All signs point toward baseball being played in 2020, but for the Tigers and the rest of the league, there will be questions that need to be addressed, but none have an obvious answer yet.
Ever since the idea leaked about the MLB discussing a plan that would have teams playing exclusively in Arizona and Florida, MLB has been quite close-to-the-chest with their answer to get baseball back up and in front of people–whether that be in-person, on TV, or through a stream.
Regardless of how baseball returns, though, there will undoubtedly be questions that the Tigers will need answered; questions that will affect both how the team can proceed this season and how their approach to the next off-season will be. Among others, here are five of which might be the most pressing:
1) How will service time affect the Tigers’ top prospects reaching the majors?
We have seen teams follow the lead of the Chicago Cubs with the loopholes that are currently in place which give teams an extra year of service time if they stay off the roster for a short period to begin a season. Another potential loophole would exist if the season gets shortened–will clubs be able to call-up potential prospects without having to sacrifice a year of service time? If not, when will such a deadline exist in a season which only figures to be somewhere in the 80-100 game range?
While Detroit does not have any of their top prospects in which they intended to open the season with, there is likely a flurry of options that would have been ready for a call-up in August or September. If the service time rules become more friendly for teams, there is a chance we might see players like Manning, Mize, or Skubal a bit sooner than originally anticipated; especially when their impact might be amplified by a shortened schedule. It is important to recall as well that minor league players are not represented by the MLBPA, so the union is presumably on the side which keeps the players they currently represent on the field for as much time as possible.
There is not much of an issue with major league players’ service time. Although it will be a bummer for the owners not to have their players marketed for a full 82 home game schedule, the 2020 baseball season will have a bit more of the college football effect in that each game will have a bit more weight than before. Where a potential issue might lie is if the season turns out to be a complete loss, in which case it is easy to see teams fighting for that extra year of control for players on their rookie deals.
2) How will the Tigers guide their fans to Comerica Park?
Who knows if fans will be allowed into a stadium when baseball is finally underway, but regardless of when Governor Whitmer lifts her stay at home order, I am not sure many would be comfortable inserting themselves and their families into a packed stadium. Detroit’s marketing department has struggled enough to get fans to the ballpark any way, but health and safety measures are going to need to be a huge priority in getting fans comfortable with the idea of attending games.
Maybe this comes in the form of a free Tigers-branded face mask that they will require fans to wear. Maybe it comes in some of the silly traditional giveaways they are already accustomed to. Regardless, the Tigers promotion folks will need to get creative in finding ways to get people into Comerica Park without necessarily sacrificing fans’ health and safety.
3) What is the likelihood of a COVID-19 return?
This seems like a strange question for a baseball team to ask, but the answer to this question will influence how Detroit approaches a potentially shortened off-season. The team did not put all the chips in this year, but it is safe to say they will not be getting as much performance out of their off-season acquisitions this year in Austin Romine, CJ Cron, Jonathan Schoop, and Ivan Nova.
These types of players are not likely to be affected much if teams anticipate a second surge, but it is understandable why a team might be gun shy to spend big on a player that may not find the field in the first year. On a more micro-level, we also have to wonder if teams will start insisting on contract language that would specifically address these types of situations for potential suitors.
4) What will happen if a Tigers player contracts COVID-19 during the season?
It is recommended that individuals self-quarantine for two weeks if they come into direct contact with someone that has contracted COVID-19. While there is certainly a worry if any staff member were to contract the virus, the show simply can’t go on without the players.
If players are forced to self-quarantine, what would happen to their season? Would the league set protocol in place while allowing the team to continue to play? Or would their season essentially halt until their quarantine is over? The union will have a big issue with players continuing to play unless there are at least several safety measures implemented and enforced (regular temperature checks, testing, social distancing, etc).
5) How much money did the Tigers lose?
Like it or not, baseball is a business. The Tigers have been one of the more generous clubs as it pertains to continuing to pay staff through the pandemic; but of course, there is an opportunity cost to the positive PR they have generated. For us, baseball is a tradition, hobby, or even lifestyle. For owners like the Illitch family, it’s an investment.
Knowing what the Detroit Tigers have lost thus far and knowing if they will lose through the end of the season will surely influence the club’s operations in the future. If the Tigers are able to keep their expenses low enough to stay around their operating income of $30 million they were at heading into the season, it will bode well for the future fan experience at the ballpark, their upcoming TV negotiations, and ultimately their future competitiveness.