to do with the players than the labor situation.
Betts is nonpareil. The second-best player in the class, J.T. Realmuto, is widely expected to sign a contract extension with Philadelphia. If Marcus Semien repeats his 2019 performance, he could be a $200 million player. Springer should cash in, too, although his age -- he'll be 31 in December -- won't help. Andrelton Simmons (31), DJ LeMahieu (32) and Joc Pederson (28) round out the best position players.
The best pitcher is a toss-up. Could be Trevor Bauer. Or James Paxton. Maybe Marcus Stroman. Jake Odorizzi is consistent and his stuff has gotten better with age. Robbie Ray has the stuff and the strikeout rate. Mike Minor, Masahiro Tanaka and Jose Quintana are a touch older but still performers.
And ... that's about it. There are a few others, but that's the best of the class.
Back to now. What is the next big news coming that doesn't involve transactions?
The verdict against the Houston Astros' use of technology to relay pitches to their hitters is expected within the next two weeks, according to sources, and The Athletic's report Tuesday that the 2018 Red Sox used replay rooms to decode sign sequences only adds to the baseball-is-full-of-dirty-dirty-cheaters narrative that the sport desperately wants to avoid.
At this juncture, though, it's a difficult one to counter, because officials know that it doesn't stop with the 2017 and 2018 World Series champions. The use of video feeds as a code-breaking mechanism was simply accepted as part of the game. MLB's efforts to end that -- through increasingly hardline rules and, in 2019, the adoption of individuals to monitor replay rooms and report any violations -- did not eradicate the practice from the game.
So what will?
There's no clear answer, but severe penalties are the likely next step. MLB's juggling act here is precarious, and officials across the game have taken keen interest in Manfred's tack.
The general sense among high-ranking executives is that in order to eradicate -- or, at very least, deeply disincentivize -- technology-aided cheating, Manfred needs to hammer Astros ownership with a big fine. Like, eight-figures big. Logically, this makes all the sense in the world. Suspending the general manager for a year? Most organizations could function with leadership-by-committee. Suspending the manager for a year? Again, it won't be quite the same, but owners can swallow that. Losing draft picks? Without players attached, their draft picks are just abstract anyway.
A massive fine directly affects the bottom line of ownership, and owners are the ones with the ultimate power -- and incentive -- to stop this sort of behavior. If baseball develops a reputation as a sport in which cheaters win, it runs the risk of chipping away at the game's competitive integrity. A game lacking competitive integrity runs the risk of losing market share. The loss of market share means dropping profits. Dropping profits equal a dip in franchise value. And nothing -- nothing -- motivates owners quite like a threat to their franchise values.
The difficulty for Manfred is that Astros owner Jim Crane is technically one of his 30 bosses. He reports to owners, and Manfred opening a Pandora's box with a spectacular fine would leave the 29 other teams prone to something similar, whether it's for cheating or otherwise. It is what leaves the high-ranking executives skeptical that Manfred will take the top-down approach.
Which leaves MLB looking at suspensions for front-office and coaching personnel. Astros GM Jeff Luhnow could be suspended for what in college sports is called "lack of institutional control"; even if he wasn't directly involved in any plot of scheme, a Sept. 15, 2017, memo issued by the league -- and follow-up rules updates -- explicitly say teams will be held accountable. Astros manager AJ Hinch and Red Sox manager Alex Cora, the latter of whom was bench coach for the 2017 Astros, could face discipline as well.
From the beginning of the investigation, the league has treated players more as witnesses than targets. Multiple Astros players told ESPN that they do not expect to be disciplined, even if they were involved in the scheme. If the league's investigation does determine the cheating was a player-driven exercise, it's reasonable to ask why the front office or coaching staff would be held accountable for something that wasn't their idea. The answer may be a matter of pragmatism: Because of the 2017 memo, team personnel is vulnerable to discipline. Punishing players would involve persuading them to tell the truth, isolating the main culprits and fighting an emboldened MLB Players Association, which would put up a significant fight. It could drag out the process for months, even longer. This is the path of least resistance and quickest outcome.
What else is going to be in the news?
The arbitration maneuvering this week is one of the great opportunities for serious inside-baseball nerding-out. A few cases to keep an eye on beyond Betts:
• Cody Bellinger: The reigning NL MVP should set a first-time-eligible record. His résumé is almost identical to that of Bryant, who holds the record at $10.85 million, but Bellinger's MVP came in his platform year, whereas Bryant won his the year before he went to arbitration.
• Josh Hader: The arbitration system is, in many ways, anachronistic, and Hader is a singular sort of player -- a super-reliever who has been the best in the game but doesn't have nearly the quantity of saves of the traditional closers who get huge paydays in arbitration. This may be the most fascinating of all cases.
• Trevor Bauer: He has gone to a hearing two straight years and won both times. Will he try to make it 3 for 3?
• Sluggers: Aaron Judge, Joey Gallo and Gary Sanchez all have hit at least 105 home runs in their three-plus seasons leading into their first arbitration year. They should be rewarded very handsomely.
