The Major League Baseball Players Association decided to reject a proposal from MLB that would have delayed the start of spring training and the regular season by a month, closing the door on a 154-game schedule that would pay the players for 162 games while pausing their arrivals to camp.
MLB followed up by releasing an updated health-and-safety document with unique on-the-field rule changes and pandemic-related protocols.
We asked ESPN MLB reporters Alden Gonzalez and Jesse Rogers to examine the most pressing issues baseball is facing in its attempt to return to a full 2021 season after the shortened 2020 campaign.
Teams are scheduled to report in one week. What are the chances that spring training actually starts on time?
Rogers: It's looking more and more like camps will open as scheduled, with pitchers and catchers scheduled to report as early as Feb. 16 for some teams. Only two things could prevent that from happening, and neither is likely to occur.
First, if local governments in Florida and Arizona deem their communities are taking a step backward and need to invoke some sort of stay-at-home order, then clubs won't be able to operate under those conditions.
The other issue is about the health and safety protocols for the players as they train all spring in the midst of the ongoing pandemic. Like last summer, the league and the players' union have to agree on how to keep everyone safe and decide on how often players will be tested and the protocols for a positive test. It's likely everything will be signed off on in order for camps to open on time using the framework from last summer.
Gonzalez: Outside of local government implementing the type of health and safety restrictions that would prevent teams from congregating at their facilities -- don't count on it, given that the NBA's Phoenix Suns and the NHL's Arizona Coyotes are fully operational, the latter with partial attendance -- it would have to come from the MLBPA agreeing to delay the start of spring training.
The Cactus League doesn't have the authority to do so. MLB, beholden to the terms of the collective bargaining agreement and a schedule that has long since been announced, doesn't have much wiggle room, either.
The events of this past Monday, when the union rejected the league's proposal to delay the season, made it strikingly clear: The players want to start on time. Barring them changing their minds, that's exactly what will happen.
Is the regular season currently on pace to start on time, and how likely is it that it will do so?
Rogers: Yes. Just like spring training, the regular season is scheduled to begin on time. We are still two months from April 1, though, so things could change -- mostly related to the pandemic, now that negotiating a delay has been ruled out.
Considering that the other major sports leagues were able to begin their seasons, expect baseball to as well -- unless something major and unforeseen occurs.
Why did the MLBPA reject MLB's recent proposal of a 154-game season with a delayed start?
Rogers: In simple terms, the MLBPA had no incentive to change the calendar. Pitchers were already ramping up for a mid-February start, and remember, teams are back to traveling cross country for games.
The last thing players want is a compressed schedule, and some even wonder whether waiting a month would help all that much in terms of the pandemic anyway. They're going to have to follow the health and safety protocols then just as much as they do now. The league's guarantee of full pay, well, is the same thing the players are getting right now.
Gonzalez: I will add, too, that expanded postseason proved to be a major sticking point.
Another, which granted Rob Manfred additional power to cancel or suspend games with regard to the ongoing pandemic, was cleared up when the league offered to change its language on the subject on Monday.
But the MLBPA didn't want expanded postseason, at least not this year. Lots of players believe expanded playoffs will only further disincentivize teams from spending and thus further shrink baseball's disappearing middle class. And, perhaps more to the point, the union doesn't want to set the precedent of back-to-back years of expanded playoffs going into the negotiation of a new CBA, considering it's potentially the union's biggest bargaining chip. The cynic's view from the union: If this really was all about health and safety, why do you have to attach expanded postseason to the negotiation?
How much time do players really need to get ready for Opening Day?
Gonzalez: Relievers don't need much, and neither do the position players. The concern is the starting pitchers and whether they would have enough time to adequately build up enough length to safely enter a regular rotation spot during the regular season.
The common theme among players is that spring training is basically two weeks too long in a normal year. You can shave that off and I don't think you'd hear many complaints. Some starters might not be fully stretched out if that is the case, but that can be mitigated by more roster spots early in the season.
