Under normal circumstances — a situation that hasn’t been the case in nearly two years — most of the professional baseball world would be flying to Orlando in preparation for the annual baseball winter meetings.
The four-day event has become the focal point of baseball’s offseason where Major League Baseball can promote itself and its product while serving as a final forum for free agent signings and trades.
But not this year … again.
After the 2020 meetings were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, the MLB portion of the 2021 winter meetings will not take place.
With MLB owners officially instituting a lockout of the players following the Dec. 1 expiration of the collective bargaining agreement with the MLB Players Association, there was no reason for MLB teams to make the trip to land of Disney.
So following one of the most eventful and exciting weeks in the history of baseball’s hot stove season, where more than a billion dollars of guaranteed contracts were agreed upon with free agents, the offseason comes to an expected and unwanted stop.
And until the owners and the players can reach an agreement on a new CBA, all MLB activity is halted, including all transactions.
In an offseason where the Mariners planned to be aggressive in adding top-tier talent to a roster in an effort to end their postseason drought next season, they can’t do anything with their ample payroll budget. It’s like they’ve won a shopping spree only to find the store closed for the foreseeable future.
Teams cannot contact free agents, their respective agents or their family members to try to negotiate potential contracts.
That means Jerry Dipoto’s quest to add multiple impact hitters, like free agents Kris Bryant and Trevor Story, to a lineup that lost Kyle Seager will have to be put on hold. The Mariners also cannot continue their pursuit of Japanese outfielder Seiya Suzuki until the CBA is resolved. His 30-day “posting window” for teams to sign him is delayed until an agreement is reached.
Teams also cannot engage in conversations with other teams about players and potential trades.
Any trade talks with the A’s for third baseman Matt Chapman or right-handers Chris Bassitt and Frankie Montas will be put on pause along with any conversations with the Reds about trading for veteran right-hander Sonny Gray.
Also all team employees, including Dipoto and the coaching staff and player development coaches, are not allowed to contact any player in the organization that is on the 40-man roster or even have discussions about them with the media.
So while Dipoto loves to talk about the growth of Julio Rodriguez or the importance of adding lefty Robbie Ray to the Mariners rotation, he can’t say anything about them publicly. Sources said that any contact with a player — intentional or unintentional — between a team employee and a player must be cataloged for review by MLB.
It’s why MLB.com, which is owned by Major League Baseball, offered this note about its upcoming coverage:
“You may notice that the content on this site looks a little different than usual. The reason for this is because the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the players and the league expired just before midnight on Dec. 1 and a new CBA is currently being negotiated between the owners and the MLBPA.
“Until a new agreement is reached, there will be limitations on the type of content we display. As a result, you will see a lot more content that focuses on the game’s rich history. Once a new agreement is reached, the up-to-the minute news and analysis you have come to expect will continue as usual.”
Fans looking for baseball coverage during the winter months won’t be getting the usual hot stove speculation and signings, but player and roster analysis instead.
From a development and improvement standpoint, the players on the 40-man roster are on their own in terms of offseason conditioning and training. For example, J.P. Crawford, who lives in Phoenix, can’t follow his normal routine of going to the team’s spring training facility in Peoria to work out with trainers and coaches. It means that Evan White, who is now fully recovered from hip surgery, is not allowed to use the Arizona facility or get in-person guidance from the team’s medical staff and performance coaches as he tries to get back to full strength.
Marco Gonzales, who is the team’s union representative, cannot go to T-Mobile Park for offseason workouts and throwing regimen despite living in West Seattle.
But there is a large group of players who prefer to work out at private facilities with their personal trainers and coaches in the offseason. Jarred Kelenic’s family owns a facility in Wisconsin while Rodriguez trains with players in Tampa. Kyle Lewis, who is recovering from knee surgery, has chosen to work out with specific therapists and trainers in the Atlanta.
However, the lockout doesn’t affect minor league players not on the 40-man roster. That means Mariners prized-pitching prospects George Kirby and Emerson Hancock can still go to the facility for offseason training and throwing. The Mariners plan to have offseason minicamps at the facility for their top prospects as well as their usual “gas camp” for building arm strength. These young players will get the full focus of the organization’s resources during the lockout.
And if the Major League season were to be delayed, something both sides want to avoid, the minor league seasons for the Mariners affiliates — Class AAA Tacoma, Class AA Arkansas, High-A Everett and Low-A Modesto — would go on as scheduled.
Per sources, the team plans to continue meetings within the organization about offseason talent acquisition, wanting to be ready when a CBA is finally agreed upon and the transaction freeze is lifted. The Mariners want to be ready for yet another free-agent signing frenzy, particularly if it comes in the final days leading up to spring training.
The Mariners also plan to do self-scouting of all their own players via the use of video and data programs while also pushing staff education into new areas of baseball, including technology and data systems and research, while also reviewing all of their current programs for efficacy and efficiency.
There is no set deadline for an agreement to be reached and spring training and the season to start on time. But the prevailing thought in baseball is that having an agreement in place some time by the first week of February would be critical to allow teams to resume their roster building and allow players to be ready to report to spring training in mid-February.
Most teams, including the Mariners, will try to use these next weeks/months of the lockout productively to address things that might not otherwise be a priority.
Meanwhile, fans can only sit and wait.