Fantasy Baseball: What you need to know as MLB, MLBPA negotiate reopening for 2020

We’re seeing a lot of the back and forth between the league and the players union as they negotiate reopening for 2020. It’s all very dramatic. But how much of it actually pertains to Fantasy Baseball?

I’ve identified the 10 questions for which we’re still waiting on answers, and until we get answers for them, it’s difficult to prepare in a meaningful way.

Here’s what we know we need to know …

1) Will there be a season in 2020?

It’s the biggest question and the one that could render all the others moot. And we’ve been asking it since the league shut down because of COVID-19 concerns in mid-March. Of course, the fear for most of that time was that the spread of the disease might not allow for play to resume. For it to have become a relative afterthought, with a division over dollars instead dictating the terms, is a tough pill to swallow. 

Players thought they already had an agreement in place, negotiating in March to receive a prorated portion of their salary whenever play resumed, but owners say circumstances have changed given the length of the shutdown and the inability to sell tickets. They want more concessions to reduce their losses.

It’s a negotiation unlike we’ve ever seen before and yet so much like every other time these two sides have talked money. Labor peace never comes easily with them, and yet at least over the past 25 years, they’ve always found a way to make it work. Given all that they stand to lose by digging their heels in, it remains more likely than not that they’ll reach an agreement they can both live with. But with negotiations being handled so publicly, with seemingly every volley playing out in real time on social media, pessimism is beginning to take hold among us innocent bystanders.

2) When will it start?

Putting together a Fantasy Baseball league takes time. It takes communication and coordination — more than ever at a time when so many people’s lives are upside-down — and no matter when the start date is announced, you’ll need to make things happen pretty quickly. At most, you’ll have a month.

The loose target is early July. The specific dates I’ve seen most often are July 1 and July 4. The most recent MLBPA proposal says June 30, for whatever it’s worth. I’m assuming “early July” would include anything up through July 9, and it’s not clear how willing anyone is to entertain a later start date than that. If it’s early July or bust, then it puts a pretty firm timeline on the present negotiations. Players would need a couple weeks to report and a couple weeks (at minimum) to train, which basically demands the two sides come to terms by early June. 

3) How long will it be?

The shorter the season, the more random the outcomes will be in Fantasy Baseball, which means luck will have a greater say in who wins and loses. And if you play in a Head-to-Head league, whether points or categories, the length of the season also determines what percentage will be consumed by the playoffs. Tweaks may be required, such as giving each team two opponents per week or decreasing the number of playoff teams, but you wouldn’t want to commit to anything until you know what you’re working with.

The number we’ve heard most over the past few weeks is 80 games, or roughly half of a typical season, but in the past couple days, we’ve learned it’s the owners’ preference. The players would prefer something closer to 110 games and recently proposed a 114-game schedule. The owners’ counterproposal is expected to be closer to 50 games, which would require a reinvention of Fantasy Baseball altogether.

The middle ground is 80 games, and it remains the clubhouse leader. But if the players get their wish for more games, you would still see outlandish performances that wouldn’t sustain over a full-length season (there were 114 games in 1994 — so about the same amount — when Tony Gwynn was threatening to hit .400 and Matt Williams was challenging Rogers Maris’ home run record). There would at least be enough weeks added to the schedule for Head-to-Head leagues to stick with their usual playoff structure, though..

4) When will it end?

This question works in conjunction with the last one because it’s only an issue if the players get their way and have an extra 30 games or so. Where would those games go? The 80-game proposal works perfectly because it would mean half a season’s games in half a season’s time: three months. There has been some talk of extending the regular season into October and having playoff baseball continue through Thanksgiving, but owners seem resistant to the idea for fear that a second wave could then wipe out playoff baseball, which is the most profitable baseball of all.

Could the compromise be to cram more games into a three-month span? It’s an idea that’s already been kicked around, involving things like weekly doubleheaders and next to no off days. Obviously, it would change the way rosters are managed, but how much?

We recently had former Red Sox third baseman (and current CBS Sports analyst) Will Middlebrooks on the Fantasy Baseball Today podcast, and he said that the best players on each team would still play every day in such a scenario, noting that the wear and tear wouldn’t be as bad as during a full-length season and that the outcome of each individual game would be more important than ever. Still, you can imagine their performance might suffer after a while, requiring an extra day off here and there.

And pitchers? Man, who knows? If it’s weekly doubleheaders, then six-man rotations would be the most graceful solution. Rosters would be expanded, after all. Otherwise, you might see a lot of four-inning starts, particularly from younger pitchers who are further away from free agency. What kind of impact can a starting pitcher have in Fantasy if he’s never in a position to win a game?

5) How will it happen?

I talked about the potential for a second wave in the previous question, but I think it’s worth stressing that the pandemic isn’t over yet. Health concerns have faded into the background as financial concerns have come to the forefront, but all of the attempts to live up to the health and safety protocols laid out by MLB’s 67-page document will renew the anxiety.

And apparently, players and owners aren’t totally on the same page there. The divide isn’t thought to be insurmountable, so we haven’t heard too many specifics, but I presume players would want even more protections since they would be the ones at risk. Empty stadiums are a given, at least until the spread slows to zero (which it probably won’t), and testing would be frequent. There would be no point in restarting if a single positive test would be enough to shut down the entire league, and MLB acknowledges as much, instead saying that the infected person (not necessarily a player, even) would be quarantined and treated.

But is that enough to satisfy everyone? Someone could be spreading the virus before the test turns up positive, and some of these players have preexisting conditions — diabetes, for one. David Dahl doesn’t have spleen, which is an important organ for preventing and fighting infections. Others might worry about family members with preexisting conditions. Whatever the protocols turn out to be, they won’t be foolproof, and some players might decide the risk isn’t worth it, opting to sit out. And when I say “some players,” there’s no telling who or how many. Mike Trout could be one, for all we know.

