If the 2020 MLB season is canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, players will receive service time equal to the amount they accrued in 2019. That’s a win for any player who received a full year in ’19, as they’d remain on track for free agency as expected. That includes Mookie Betts, George Springer, J.T. Realmuto, Trevor Bauer, and everyone else expected to be in the 2020-21 free agent class.
A canceled season would sting for someone like Dodgers second baseman Gavin Lux, who picked up 28 days of Major League service as a rookie last year but was likely to get a full season in 2020. Lux’s free agency would have arrived after the 2025 season, but if this season is canceled, he’ll project to become a free agent after ’26. And then there are others who didn’t get any MLB service in ’19 but were expected to in ’20, such as Wander Franco, Jo Adell, and Nate Pearson.
It’s worth considering how the balance would shift in recent major trades if there’s no 2020 season. The Betts trade, where the Dodgers’ main acquisition was a star rental player, dramatically shifts toward the Red Sox.
Pre-coronavirus expectations of the Mookie Betts trade:
- Dodgers get one year of Mookie Betts, three years of David Price, $48MM from the Red Sox and can make Betts a qualifying offer after the season
- Red Sox get five years of Alex Verdugo, six years of Jeter Downs and six years of Connor Wong
Canceled season results of the Mookie Betts trade:
- Dodgers get zero years of Mookie Betts, two years of David Price, $32MM from Red Sox and can make Betts a qualifying offer
- Red Sox get four years of Alex Verdugo, six years of Jeter Downs and six years of Connor Wong
The Red Sox had been scheduled to pay $48MM to the Dodgers in 18 equal installments, starting tomorrow. However, MLBTR has confirmed that all cash considerations will be adjusted proportionally to the salary reductions that end up occurring in 2020. So if the Dodgers don’t wind up paying Price in 2020, the Red Sox won’t send money to them. My $32MM figure assumes the 2021 season is played in full.
Price remains a useful pitcher, so it’s not as if the Red Sox gave up nothing of value. And while they’d still pay the Dodgers $32MM in 2021-22, that’s only half what they’d have originally owed Price for his age 35-36 seasons. The Sox might have accepted that arrangement with nothing in return from the Dodgers, but they still get to keep Verdugo, Downs, and Wong. Though a canceled season would mean the Red Sox would lose the chance to reset under the luxury tax in 2020, that will be less challenging in ’21 given the Price trade and the fact that Jackie Bradley Jr. ($11MM) will be coming off the books.
The Dodgers, meanwhile, would find themselves without Betts, Verdugo, or Joc Pederson for the 2021 season (unless they re-sign Pederson as a free agent). They’d lose a crucial year of control of Cody Bellinger, who would likely settle back in as the regular right fielder. That would leave A.J. Pollock as the regular center fielder. The Dodgers would have an even bigger question mark in left, where Pederson, Verdugo, and Pollock combined to take more than half of the innings in 2019. Chris Taylor and Matt Beaty would be the main in-house candidates, so the Dodgers would likely have to make an outfield acquisition.
Betts could still wind up playing meaningful games for the Dodgers if the 2020 season is canceled, as they’d be a top contender for him in what could be a strange free agency period. It would hardly be a shock to see the entire free agent market suffer due to teams’ lost revenue in 2020, forcing Betts to settle for less than he expected prior to the pandemic.
Could the Dodgers receive some sort of recourse on the Betts trade if the season is canceled? I polled MLBTR writers Steve Adams, Jeff Todd, and Connor Byrne, and none of them find that likely. As Steve put it, “If there’s an alteration to the Betts deal, that just seems like opening Pandora’s box. Every team in the league would be clamoring for compensation because almost everyone would be getting screwed to some extent.” Whether it’s the Reds acquiring Trevor Bauer last summer with an eye toward 2020, the Diamondbacks losing one of their two years of Starling Marte, or the Rangers losing a year of Corey Kluber, many teams are dealing with a similar situation.
For more on this topic, check out my new video discussion with Jeff Todd: