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The Yankees and MLB face uncertainty caused by the coronavirus delay

A suspended start to the regular season creates contract dilemmas for MLB rosters

MLBPA executive director Tony Clark answers questions about Astros sign stealing scandal Photo by Alejandra Villa Loarca/Newsday via Getty Images

On Monday, MLB announced they would be following the CDC’s recommendations and will likely push back Opening Day by at least eight weeks. There is no end to the novel questions raised by this delay precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, from the prospective start date, the length of the season, or the status of off-days and the All-Star Game. However, for the purpose of this article, I will be solely focusing on the contractual elements of this predicament.

Commissioner Manfred held a conference call with the owners to hash out the contingency plan regarding these contract and roster concerns. The Players Association released a memo, which was shared with Ken Rosenthal, updating the players and the public as to the course of those discussions. Here are some of the resolutions already reached:

They have discussed a roster freeze to protect players from being subject to transactions. The MLBPA also wishes to address players with March opt-out clauses, without anything concrete being decided. Given that minor leaguers are only paid during the regular season, the Players Association agreed to pay $1,100 per week to players on the 40-man roster and certain non-roster invitees through April 9th.

How does all this play out specifically for the Yankees? It appears every roster issue imaginable will be impacted. This includes non-roster invitees, spring opt-outs, arbitration, free agency, contract options, suspensions, the draft, service time, the trade deadline, and guaranteed contracts.

J.A. Happ was the first Yankee to jump to mind when pondering whose contract status could be affected by the postponed start. He was arguably the most impressive pitcher in spring training, and with the absences of Luis Severino, James Paxton, and Domingo German, he was pencilled in as the team’s third starter to begin the season. If that was the case, his $17 million option for next season was almost sure to vest, as he seemed a lock to meet at least one of the 27 start/165 innings pitched milestones. A potentially shortened season jeopardizes those future earnings.

The players on the team most likely to be impacted by the non-roster invitee and March opt-out changes include Chris Iannetta and Rosell Herrera. Both experienced players were signed to minor league deals, and ended up being two of the most productive hitters in spring training for the Yankees. Their performances could have opened enough eyes around the league to entice a team to offer a major league contract, should they not receive one from the Yankees. The delay to the start of the season throws a wrench into the opt-out clause that would have allowed them to pursue that avenue.

Yankees currently under team control could be particularly hard-hit. First is the fact that players under arbitration or in pre-arbitration are paid a salary scaled to the amount of games played. More than that, however, is that salaries awarded in arbitration are primarily influenced by performance and the attainment of certain milestones. Players like Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez could stand to earn less in a shortened season because of the lack of games to achieve certain benchmarks, and the prospective cancellation of the All-Star Game would depress earning potential.

Speaking of salaries, this outbreak endangers one of the core pillars of MLB negotiations: the guaranteed contract. The current language of the MLB CBA states that the CBA can be suspended during a national emergency. This could absolve MLB owners from paying money on guaranteed contracts during the national emergency, as said contracts only operate under an active CBA. Indeed it appears this is the direction in which the NBA is heading, and the MLB could soon follow suit.

Also affected are players in their contract years. Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton are set to hit free agency next offseason, and fewer games gives not only less opportunity to build their value, but also can skew results. Smaller sample sizes from a shortened season can result in greater deviations from the mean.

Perhaps the stickiest conundrum is service time. As it currently stands, a player has accrued one year of service time once they spend 172 days on the 26-man roster, out of the 187 day season. Yankees who may have started their service clocks this season include Deivi Garcia and Clarke Schmidt, however circumstances may threaten that prospect. The MLBPA and Commissioner’s Office are in quite a pickle on this one, as they have held discussions but have not come close to a solution.

One player that must also be mentioned is Domingo German. German is currently serving a suspension for domestic violence allegations, and is set to sit out for the first 63 games of the 2020 season. Because the language of the suspension specifies games, and not days like with service time, I do not expect a shortened season will also reduce his suspension.

Finally, the trade deadline and draft are in a state of limbo, and do not figure to be resolved any time soon. As Tom recently wrote, the cancellation of the rest of the NCAA baseball season has serious implications for the draft, should one occur at all this year. Additionally, we have seen players parlay post-trade deadline swap success into considerable contracts, Justin Verlander and J.A. Happ being recent examples.

In the coming weeks, the Commissioner’s Office and the Players Association face the unenviable task of cleaning up the mess caused by the coronavirus. Issues ranging from service time to guaranteed pay are up in the air. No matter which way you cut it, the decision will be unpopular for at least one of the parties involved. While I am sure there are to be a few ruffled feathers along the way, these are questions that must be resolved before play resumes.