Why the 2020 season may be a sign of things to come for Major League Baseball

The recently completed 2020 MLB season was mostly notable for its upheavals and uncertainties. Now that the season is done, the temptation for observers is to assume that normality will return to the sport in 2021. Unfortunately, that’s probably not going to be the case for a number of reasons — many of them owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.

With that in mind, let’s have a quick walking tour of how the turbulence of the 2020 season will continue to inform baseball’s near- to mid-term future.

The new rules

The 2020 season famously/infamously featured a number of rule changes, many of the drastic variety. Two of those changes — the minimum three-batter rule for relievers and the expansion of the active roster to 26 players — are permanent. Others, like the designated hitter in the National League, having a runner start on second base in extra innings, shortening doubleheader games to seven innings, and the expanded playoffs may not return next season.

But what about once the next collective bargaining agreement is instituted? Might the next agreement between players and owners implement some of these controversial changes to the game on a permanent basis? Signs point to probably. Commissioner Rob Manfred recently said this to the Associated Press about those rule changes:

“People were wildly unenthusiastic about the changes. And then when they saw them in action, they were much more positive.”

In particular, Manfred would like to see the playoffs permanently expanded — albeit probably to 14 teams instead of the 16-team format of 2020 — and for the runner-on-second rule for extra innings to stick around. Players might need to be persuaded on the first count, but they’ll almost certainly support anything that makes 15-inning games less likely.

As well, there was already some pre-2020 momentum to install the DH in the NL, and that’s very likely an easy sell to players. The 2020 season served as a way to acclimate fans to the idea of never seeing pitchers hit, and the initial outcry against it seemed to peter out fairly quickly. Beyond all that, Manfred has once again hinted at the possibility of banning infield shifts.

For better or ill, Manfred has been bold in pursuing structural tweaks to the sport, and there’s no reason to think that will change. The guess here is that by the time the 2022 season arrives, the DH is a permanent presence in the NL, and every inning from the 10th onward begins with a runner on second base.

The restructuring of the minor leagues

MLB: MAR 08 Spring Training - Reds at Cubs (ss)
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Thanks to the pandemic, Minor League Baseball (MiLB) for the first time in its 120-year history did not play a season. Unfortunately, the trouble down on the farm don’t end there.

For a while now, MLB has had designs on whittling down the affiliated minor leagues — i.e., those farm teams formally linked to an MLB organization. The working agreement between MLB and MiLB has already expired, and MLB will largely wind up getting its way via whatever comes next, whether it be a new agreement or MLB dissolving ties completely and establishing its own developmental framework. MLB will reduce the number of farm teams to 120 or so, which means more than 40 minor-league teams will lose affiliate status. In related matters, former rookie leagues will likely be converted into summer wood bat leagues for college players.

Starting 2021, the minor leagues will be more uniform in terms of the quality of facilities, and players will be slightly better compensated. However, there will fewer affiliated teams and as such fewer affiliated prospects.

The looming labor war

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The current collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which is the negotiated agreement that governs almost every aspect of the working relationship between management (the clubs) and labor (the players), is set to expire after the 2021 season. While we’ve had a historic run of labor peace in baseball — no labor stoppages since 1995 — there’s reason for pessimism in the here and now.