There is a cold, uncertain winter a comin' for baseball. No one is talking about it because they're heaving a huge sigh of relief over making it through the pandemic-truncated 60-game season all the way to the World Series. But a brutal offseason is coming, and the players will bear the brunt of the pain.
In the days since their latest postseason elimination there has been much discussion about the New York Yankees' top offseason priority, the re-signing of DJ LeMahieu. Rest assured, they will, but it will be the only significant expenditure they make on a player in a winter where, like almost every other team in baseball, they will be otherwise looking to cut payroll. By not bringing back Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ and James Paxton, that's about $52 million alone.
Here's the bottom line on what this season without fans has wrought on baseball:
Every team in baseball has lost a minimum of $100 million - the larger market teams like the Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies, between $175 and $200 million. Last week, the Phillies' Team Marketing Report reported they lost $186.1 million, while the Yankees were probably closer to $200 million or more. The lower-payroll teams like the Tampa Bay Rays and Miami Marlins, accustomed to playing to three-quarters empty ballparks anyway, lost considerably less. But they will get hit with an additional whammy of losing out on their customary $50 million (in Tampa Bay's case) to $70 million (in Miami's case) revenue sharing payments. Or as one MLB exec noted to me: "You can't be paid revenue sharing from the other teams if there is no revenue."
As for the notion that baseball got partially bailed out this year by the massive national TV contracts, that is a misconception. The national TV, radio and licensing monies all go into the MLB Central fund from which approximately $65-70 million per club is doled out at the end of the year. But this year that number is estimated to be about $50 million per club. The fact is, local revenues - attendance, TV and radio, concessions, merchandising - account for 80% of the clubs' revenues, and they were essentially nonexistent this year.
"Those revenues we will never recover," said one team exec, "but what's most concerning to all of us is the unknown about 2021. We don't know when, if or how many fans we're going to be allowed in the seats, so how do you go about determining revenues and payrolls?"
As a result, players can expect a deluge of non-tenders this winter, meaning there will very likely be more free agents on the market than in any year in history. It brings to mind maverick Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley's laughed-at proposal to his fellow lords back in the '70s: There should only be one-year contracts and all the players would be free agents every year. Then-players union chief Marvin Miller had to convince the players that, enticing as Finley's proposal may have sounded, flooding the market with free agents would be disastrous for them.
And speaking of Finley, who warned the owners to no avail of the perils of salary arbitration for them, how is that going to be determined this year? This is going to be a major point of contention in what is certain to be another rancorous series of negotiations between the owners and the players, leading up to the expiration of the Basic Agreement at the end of 2021. What's going to be the standard for arbitration off a 60-game season?
Agents like Scott Boras scoff at the clubs' pandemic losses while maintaining it should be business as usual this winter. "The reality is," said another club exec, "there is going to be a lot less dollars for the players this winter. There'll still be stupid owners who do stupid things, spending money they don't have, but for the bottom line is there just aren't any revenues."
The madness of paying $300 million for one player started in 2014, with Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria giving a 10-year/$325 million contract to Giancarlo Stanton. And what did Loria care? He knew he was never going to be the one paying that off. In the first two years of the $330 million Phillies owner John Middleton shelled out for Boras client Bryce Harper, the Phillies have failed to make the postseason. And even though Gerrit Cole more than lived up to his ace status in the first year of his nine-year/$324 million contract, when it came to the biggest game of the Yankees' season he found himself being removed after 5 1/3 innings and 94 pitches by Aaron Boone.
Those should all be sobering examples of why, in those kinds of contracts (Mike Trout perhaps excluded), the owners can never get close to the value back. We will see how Steve Cohen, with his deep pockets and no expensive long-term commitments on the New York Mets payroll, plays his hand this winter once he's approved as Mets owner. But other the bidding for Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto (whom Middleton has vowed to do everything he can to re-sign) Cohen is very likely to be pleasantly surprised at how fiscally restrained his new lodge brothers are this winter.
IT'S A MADD, MADD WORLD
The Hall of Fame can only hope this flirtation between Chicago White Sox board chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and his former manager Tony La Russa turns out to be nothing more than a consultation about other managers between two old friends and that La Russa wouldn't seriously come out of retirement, at age 76, to take the helm of the White Sox. If that did become the case, it would be a direct slap in the face to the Hall of Fame, and the Veterans Committee which elected La Russa along fellow managers Joe Torre and Bobby Cox in 2013. It would also make La Russa look like a hypocrite. "I wouldn't be happy with myself if I came back to move up one more spot," he said when he retired in 2011, 35 wins shy of John McGraw for second on the all-time list. "You finish where you finish and John McGraw is a legendary figure. I kind of like that he's second." ... If La Russa needs any perspective on this, there is Tommy Lasorda to consider. A couple of years after his Hall of Fame induction in 1997, Lasorda started talking about coming out of retirement to manage the Dodgers again, only to get a phone call from Yogi Berra, who'd been a member of the Veterans Committee that elected him. "We voted you in," Yogi said, firmly. "You're not gonna embarrass us by managing again." The rules for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame are strict in the sense that candidates must be evaluated on their complete careers. It is the reason for the five-year waiting period for players to appear on the Baseball Writers ballot, and the requirements that former managers and executives be either 65 or older or officially retired before being considered by the Veterans Committee.
(Bill Madden is a baseball writer and columnist for the New York Daily News.)
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