There are 30 losers. Some lose less, some lose a lot more when it comes to major league teams during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Orioles lose less. They were going to have trouble drawing spectators this year. They get to run time off the horrible contracts of Alex Cobb and, especially, Chris Davis without paying them. No one of too much significance is accruing service time toward arbitration or free agency while games are not played.
The Tigers are in a similar situation, just substitute Jordan Zimmermann and Miguel Cabrera for Cobb and Davis while acknowledging that service time accruing for Matt Boyd is somewhat hurtful.
On the other side, the Dodgers are oft mentioned for being particularly hurt by games being missed and perhaps a season lost to the virus. That revolves mainly around one player — Mookie Betts. He is due to be a free agent following the 2020 season regardless and now may never play a game for the Dodgers after they traded three prospects to Boston for him, plus redirected Kenta Maeda to Minnesota.
But the Dodgers have the young talent and resources to remain a powerhouse even without the prospects or Betts. The lost revenue in the sport likely will drive down free-agent prices at least for the near future, and just a few teams, such as the Dodgers and Yankees, might have the finances to capitalize.
For the Yankees, though, part of the tolerance to stretch to nine years at $324 million for Gerrit Cole was knowing, yeah, they likely would be overpaying over the last few seasons of the contract, but they also would be getting prime years early. Now, Cole’s final season in his 20s is tick, tick, ticking away without games.
Still, the Yankees have talent and resources and — like the Dodgers — a baseball operations department that knows how to assemble a winning team.
The biggest losers are clubs that have pushed so much into the pot for this year or next and do not have strong feeder systems or the financial wherewithal to best withstand things if most or, especially all, of the 2020 major league season is lost. The three that stand out are the Cubs, Reds and Mets.
The Cubs marketed their best players, such as Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras, in the offseason recognizing they needed to spread payroll around more and deepen their stock of controllable talent. But the Cubs never traded those players, who had two years of service time until free agency. So now, as their control is dwindling even as no games are being played, their value is lower, especially because more teams will lack the revenue to want to take on expensive players.
Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein told me last month the team would decide by the trade deadline if it could win a title and, if not, would be realistic about moving players. Will there even be a trade deadline now with the Cubs facing the core of a champion — Bryant, Contreras, Javy Baez, Jon Lester, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber — with expiring contracts after this season or next?
The Reds already gave away two of their better prospects (Jeter Downs and Josiah Gray) to get out of Homer Bailey’s pact last year, and the Dodgers already used Downs as a key to get Betts. The Reds also used touted prospect Taylor Trammell last July to get Trevor Bauer when they weren’t really contenders just so they would have him in his walk year this season. Now, what walk season?
Cincinnati gave matching four-year, $64 million free-agent pacts to Nick Castellanos and Mike Moustakas to try to win now. Would you bet on either aging well? Part of the calculus was at least they had 2020 with those guys to try to end a postseason drought that extends to 2013.
But the Mets might be the big losers. Let us count the ways:
They traded key prospects Jarred Kelenic, Justin Dunn, Anthony Kay and Simeon Woods Richardson for Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz and Marcus Stroman, and they did not make the playoffs last year. Stroman, like Bauer, was obtained with his 2020 walk year in mind. So either he will pitch less in his walk year or become a free agent without pitching at all.
The trade with the Mariners, already looking disastrous with Kelenic growing into a top prospect while Cano and Diaz faltered last year, can only be revived if the Mets receive a lot out of Cano and Diaz. As one NL executive said of what missing games does to that Mets’ trade: “It takes an egregious screw up and makes it worse.”
Like Bryant and Contreras, Michael Conforto, Steven Matz and Noah Syndergaard all will be free agents after next season, and the Mets are now losing shrinking time with them. Syndergaard was going to miss this season one way or another after needing Tommy John surgery. But, again, like the Cubs with Bryant and Contreras, the Mets have missed their best window to trade Syndergaard and recoup some of the controllable inventory lost in the Cano, Diaz and Stroman deals.
Also, with no Syndergaard and with Stroman, Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha free agents, the Mets’ rotation to begin 2021 is Jacob deGrom and Matz — and Matz can leave the following offseason. The strength of the team is about to not be that.
DeGrom turns 32 in June. Like Cole with the Yankees, the Mets just don’t want to lose out on any of deGrom’s peak.
One reason the Mets could tolerate some expense and bad contracts is players such as Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil and J.D. Davis were not yet arbitration eligible. The Mets wasted a cheap season of that trio last year and another could be flitting away now.
If there is a season, the good-faith understanding between the union and MLB is that an attempt will be made to play as many games as possible. That likely will necessitate adding doubleheaders and perhaps removing off days. I would argue that the Mets’ best 1-through-15 are as good as or better than that of any NL team except the Dodgers. And Brodie Van Wagenen has made the Mets a bit deeper than in recent seasons — especially in the bullpen if Dellin Betances is healthy, and Diaz and Jeurys Familia rebound (which was going to be key even in a 162-game campaign).
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But depth is still an issue made worse already by the loss of Syndergaard. If teams are going to need to play more games in an abbreviated period, depth is going to be more vital than ever, and depth is not a Mets stength.
One way to create depth if there is a partial 2020 season is to capitalize on an unfortunate situation — that many teams bereft of revenue might have to move contracts even for middling return. But does anyone see the Mets adding to their payroll? Whenever I ask officials around the sport which teams are in the worst financial situation, the Mets routinely come up because they have so much debt and already were going to lose a lot trying to win in 2020. Now, also the value of a franchise the Wilpons are trying to sell may be plummeting.
Might the Wilpons feel with Steve Cohen, like the Cubs with Bryant and Contreras, that their best chance to receive the most for assets — in this case a franchise — came and went in the offseason?
What could financial distress mean for the near future? The Mets can get out of walk-year players such as Stroman, Yoenis Cespedes, Jed Lowrie, Wilson Ramos, Justin Wilson and even any non-insurance payments to David Wright after 2020. But will the lack of revenues this year (even with a partial season, and especially with none) force the Mets to take their 2021 payroll down toward $100 million (or less)?
As one personnel head said, “Their track record is not wanting to spend even in good times.” In which case, can they even make a qualifying offer (roughly $18 million) to Stroman? Would they even tender a contract to Syndergaard (about $10 million) if they thought they were only going to get, say, 15-18 starts from him next year and could not trade him for much more than 25 cents on the dollar?
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