The absurdity of the ongoing game of chicken between Major League Baseball and its players was on full display Wednesday night.
One moment, the Phillies were congratulating Mick Abel on being the newest member of the organization. The next, they were backing into the bushes like Homer Simpson.
All right, Mickster, we’ll see ya when we see ya!
What’s next for the Phillies’ top pick in this year’s amateur draft? We really aren’t sure. Most concerning of all, neither are the Phillies.
A few minutes after hanging up with Abel on Wednesday night, Phillies scouting director Brian Barber was acknowledging that the organization couldn’t really say when his staff might begin the painstaking work of turning a raw 18-year-old pitcher into a bona fide member of a big-league rotation.
“Yeah, I don’t know the answer to that, to be honest,” Barber said. “I don’t think anybody really does right now.”
That’s because, at the moment, everybody involved in Major League Baseball remains trapped inside a special version of quarantine as the owners and players attempt to reach an agreement on the parameters of a season.
On the surface, the dispute is a simple matter of millionaires duking it out with billionaires over whose share of the pie will end up being the smallest. But the longer you examine the implications of the standoff, the more you realize that the biggest loser could end up being the sport itself.
With every day that passes, Major League Baseball brings itself one step closer to a future that is irrevocably damaged, not just by the staging of a sham of a season that results in a postseason champion that nobody will take seriously, but also by the compromising of the development timeline that for decades has stocked each new season with a fresh batch of budding stars.
New draftees like Abel are the least of the sport’s concerns. And that’s saying something, because Abel is about as high risk a prospect as it gets.
Look at the Phillies’ recent history of drafting high school pitchers and you’ll understand the level of care required by someone who has a mid-90s heater during the day and a bedtime at night. Shane Watson, Mitch Gueller, Jesse Biddle, Kevin Gowdy, Jason Knapp -- all were top 100 picks, all high school pitchers, none future Phillies.
The last high school pitcher drafted in the first or second round to pitch for the Phillies was Cole Hamels.
Still, even in normal circumstances, the vast majority of Abel’s development would occur after this season. The Phillies would still need to sign him to a contract, and still need to send him to the back fields of Clearwater to make sure he can find the strike zone often enough not to kill anybody. Even if everything went perfectly, he’d end up with, what, 50 innings of work?
“It’s obviously a disadvantage for any player to not be able to go out,” Barber said. “I do know this: Mick is a tremendous worker who has been at his personal facility in Oregon three, four times every week. I have full faith that Mick is going to be able to continue some of those things while we start working together with some of the people in our organization.”
Instead, it’s guys like current top pitching prospect Spencer Howard who could end up being the biggest victims of the moment. Because, at the moment, guys like that are not members of a 40-man roster, and not assured a chance to pitch in the majors, and, thus, not assured that they’ll have a chance to pitch at all this season.
Even if the big-league season started tomorrow, and the owners and players agreed on a framework that would allow for the Howards and Alec Bohms of the world to get some reps against quality competition, they’d be looking at a situation where they’d have a fraction of a normal season’s worth of games to take the next step toward establishing themselves as legitimate major-leaguers.
What kind of impact is the impasse going to have on these sorts of prospects? Look at the calendar. It’s mid-June. We’ve already arrived at what would have been the midway point of a minor-league season. The NBA has been welcoming players back to training facilities for nearly three weeks. The NHL has its playoff format set.
Baseball had two months between the suspension of spring training and the reopening of businesses in Arizona and Florida to nail down a plan to ease back into action the moment it decided it could do so safely. The only reason players aren’t already participating in supervised instruction is the inability of ownership and the union to arrive at an understanding of the most equitable way to salvage 2020 and live to play another year.
It’s nearly impossible to pin the blame on one party or the other without access to the sort of information that we’ll likely never see. The best I can do is to say that ownership should be willing and able to shoulder the biggest chunk of the loss.
The players’ logic is sound when they point to the fact that they do not receive any extra money in the seasons when revenue is better than expected. Individualizing gains and socializing losses might be the American way, but the MLBPA is about as strong a counterweight against that billionaire ethos as exists in organized labor.
At the same time, there needs to be some recognition on the part of the players that businesses exist to make money, and that a 40% revenue loss is not the sort of thing for which even the most cautious of businessmen can plan.
In an ideal world, there would be enough trust and good will between the two sides to handshake it out and hash out the rest in the next CBA. But, well, here we are.
Out in Oregon, there’s an 18-year-old kid waiting to hear what comes next. Howard, Bohm, Adonis Medina -- they’re somewhere out there too. Here in Philadelphia, neither the Phillies nor their players are making any money.