Will Covid Cancel the PBA?

As I write this, there is one week left before the current Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) between MLB and MiLB expires. While one may have expected that there would be a flurry of rumors and think-pieces this close to the deadline, the last few weeks have been eerily quiet. In fact, the only notable rumor lately was a quote from John Mozeliak, the St. Louis Cardinals’ President of Baseball Operations. It was buried in an article about staff layoffs. 

“We don’t know when high school baseball is going to start today, we don’t know when college baseball is going to start today. Candidly, we don’t even know if Minor League Baseball is going to be played next year.”

This underlines a suspicion that I’ve had for the last few weeks. I think there’s a good chance that the current PBA will expire without a renewal or ready replacement, and I think it’s quite possible that there will be no PBA going into the 2021 season. An expiring PBA has been a foreboding threat to the minors since last fall, when rumors about the proposed changes were first leaked. MLB had this nuclear option in its back pocket if necessary, but now it looks somewhat likely that the primary reason for PBA obliteration is neither perceived tensions between the majors and the minors nor a power play by MLB. It’s the global pandemic that we have now been grappling with for over half a year that shows no signs of slowing down. 

Even before I read that quote by Mozeliak, I was being haunted by the thought that, for the life of me, I cannot imagine the minor leagues proceeding in 2021 like they have as recently as 2019. As long as the virus is spreading, there’s no way that MLB teams will be sending their prospects to the various minor leagues spread across the continent. This year’s “alternate training site” phenomenon, about as safe and controlled of an arrangement as possible, hasn’t been impervious to Covid shutdowns and quarantines. We all hope that Covid in 2021 isn’t as all-pervasive as in 2020, but there’s a very good chance that the 2021 version of minor league baseball will be closer to the 2020 version than 2019. 

You can imagine that would raise a few questions. 

Where would the players go?

Let’s start with the alternate training site situation. Here’s the list of where MLB teams have been hosting their alternate training sites. Of the 30 MLB teams, 21 are using local affiliated minor league locations. Three teams (White Sox, Royals, Twins) are using independent league ballparks. Three (Padres, Dodgers, Angels) are using local college facilities. Three more (Rockies, Rangers, Reds) are sort of in the “other” category, using either obscure local facilities or their home ballparks in a unique way. 

Since a potential 2021 list of alternate sites would likely differ in a few ways, I’ll forego the temptation to map out these locations and sort them into groups. But it doesn’t seem to me to be too much of a stretch to see alternate sites functioning as sort of a quasi Triple-A next year. Perhaps sites could organize in hyper-regional pods–easier in some places than others–and stage games against each other. Maybe some fans could be allowed in. All of those ideas are completely dependent on the state of Covid in 2021. 

Beyond the Triple-A/alternate site group, there are many more developing players that need to be accounted for next season. It’s easy to imagine the Arizona League and Gulf Coast League proceeding more or less as normal, and without a PBA, it may make sense to bulk up those Complex leagues and go full NBA-style bubble in places like the Tampa area, greater Fort Myers, Palm Beach/St. Lucie, etc. That could be a sensible option for the draftees, international signees, and even would-be Single-A players. Maybe something resembling the Florida State League could be carried out in an inter-bubble manner. 

But there’s still a whole bunch of mid-level guys–those who would otherwise be rising through high A and Double-A. Maybe there could be a series of other densely-regional pods in places like California, Texas, North Carolina, the eastern seaboard, etc. Perhaps it could be successful enough to accommodate two or even three affiliates per MLB team, and the minor leagues could proceed in bizarro fashion. 

But what about the minor league teams?

Whether there is no 2021 minor league season (like Mozeliak hints at) or whether there is some scrapped-together uncanny valley version, there could be many teams or even whole leagues that are frozen out for another lost season. Imagine if, say, the Midwest League or Eastern League did not operate in 2021, save for a handful of teams tabbed as alternate training sites. 

The idea of contracting 40 PDCs–the thing we’ve been wringing our hands about for a year now–could look very quaint to the eyes of history. Surviving a lost 2020 is one thing, but how many teams can withstand 30+ months with no ticketing revenue? We could see many clubs cross over to the independent or summer collegiate ranks in a non-PBA 2021, and many others could simply cease to exist. If that happens, any detailed notions of what the new 120-team minor league structure will look like are thrown out the window. 

Last fall, there were some off-hand remarks about how some MLB teams would be happy to have the minor leagues trimmed down to ninety teams. If the 2021 season is another Covid-cluster, ninety affiliated minor league teams could be wishful thinking. 

Should there be a new PBA?

At this point, it seems like a foregone conclusion that MLB will assume control of the minor leagues and the player development system in general. If this comes to pass, it’s likely that there would be no need for a PBA, as there would be no “Minor League Baseball®” to negotiate with. But the leagues themselves–you know, the International League, the Texas League, the Pioneer League, etc.–would presumably still exist as legal entities that would continue to contain their current teams. Whether or not a new PBA is drafted, MLB will likely want to see some or all of these leagues continue to operate. 

But with so much uncertainly surrounding a Covid-affected 2021 season, I can’t imagine MLB is jumping at the chance to forge a 120-team contract with the minor leagues. A more optimistic, middle-ground version was suggested by SABR CEO Scott Bush in a recent interview with FanGraphs. 

“A more likely scenario is that they announce a delay to the start of the 2021 season. I could envision the minor league season not starting until June.”

Why do I think that is optimistic? As a lover of the basic structure of minor league baseball, I would be very happy to see MLB wait till next spring to make a plan. Maybe Covid will be in our rearview, and a 120-team PBA can be signed with the minor leagues. Otherwise, something closer to that 90-team version could become a reality by 2022. 

For the sake of baseball and things more important than baseball, let’s hope for the best.