Giants star catcher Buster Posey and young White Sox fireballer Michael Kopech both decided not to play this season. That made 12 players who made that choice amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Expect that number to continue rising — and that it will not stop even after the regular season begins July 23 (if the regular season begins July 23).
Agents and team executives spoken to anticipate a decision-making tactic akin to when a college football player now sits out a bowl game because the risks of injury prior to the NFL draft outweigh the reward.
In the case of baseball, there is an expectation that wavering players might decide against continuing to play should they reach certain service-time thresholds. Why take on additional risks if certain rewards are achieved along the way?
One person who advises players said, “I think once players reach graduation day, you will see opt outs.” Those graduation days involve reaching necessary service time levels for items such as arbitration (usually at least three years), free agency (six years) or fully vesting in the pension plan (10 years).
Service time is the lifeblood of the sport — accumulating it brings value. That is why the union fought to assure players would receive service time commensurate with what they earned in 2019 even if no games were played in 2020.
In the now scheduled 67-day season, players will receive roughly 2.78 days of service for every day the season is played beginning July 23 (if it begins July 23).
Normally a player needs 172 days of service to accrue a year. Astros center fielder George Springer has five years and 166 days of service because in 2014 he was held down just long enough to make sure he would need to play seven seasons to reach free agency rather than six. He did not file a grievance. But if he still carries animosity, he could, for example, choose not to play after July 24 and still have amassed the six service days (the fraction is rounded up) to qualify for free agency after the season.
James Paxton needs seven days to qualify for free agency, Marcus Stroman eight, A’s star shortstop Marcus Semien 19, Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts (the top projected potential free agent) 36.
Most players want to play because they love to play, and/or they want to generate the best stats possible for a season or career for honor/money, and/or they feel an obligation to the game or a contender. But when asked if the expectation is that multiple players — especially those who were concerned about playing within the pandemic — will jump once certain service-time criteria are reached, an official for an AL team said, “There is no doubt it is going to go on.”
There also are likely to be veterans who decide to exit the season if their teams falls quickly behind in the standings — especially if they have the comfort of having made a lot of money already and/or have a multiyear contract that extends beyond this season and/or already are fully vested in the pension plan (those 10 years). For example, six of the dozen players who had decided not to participate this year and will receive no salary or service already had at least 10 years of service time. A seventh (Posey) has nine-plus years of service and a guaranteed contract through next year, meaning he will vest next season.
“I would look for guys in the fourth quarter of their careers who don’t have much to play for anymore as far as money or service,” said an executive from an NL team.
Also, entering the weekend, no player had opted out who is categorized as high risk and, thus, would get service time and full salary if he decided not to play. That type of player could see how it is going and, for example, opt out if his team begins dropping from the race.
In addition, this is a season in which there is a COVID-19 related injured list. Players will be on that over varied time periods until they have crossed certain prescribed barriers to return. And studies are showing that even after recovering from the virus, many people are still suffering from symptoms such as fatigue or shortness of breath. If a player has that and cannot perform, he could be returned to the COVID IL even if he technically does not have the virus.
“We are going to have to be ready to see players not available this year or gone for good in a way that we have not seen before,” an NL team official said. “It is not a normal season, it’s not close to normal.”