• Dontrelle Willis: Yes, that Dontrelle Willis. Somehow he still holds the record for first-time-eligible pitchers with a $4.35 million salary. (Dallas Keuchel earned $7.25 million in his first year, but that came off a Cy Young season, and special achievements are held in a different category in arbitration.) D-Train got his $4.35 million in 2006, meaning almost an entire generation of starting pitchers either have not been good enough to move the number or have been and instead signed long-term extensions, taking them out of the comparable category.
Hall of Fame voting results come out Jan. 21. Will Derek Jeter get 100%?
I'm going to say no. And I hope I'm wrong. Jeter warrants 100%, just as Ken Griffey Jr. did, just as Nolan Ryan did, just as Henry Aaron and Ted Williams and Babe Ruth did. But people are people, which is to say they have their reasons. Perhaps a voter believes there are 11 viable candidates. If that voter excludes Jeter, knowing he's headed to Cooperstown, in order to cast a vote for someone else, is that so wrong? If someone sends in a blank ballot to protest the limit of 10, or the Hall's mealy-mouthed stance on steroid users, or -- gulp -- accidentally, then Jeter won't be 100%.
Beyond that, because he's Derek Jeter, because he's the Yankees shortstop and the guy who went diving into the stands and The Captain and blah blah blah, he's polarizing, and polarizing players, among hundreds of voters, are not the sorts who curry unanimous favor.
So even though the current tally among voters who have made their ballots public is 132-for-132, the guess is that somewhere out there exists a ballot with no checkmark or X next to Derek Jeter's name.
Hall of Fame voting means spring training is right here. Spring training being right here means you get to grade the offseason. So who won the winter?
Two teams: the Yankees and White Sox.
The Yankees got the best pitcher in baseball, and all it cost them was money. And they have a lot of money.
The White Sox did things a little differently. They had holes, found them and filled them. It started with catcher Yasmani Grandal on a four-year, $73 million deal. A day later, Jose Abreu returned for three years at $50 million. Then they offered Zack Wheeler $125 million, only to see him take $118 million to sign with Philadelphia because it was closer to his fiancee's family in New Jersey. Chicago was undeterred. It got Dallas Keuchel for $55.5 million, Gio Gonzalez for $5 million, Edwin Encarnacion for $12 million, Steve Cishek for $6 million, Nomar Mazara via trade. And, of course, the Robert extension for $50 million. Add Robert's deal into the free agents', and it totals just over a quarter-billion dollars.
Or about what they offered Machado last year.
Any team that has Machado is better, but for a White Sox team with a number of holes to fill, going piecemeal may be the thing that gets Chicago to its first postseason since 2008, when Ozzie Guillen still was managing.
So you're saying the White Sox can win the World Series?
Uh ... maybe? Anyone can sneak into the playoffs and get hot. But in reality, if we're doing a first-week-in-January power rankings, before anyone gets to spring training, before anyone is hurt, before Josh Donaldson has signed and one of the Four Horsemen has been traded, it goes a little something like this:
What does the bottom of those rankings look like?
It looks ugly. There's still a fair bit of tanking going on. You've got your supertanker: Baltimore. And then there are the crude tankers: Seattle, Kansas City. Followed by the product tankers: Detroit, Miami, Pittsburgh, San Francisco. Combined, those seven teams have spent $54.4 million in free agency this winter -- or about $1 million less than the White Sox gave Keuchel. And let's add the Rockies because they haven't spent a penny this winter, either.
What does the game look like in 2020?
I ... don't know. A lot of it, to be honest, depends on the ball. And after the latest study, MLB essentially emoji-shrugged and said that sometimes the ball is going to be juiced and sometimes it isn't. Manufacturing variance exists, it said, and the best the league can do is hope that the balls play fairly. It seems like an awfully big cop-out when the league admits that the ball being a handmade, hand-stitched product is what takes the quality control out of it. One would think that having a ball that performs the same for everyone is something to be sought, not scoffed at. Alas, handmade and hand-stitched it will remain.
So assuming the ball is somewhat back to normal? Well, that's a great question. Home runs normalizing won't lower the strikeout rate. There's little incentive for hitters to put the ball in play at a higher rate. The game is in this paradoxical place where there have never been better athletes playing it and never been fewer opportunities for them to make extremely athletic plays.
The three-batter minimum for relief pitchers is coming. This will eliminate the one-out specialist and, because of potentially losing the platoon advantage, could benefit offenses slightly.
Another new rule with interesting consequences: the 26-man roster. The expansion of the roster by one spot coincides with a 13-pitcher maximum for teams. Does that mean more bullpenning and fewer Nos. 4 or 5 starting pitchers? Or perhaps more platooning on the hitters' side? Might a manager keep a full-time pinch runner with a little more security because he's not burning a bench spot by using him?
The real answer to the original question: The game, for all of its warts, still looks beautiful.
Which prospects do I need to know?