There were way too many pitcher injuries last year, but many believe that was due to shutting down in the spring and building back up in the summer more so than "summer camp" not being long enough.
Will MLB have a leaguewide stance on fans in the stands during spring training and the regular season?
Rogers: Fan attendance will be determined by local municipalities, but clubs will be required to submit a plan to the league office that must be approved as consistent with the advice of their health experts.
Spring training is expected to start with limited fans throughout Florida and Arizona, pending local approval. The Boston Red Sox announced plans to have 24% capacity at their games in Fort Myers, the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals have spring training tickets on sale now, and the Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies, Miami Marlins, Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals are among teams that have announced plans to start spring with limited fans in attendance.
While it is too early to know what attendance will look like during the regular season, the Rays are one team that has announced a specific plan -- in their case, 7,000 fans allowed at Tropicana Field -- for the start of the season in April.
Gonzalez: This is going to be a fascinating element coming off a year with no fan revenue, and it'll be interesting to watch how the five California teams navigate the exceedingly strict protocols that were prompted by elevated COVID-19 cases coming out of the holidays.
San Francisco Giants CEO Larry Baer took the first step there, sending a letter to fans in which he wrote that the team "can see a pathway to welcoming our fans back to Oracle Park." The letter highlighted modifications to stadium entry, food and beverage purchases made exclusively through an app, an "enhanced wayfinding program" that would allow fans to navigate the ballpark while remaining 6 feet apart and socially distant seating charts.
The Giants -- and the A's, and the Dodgers, and the Angels, and the Padres -- still have a long way to go. But we at least have an early glimpse into what the ballpark experience might look like in 2021.
How will spring training games look different this year?
In some cases early on, they may only last seven innings, or even five. The league is allowing managers to agree upon a shortened game, in part, due to less players being available to use since minor leaguers won't be around in late February.
They'll also have the ability to end an inning before three outs if a pitcher has reached his pitch count. That way, managers can map out exactly how many pitchers he's going to use on a given day and dress only those players. Overall, it limits players in the dugout and bullpens.
After March 14, games will be nine innings, unless managers choose to shorten them to seven, because later in spring is when regulars can play a full nine and starting pitchers are likely to throw more innings.
Once the regular season begins, what rule changes will we see?
Rogers: Seven-inning doubleheaders are back. So are expedited extra-inning games as a runner will once again be placed on second base for each team from the 10th inning on. The three-batter minimum rule for relievers is also back, but the league hasn't taken any action toward banning or limiting the shift.
What about the DH in the NL and expanded playoffs? That is not mentioned in the health and safety protocols.
Rogers: As of now, neither will happen in 2021. But it's still possible both could be implemented before Opening Day.
The DH has a chance largely because of safety concerns. Let's say several camps are shut down or some pitchers miss practice because of the pandemic. They may not have time to fully prepare with a bat. Plus, it's just more time around other people in and around the cage.
Both the players and league understand that. But the sides haven't come to an agreement for various reasons, which include what the players will give back in order to add 15 hitting jobs to the National League. Those jobs are likely to pay more than the 26th man on a current roster -- most likely the final pitcher in the bullpen making the minimum or close to it.
Can players now face repercussions from the league if they break health and safety protocols?
Rogers: Yes, now they are subject to fines in the amount of time missed if they are required to quarantine due to them breaking the rules.
How are teams handling decisions about rules developing so late in the offseason?
Gonzalez: National League teams have basically been operating under the impression that the designated hitter will not be implemented for the 2021 season simply because it's the safer approach.
Outside of that, the one thing teams are hyperfocused on is possessing as much pitching depth as possible (within the financial constraints of their respective owners, of course). A full season would mean a year-to-year jump from 60 games to 162 games -- from a minimum of 510 innings to a minimum of 1,377 innings. Coaches, executives and medical personnel throughout the industry are exceedingly concerned about the threat of injury with such a significant jump looming. There are no clear answers for how to attack it right now.