6) Where will it happen?

It’s been a few weeks since we’ve heard anyone suggest teams wouldn’t play at their home parks, and that’s the preferred scenario for Fantasy Baseball since we have a much better idea how players will perform at those venues than at spring training sites. The rankings would have to be totally reworked if every team was playing at the Cactus League venues in Arizona, as was being proposed at one point.

But local outbreaks could change things. It’s also possible that the Blue Jays, seeing as movement to and from their home park requires international travel, would have to relocate temporarily, most likely to their spring home in Dunedin, Fla. The park would be empty, remember, so it’s not like the size of the venue matters. Governor Andrew Cuomo has already declared New York open for sports again, despite how hard the virus hit there, so it doesn’t sound like the Yankees or Mets would have to relocate.

7) How much travel would it involve?

Whether it’s ultimately closer to 80 games or 50 or 110, the schedule would need to be redone, if only to preserve competitive balance to whatever extent is possible. But an even higher priority would be to reduce travel as a way to help contain spread. A more recent proposal had every team playing just two divisions: its own and the corresponding division in the opposite league (i.e., the NL East playing the AL East). As far as I know, it’s still the clubhouse leader.

The impact of this would probably be minimal in Fantasy since every division offers a nice balance of hitter’s and pitcher’s parks. The most unbalanced divisions are in the AL, where the East skews towards hitters and the West toward pitchers. The AL Central, meanwhile, is the only division with two clubs in the early stages of a rebuild and a third, the White Sox, in the latter stages of one.

You might presume the players most impacted would be the ones in the opposing division, but it would depend on the breakdown of the schedule. An 80-game schedule would most likely see teams play their own division twice as often as the opposing division, which would be really good news for the Twins. I’ve already broken down which players would benefit from such a scenario and which would suffer, and you can read all about it here.

8) Will every team use a DH?

Other than whether or not the season will happen, this question is probably the most impactful for Fantasy Baseball since it would open up 15 lineup spots for potentially relevant hitters, and the widespread presumption is that both the AL and NL will have use of the DH in 2020. But then again, it first came up when realignment was being proposed as a way to limit travel. Without a clear distinction between the leagues, it wouldn’t make sense for some teams to have a DH and some not, and a universal DH would be fairer than no DH at all.

But does it make sense to go full DH now, with realignment off the table and the traditional AL and NL still intact? Judging from the schedule outlined in the previous question, there would be more interleague play than usual, and so maybe it would still be unfair to have AL teams ditch their DH so often. The DH issue has been so contentious for so long that now doesn’t seem like the time to rock the boat, but the MLBPA would prefer the NL use it since it puts more players in a position to get paid. Maybe NL owners will decide it’s a small concession for getting the season off the ground, particularly if it’s just a temporary one.

Chris Towers has already highlighted some NL players who would benefit from a universal DH. You can read about them here.

9) How big will active rosters be?

This is a big one, too. When Ken Rosenthal reported a few weeks back that rosters could be expanded to 45 or 50, some took it to mean active rosters. But that’s ridiculous, right? So many of those players would be left to languish on the bench, collecting service time that would upend every organization’s long-term plans. More likely, Rosenthal meant that 40-man rosters would be expanded to 45 or 50, giving teams more options for filling out their active rosters, which themselves might be expanded to as many as 30.

It makes sense. To be placed on the active roster, a player must first be on the 40-man roster, but some of those 40-man spots have to go to players (namely prospects) who won’t be of much help in the short term. Adding extra 40-man spots allows teams to pick up journeyman types who would be more suitable for an expanded bench but who could easily be dropped once rosters are retracted next year.

And that’s how I suspect most of those roster spots will be used. Not so much for getting prospects to the majors sooner (though we will see some of that), not so much for piggybacking starting pitchers or going platoon crazy (though we will see some of that, too), but mainly for depth — or more specifically, for navigating an 80-plus-game season without a full minor-league system to meet whatever needs arise.

I’ve already identified one player per team that I think would benefit from expanded rosters. You can read about them here.

10) What happens to minor-leaguers?

Yeah, there won’t be minor-league ball this year. It’s not official, but it’s a foregone conclusion. Just too many cities involved and not enough payoff to justify it. But it does mean two issues will need to be addressed some other way:

  1. Player development
  2. Roster flexibility

The first one may seem like something that can wait, given all the difficulties just in getting a game off the ground, but prospects are the lifeblood of an organization and among the most valuable of its assets overall. Having every one of them lose a year of development could drastically change a team’s trajectory and perhaps even set back the development of certain players.

The roster flexibility issue is partially addressed by expanding active rosters. Teams are used to having only 25 players on hand, so if rosters are expanded to 30, they could theoretically withstand five injuries before a glaring need developed. But is it fair to have one team play short-handed when another has a full allotment of players still? And inevitably, some team will have more than five players injured at once, necessitating a roster move. In other words, teams will need a stable of game-ready alternatives still, even if the minor leagues aren’t happening.

A taxi squad is one idea we’ve seen proposed, though exactly how it would work remains anybody’s guess. I’m imagining every organization putting together like an All-Star team of its best prospects from across all levels — the ones they’re most committed to giving development time, basically — and having it travel around with the big-league club, facing off against other taxi squads. That way, organizations could ensure some of their best assets don’t fall into atrophy while also maintaining a reserve pool of game-ready players should they need it.

It may seem impractical, but I feel like any attempts to address those two issues would be, which is probably why we have yet to hear a detailed plan. But hear it we will, sooner than later. Within the next week, we’ll need answers to most of these questions for a 2020 season to have any chance of happening.

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