Fantasy nerds, get ready to copy and paste nine for this year:
• Wander Franco, SS, Rays: He's the best prospect in baseball, he doesn't turn 19 until March 1 and he's torn up every league he's been in. He should start in Double-A this year, and if he rakes there, too, the Rays will find him at-bats.
• MacKenzie Gore, LHP, Padres: While he could go the Fernando Tatis Jr./Chris Paddack path and start the year in the big leagues, the Padres may keep him down for a few weeks. By season's end, he and Paddack will be one of the best pitching duos in baseball.
• Jo Adell, OF, Angels: Everyone asked for him when the Angels sought pitching via trade. They would be foolish to deal a five-tool player who was in Triple-A at 20.
• Luis Robert, OF, White Sox: He hasn't played a day in the big leagues and has a $50 million deal. That works.
• Gavin Lux, IF, Dodgers: He can play shortstop. He can play second. Best of all, he can really, really hit.
• Casey Mize, RHP, Tigers: If he stays healthy, his splitter is going to be the best off-speed pitch in baseball by 2022.
• Nate Pearson, RHP, Blue Jays: Toronto signed Hyun-Jin Ryu to keep the Opening Day spot warm for a year. So long as his right elbow holds under the strain for a 102 mph fastball, it will be Pearson's regular slot soon enough.
• Jarred Kelenic, OF, Mariners: Sorry, Mets fans. He's really good. And he should be ready midseason, if not sooner.
Seven to stash:
• CJ Abrams, SS, Padres
• Marco Luciano, SS, Giants
• Edward Cabrera, SP, Marlins
• Josiah Gray, SP, Dodgers
• Julio Rodriguez, OF, Mariners
• Oneil Cruz, SS, Pirates
• Geraldo Perdomo, SS, Diamondbacks
One totally off the radar:
• Pedro Leon, OF, free agent: Oscar Colas is not the only Cuban outfielder to leave the island in recent months. Leon, 21, will hold a showcase for scouts in the coming weeks and may be one of the most sought-after players this July 2. As a 20-year-old, he hit 15 home runs in 33 Cuban National Series games before a shoulder injury sidelined him. The shoulder is healthy, and among the power, the elite arm strength and the incredible speed from the right side, Leon is the sort of player who would have prompted teams to burst through their bonus pool when they weren't hard-capped.
How big a deal is MLB's attempted minor league contraction going to be?
It's hard to say that this is going to be a bigger deal than Mookie Betts ... but simply because of the bad media the league has received and the involvement of a presidential candidate in opposing it, MLB's desire to eliminate 40 minor league teams is far more controversial than such a plan ought to be.
This is baseball's comeuppance. For more than a decade now, it has ignored cries that its minor league players are criminally underpaid. Instead, MLB and its minor league counterparts lobbied Congress to make that salary structure -- which is far below a living wage -- an actual on-the-books law.
Now MLB and MiLB are fighting because MLB wants to increase salaries for players but reduce the number of players in every organization. That reduction would coincide with the death of a quarter of the minor league teams around, some successful ones at that. And with the working agreement between the parties expiring after the 2020 season, MiLB is livid -- and receiving the backing of Bernie Sanders, who has spoken out strongly against MLB's plan.
The logic behind the baseball side of MLB's idea is sound: Teams are better than ever at identifying who a real prospect is. Does it make sense to field teams just so they can hit on an out-of-nowhere prospect every five years? Yes, some teams will say. Others will disagree, not seeing those extra affiliates worth the time.
But then there's the Sanders argument, which mirrors the general public reaction, which is: Are you really going to kill baseball in 40 towns? Because ultimately, no matter the intention, no matter the logic, MLB is going to have an incredibly difficult time getting past the truth that it is killing baseball in 40 towns. That sounds cold and it sounds callous, and if this is more than just posturing -- if the league truly does intend to pare that many affiliates -- it's bound to be a bad look for MLB.
What are some other stories worth keeping an eye on?
• With a new collective bargaining agreement between MLB and the umpires' union, the league is moving toward an automated ball-and-strike system, which it likes to call ABS. The rest of the world knows it as robot umpires. The system was implemented in the Arizona Fall League and drew a not-insignificant amount of scorn among players and officials who believed it called an inaccurate zone. Before it reaches the major leagues, officials admit, it needs at least another year of testing, iterating and improving to ensure the system is as accurate as it can get -- because it will draw immediate scorn if not well-oiled and running impeccably.
• In recent years, the knowledge gap has narrowed between ahead-of-the-curve teams and those behind in analytics. Multiple front-office people believe the game is at a place where the divide is about to get bigger again -- and that the differentiator will be in player development. What's scariest is that behemoths like the Yankees and Dodgers are among the teams at the forefront of this.
• While there will not be $2.2 billion in contract extensions this spring like there were last year, teams again will endeavor to lock up their best young players to long-term deals. It's simply good business.
• Olympic baseball is back at the Tokyo Games this summer. There will be a six-team tournament -- and so far, the United States has not qualified.
• Every MLB team extended netting, a good number almost all the way down to the foul pole. Fans who don't like it will get used to it. Everyone will be safer because of it. And that's the entire point.