A modest goal for 2021 is a healthy sense of optimism. Call it a resolution, if you will.

There is a sense of optimism around the 2021 baseball season. Schedules for the Cactus League, Grapefruit League, and regular season have been out for months. Major League Baseball has a universal regular-season start date of April 1. That means pitchers and catchers can be invited to spring training as early as Feb. 17 under the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Myriad details remain – health and safety protocols related to the COVID-19 pandemic chief among them – but the biggest detail is when. The “when” isn’t a question, as far as watching baseball games is concerned.

There are still significant threats to playing 162-game seasons in 2021 and 2022. The first is the pandemic.

MLB and the MLB Players’ Association must convene on a set of rules to navigate the new season safely. Fortunately, they have the benefit of hindsight. That was unavailable last spring when Commissioner Rob Manfred implemented a 60-game schedule, calling it the longest season possible “given the realities of the virus.”

Plenty has changed in the meantime. The NBA season is underway. The NHL season begins soon. Their protocols will serve as useful object lessons.

Meanwhile, vaccinations are ongoing. I’m not sure when players, coaches, team personnel and support staff will be able to receive their vaccinations. Neither are they, based on conversations I’ve had with people closer to the front lines.

That’s a concern. We saw last year how thin the margin for error is in an unvaccinated league. An outbreak among the St. Louis Cardinals left them lucky to play 58 games. When Justin Turner tested positive for COVID-19 in the middle of Game 6 of the World Series, the Dodgers were fortunate to end the game, the series, and the season that night. The stakes for getting the protocols right, and ensuring the players abide, are high.

The pandemic’s effects on the game will be temporary. Last season’s protocols were unique to last season. The 2021 protocols will be confined to 2021. Will special protocols need to be in place for 2022? It’s too soon to say, but it’s naïve to assume society will return to “normal” on a specific date.

By the same measure, it’s early to say how the fundamentals underpinning the next CBA will be affected by the pandemic. The current CBA expires at 8:59 Pacific Time on Dec. 1, which means some unusual forces will be at play during bargaining.

Begin with the availability and effectiveness of vaccines. Fans’ willingness and ability to attend a game in person depend on it. That will in turn impact revenues – the centripetal force of every labor negotiation.

For players, it’s easy to use the pace of free agency as motivation to renegotiate their means of service time-based payouts – either as free agents, through salary arbitration, or the discretion of their teams. Right now, the pace is glacial.

Free agency began more than two months ago, and only two players (James McCann and Ha-Seong Kim) have signed guaranteed contracts of longer than two years with an average annual value of $10 million or more. That’s a pathetic way of keeping fans engaged in the offseason.

But there’s a danger in analyzing any winter in a vacuum. Free agency looked broken in 2019 when Bryce Harper (13 years, $330 million) and Manny Machado (10 years, $300 million) received long-term contracts commensurate of the adjective “star.” Yet only one other player (pitcher Patrick Corbin) received a contract longer than five years or $70 million guaranteed, signaling non-star players were wise to sign contract extensions before testing their value on the open market.

The trend reversed in 2020.

Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon, Zack Wheeler and Madison Bumgarner all signed contracts of five years or longer prior to the season. Josh Donaldson signed for $92 million over four years, an unusually bold gambit for the small-market Twins. The lucrative contracts given to Hyun-Jin Ryu, Yasmani Grandal and Nick Castellanos suggested the Blue Jays, White Sox and Reds were no longer content to stay on the sidelines. The Dodgers bestowed generational wealth on Mookie Betts. With a few exceptions, teams seemed ready to engage with the best available players again.

Now, the unique circumstances of the pandemic are suppressing almost every team’s willingness to spend. Comparing this offseason to years past is simply unfair. The economics of baseball have changed.

Club executives aren’t just crying poor to agents. They’ve been forced to institute widespread layoffs and furloughs behind the scenes. Why, then, would players and owners try now to set the parameters of a long-term CBA for 2022 and beyond?

We’ve heard the players’ concerns with the current CBA for years. It hasn’t done enough to discourage some teams from “tanking” their postseason hopes rather than signing players who will help them win. It underpays talented stars who haven’t accrued enough service time to become free agents. More recently, it’s empowered teams to flood the free-agent market with good arbitration-eligible players such as Kyle Schwarber, Adam Duvall, Eddie Rosario, Brad Hand and Archie Bradley.

Meanwhile, a multi-year contract extension between MLB and Turner Sports, which produces games broadcast on TBS, reportedly will add $470 million per year to the league’s coffers.

Still, owners might have qualms with the current CBA. The Atlanta Braves’ revenues dropped to $110 million from $212 million in the third quarter of last year. The Associated Press reported that the Phillies lost $145 million during roughly the same period. Revenue figures for the other 28 teams haven’t been reported or otherwise made publicly available, but the league-wide pattern of layoffs suggests the Phillies and Braves aren’t alone. Whatever stipulations the current CBA contains to make it an owner-friendly contract couldn’t prevent massive losses in a season without fans.

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