The Dodgers’ trade for Mookie Betts was a win-now move, acquiring one of baseball’s great players for one chance to win the World Series. The Dodgers were guaranteed nothing beyond the 2020 season because Betts could leave as a free agent after the season.
Now, because of the coronavirus crisis, the Dodgers are not even guaranteed a 2020 season. That could mean Betts leaves the Dodgers without ever playing a game for them.
The league office and the players’ union agreed Thursday to a deal that would make Betts and others in the last year of arbitration free agents next fall no matter what. In the event the season is canceled entirely, a player who completed a full season in 2019 would get credit for a full season in 2020. That would give Betts the service time he needs to be eligible for free agency. If there is a 2020 season, service time would be prorated.
That does not mean Betts would necessarily leave the Dodgers. His free-agent value could dip. If the season is called off, the loss of revenue from broadcasting rights and ticket sales could make teams reluctant to make a commitment for more than the $300 million he reportedly rejected from the Boston Red Sox.
The Dodgers still could extend a one-year qualifying offer to Betts for about $18 million, which could represent a safe harbor in an uncertain economy. The Dodgers also have said they intend to pursue a long-term deal with Betts.
The league still hopes to play a 2020 season, even with the increasing likelihood that the schedule would be significantly shortened. The All-Star game, scheduled for July 14 at Dodger Stadium, could be delayed.
“We need to have a regular season with a credible number of games,” Commissioner Rob Manfred told ESPN on Wednesday night.
The postseason format could be altered too, with more teams qualifying in a summer that Manfred said would almost certainly not be made up of the traditional 162 games in the regular season and three rounds of the postseason.
“We’re probably not going to be able to do that this year,” Manfred said. “I think that’s clear. It does give us an opportunity to do some different things, to experiment, and to make sure we provide as many games as possible and as entertaining a product as possible.”
Manfred said he hoped MLB teams could resume training “at some point in May” and start the season at alternate sites and empty stadiums. He also conceded the season might not be played at all, depending on the spread of the virus and the determination of local and state public health officials.
“It would be a tremendous hardship,” Manfred said. “It would be a hardship for our fans. It would be a hardship for our players. Frankly, it would be a huge economic hardship for our owners.”
He said the return of baseball, whenever it might come, “will mark a real milestone in the return to normalcy” in the United States.
“Whenever it’s safe to play, we will be back,” Manfred said. “We will be part of the recovery, the healing in this country from this particular pandemic.”
The perils of targeting a date to start play were illustrated Thursday in Japan, where players are in training and the league hopes to launch its coronavirus-delayed season on April 24. According to the Japan Times, Hanshin Tigers pitcher Shintaro Fujinami is set to undergo a test for the coronavirus, and some of his teammates have reported issues with their sense of taste, a newly recognized symptom of the virus.
The proposal regarding service time is part of a larger deal between owners and players that would cover cash advances until play resumes, how to prorate salaries when it does, how far into the fall to hold as many games as possible, how many doubleheaders might be feasible, and how to conduct the annual draft and international signing period.
“There’s no deal yet,” one person involved in the talks said Wednesday night. “Still negotiating.”
The Dodgers acquired Betts, who would have been their leadoff hitter and right fielder, and pitcher David Price from Boston last month for outfielder Alex Verdugo and two prospects, infielder Jeter Downs and catcher Connor Wong. Price is under contract through 2022.
Betts, the 2018 American League most valuable player, is owed $27 million by the Dodgers this year, an amount likely to be reduced in a shortened season. Price is owed $96 million over the next three seasons, an amount the Dodgers and Red Sox agreed to split, and an amount also likely to be reduced in a shortened season.