This is the latest installment of a series in which the FanGraphs staff rounds up the latest developments regarding the COVID-19 virus’ effect on baseball.
MLB Floats More Plans For Opening the Season
Another day, another new idea for restructuring the 2020 season surfaces. On April 28, Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported a new variation on some of the plans we’ve already heard, this one set to take effect no later than July 2:
MLB is considering a three-division, 10-team plan in which teams play only within their division – a concept gaining support among owners and executives. It would abolish the traditional American and National Leagues, and realign the divisions based on geography.
The plan, pending approval of medical experts and providing that COVID-19 testing is available to the public, would eliminate the need for players to be in isolation and allow them to still play at their home ballparks while severely reducing travel.
The report goes on to suggest that some at MLB even envision having “several thousand fans” in attendance when playoff season rolls around — a playoff season that would be extended, given the divisional reorganization.
That this plan is being discussed at all would seem to confirm Jeff Passan’s earlier reporting: Clearly, there is some level of optimism that a 2020 season is going to happen. The caveats here, though — “pending approval of medical experts and providing that COVID-19 testing is still available to the public” — are pretty massive. COVID-19 testing in the United States still isn’t widely available, and its availability is dependent on state and local healthcare providers, resulting in discrepancies in test availability from city to city and state to state. Critical supply chain issues have limited the supply of the most common and most accurate test, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, and the recently-approved home version runs at a price of $119; antibody tests have yet to prove consistently accurate; and antigen testing, an appealing alternative to the PCR test due to the fact that it can be mass-produced and deliver quick results, also has accuracy issues — the WHO reports that sensitivity in such tests could vary from 34% to 80%. The US has been testing around 200,000 people per day. That number would likely have to increase exponentially in order to ensure safety in future public gatherings.
Perhaps all of this will change by the end of June. But at the moment, it’s hard to see a plan like this moving ahead.
Chicago Mayor: Baseball Could Happen, But Without Fans
Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot, acknowledging that cases in the city are still on the rise, told media that she’s been in discussions with MLB, and that she could envision a situation in which baseball is played in Chicago this summer.
“level of cases decline … we’re still seeing them rise.” She can envision a world where baseball returns to Chicago this summer, but it will “probably” be without fans.
— Kelly Bauer (@BauerJournalism) April 27, 2020
Under the aforementioned new plan, baseball would indeed be played in Chicago this summer, with the Cubs and the White Sox in the same division. But it still remains to be seen whether the conditions for that plan being put into place can be met by July 2.
MLB Players Trust Launches COVID-19 Relief Program
The MLB Players Trust announced Tuesday that they will be launching a COVID-19 Relief Program. The program includes an immediate commitment of $150,000 to Protect the Heroes, in addition to ongoing financial support.
— MLBPA Communications (@MLBPA_News) April 28, 2020
MiLB Announces CommUNITY First Initiative
Also on Tuesday, MiLB announced the launch of MiLB CommUNITY First, a partnership with Feeding America.
MiLB has announced the CommUNITY First initiative to raise funds for local food banks. pic.twitter.com/pK9DiCYeXl
— JJ Cooper (@jjcoop36) April 28, 2020
The initiative encourages fans to donate by visiting MiLB.com/commUNITYFirst through May 31 and selecting their local team; for every $10 donated, the MiLB team chosen will donate a ticket to “a local hero of the pandemic.”
A’s “Still Unsure” About Paying Employees
The A’s, who are the only team yet to commit to paying employees through the end of May, are considering “extensive” layoffs, report Ken Rosenthal and Alex Coffey.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) April 29, 2020
From the report:
The A’s are discussing extensive layoffs, according to major-league sources. Other clubs have engaged in similar conversations, but so far the Tampa Bay Rays are the only one to initiate major cost-cutting measures in response to the shutdown of baseball during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Rays on Tuesday furloughed some staff and cut the pay of most other full-time employees, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Every other club has committed to paying its employees through at least May 31.
The A’s, while they have expanded their staff in recent years and still struggle with attendance, are valued at $1.1 billion.
Pirates Suspend Contributions to Baseball Ops Employees’ 401k Plans
Along similar lines to the note above, Evan Drellich and Ken Rosenthal report that the Pirates have suspended contributions to the 401k plans of their baseball operations employees, making them the first team known to have done so.
— Evan Drellich (@EvanDrellich) April 28, 2020
From the report:
The Pirates have suspended their contributions to their employees’ 401(k) plans. For now, that choice preserves employees’ full salaries — save for the team’s higher-ups, who are said to be voluntarily taking pay cuts.
“Last week we announced that we have committed to pay our baseball operations staff through at least May 31, as we continue to evaluate the impact of the coronavirus on the 2020 season,” said Brian Warecki, vice president of communications and broadcasting. “I can also confirm for you that all of the members on our executive leadership team have voluntarily taken salary reductions, and we have temporarily suspended our fellowship and internship programs, as well as employer contributions to our 401(k) plan.”
“These efforts were made to help alleviate the need for furloughs or further salary cuts as this time.”
The Pirates’ move here, as a team with the lowest projected payroll in baseball against an estimated franchise value of $1.26 billion, has some concerned baseball ops employees around the sport, raising worry that other teams will use the crisis to leverage their way into more favorable payroll arrangements.
MLB Clears Path for 2020 Ticket Refunds
Per a report from Gabe Lacques of USA Today, MLB is reversing their ticket policy as of Tuesday and giving teams autonomy over their ticket policy for games during the COVID-19 crisis, clearing the way for fans to receive refunds on tickets purchased for the 2020 season. The Boston Globe reports that the Red Sox, for their part, are expected to announce their policy later today.
Fauci: Sports May Have To Skip This Year
In an interview with the New York Times released today, the country’s top infectious disease expert warned that sports shouldn’t be resumed until complete safety can be guaranteed for players, staff, and fans. From the interview:
I don’t want to make this conversation sound like it’s going to be an easy thing. We may not be able to pull this off. We’re going to have to see: Is it doable? Do we have the capability of doing it safely? Because safety, for the players and for the fans, trumps everything. If you can’t guarantee safety, then unfortunately you’re going to have to bite the bullet and say, “We may have to go without this sport for this season.”