If I were an investor, I would be selling short on the U.S. economy in 2021, especially Major League Baseball. While there are several months to go before spring training starts again in Florida and Arizona, some of the talk about nationwide lockdowns for weeks or months as an attempt to control the Coronavirus does not bode well for the upcoming season, nor does it create enthusiasm for free agent signings in the new baseball economy.
Fake fans returning in 2021?
(c) F. Carter Smith
Presuming an incoming Biden Administration, the leaders of his COVID response team have been floating an idea of a nationwide lockdown lasting 4-6 weeks while we await mass production of a vaccine to prevent infection. Within the past 24 hours, other advisors have rejected such an idea, preferring local, "targeted" lockdowns to halt the spread.
Meanwhile, states like neighboring New Mexico aren't waiting, beginning a two-week statewide lockdown Monday. There's been talk of major cities "cancelling" Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations.
All this despite at least one member from the World Health Organization, Dr. David Nabarro, claiming lockdowns do more harm than good (scroll down the story for an update on the baseball seasons in South Korea and Taiwan).
A beleaguered Dr. Anthony Fauci recently turned authoritarian, instructing Americans to "do what you're told" regarding lockdowns and mask mandates.
All of this leads me to be very pessimistic about spring training and the MLB season itself starting on time. Can baseball survive a second year of empty stands and shortened seasons? It's becoming a stronger possibility.
The Astros (I'm sure you were wondering when I was going to get to them) are likely to lose a big chunk of money again in that scenario which means they would be smart NOT to be buyers at all this offseason. They're committed to a payroll over $100 million already and would suffer major financial losses unless they get significant relief.
They should probably tender offers to their three remaining arbitration cases (infielders Carlos Correa and Aledmys Diaz as well as pitcher Lance McCullers), sign their international free agents, pick up a few players at the minimum salary and that's it. Nothing further until the lockdown idea has vanished, which might not be until next summer.
I apologize to those who want to see the Astros sign George Springer, Michael Brantley or Jackie Bradley, Jr. Ditto for any pitching help. It's simply not a wise business plan. Even if the Astros cut back this coming season, they'll no longer be paying aging starters Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke after this season, providing room to open up the checkbook for 2022 if warranted.
Something the 2020 season should have taught Houston fans is to not be afraid of playing the kids they have on the farm. Cristian Javier, Enoli Paredes, Blake Taylor and Framber Valdez all had breakthrough campaigns with only Valdez having any big league experience prior to last season. Still, the Astros rallied to get within one win of returning to the World Series as the most improbable American League champion of all time.
Last spring, nobody could have planned for the double-downer of a cheating scandal and a deadly virus altering the landscape. A labor war is also in the offing. This year, the Astros shouldn't be caught flat-footed. They should step back and hunker down, minimize their losses and be in a better position to strike once the financial winds have cleared.
In somewhat related news, the Astros have ended their relationship with the Round Rock Express and have named Sugar Land as their new AAA affiliate. The Skeeters, who play at Constellation Field just southwest of Houston, have been an independent league club since they began in 2012. The Astros will buy the team and will run it as well as the Corpus Christi Hooks (AA) and the Fayetteville (NC) Woodpeckers (Advanced-A).
While giving up (at least for now) the Central Texas market, there is one distinct advantage to having their top minor league affiliate mere minutes away. Should there be a return to the season-long training camp plan of last year, team transactions can be done almost instantly when the parent club is at home.
There's another major advantage, namely that the stadium is in Fort Bend County, outside the reach of any lockdowns called by Houston's mayor or Harris County judge. Should Minute Maid Park be subjected to city or county whims to halt commerce, the Astros can make do in their 7500-seat backup. Now if only they could situate a retractable roof over it.