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Could MLB still have the universal DH in 2021? Here's where baseball's rule change uncertainty stands

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For the second year in a row, Major League Baseball and the Players Association failed on Monday to reach an agreement on how to alter the structure of the season in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. But they’re still talking protocols for the upcoming season that could include some or all of the rule changes first implemented in 2020, including the universal designated hitter.

Last year, stalled negotiations prompted commissioner Rob Manfred to unilaterally implement a 60-game season under the authority imbued in him by an agreement with the union signed in March when spring training shut down. This year, with no such addendum to the collective bargaining agreement in place and nothing to compel the union to negotiate, the season structure will revert (as it essentially always has prior to 2020) to the existing agreement. The 2021 season was scheduled to start on April 1. Despite the league’s eagerness to push that date back and a proposal to that effect, without sign-off from the union, start on that date it shall.

The union on Monday outright rejected MLB’s proposal to postpone the season — a package that also included an expanded postseason format and the universal DH. That doesn’t mean those components — or the other quirks of last season — are necessarily off the table.

After starring with the Braves last year, Marcell Ozuna (right) is a free agent whose market would likely be affected by the universal DH rule remaining in place.
After starring with the Braves last year, Marcell Ozuna (right) is a free agent whose market would likely be affected by the universal DH rule remaining in place. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

How COVID-19 protocols could include rule changes

Along with dozens of detailed specifications about social distancing on game days, regular testing and a tiered system for ancillary staff, the 2020 Operations Manual for playing amid a pandemic included the addition of the designated hitter in the National League and an extra-innings rule that would start all innings from the 10th onward with a runner on second base. They were ostensibly added to protect players’ health and safety — just like the stipulation that pitchers should use a wet rag in lieu of licking their fingers.

About a week into the season, after outbreaks that sidelined entire teams and threw scheduling into chaos, MLB and the MLBPA agreed to seven-inning doubleheaders, again citing "player health and safety" in a joint statement.

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Even after negotiations about pushing this season back a month dissolved in acrimony, the league and union are still trading drafts of an updated version of safety protocols. As was already the case during conversations this offseason, the union would like those to include the universal DH.

MLB, however, contends that it’s not a health and safety issue, and that it’s a less pressing need without the regional schedule — last season, teams only played other teams in their division and in the corresponding division in the opposite league, necessitating more interleague play. This year’s schedule includes the usual coast-to-coast travel.

The players’ interest in the DH stems in part from the way it could affect the market for some remaining free agents. Nelson Cruz, who was among that group, re-signed with the Minnesota Twins this week, leaving Marcell Ozuna as the primary candidate whose economic outlook is influenced by whether there are twice as many teams with a designated hitter spot to fill this year. If the league capitulated only after all the free agents have signed, there would be a universal DH in 2021, but without the benefit for players’ salaries.

Will extra-innings rule and shortened doubleheaders be back?

The extra-innings rule was an accommodation for a condensed schedule in a trying year. And seven-inning doubleheaders were added only after a spate of cancellations forced a series of makeup twin bills last season. Of course, it’s hard to see how those factors wouldn’t apply again this year. Leagues like the NBA that are currently playing have struggled with rampant outbreaks and regularly have to reschedule games. But just because it makes sense doesn’t mean it’s a foregone conclusion that these less contentious rule changes will end up in the final version of the protocols for 2021.

That leaves the expanded postseason. The two sides agreed to a 16-team field for the 2020 postseason hours before the first pitch of opening day last year. For the league, it was a way of recouping for their media partners some of the value lost from such a drastically shortened season. In exchange, the players got a $50 million bonus pool. Normally, the postseason pool is based on a percentage of the gate revenue, and with the fan situation so uncertain last season, the guaranteed money was an attractive option.

This offseason, the union has strongly opposed the expansion of the postseason, concerned that it devalues the regular season, disincentivizes competition, and exacerbates the physical grind. Regardless of what’s decided for this season, the expanded postseason — and, indeed, the universal designated hitter — are likely to be major talking points in the renegotiation of the CBA next offseason.

In their official proposal, the league offered to expand the guaranteed player pool to over $80 million. However, the union considers that guarantee to be effectively meaningless. It’s essentially the same as what they earned from gate revenue in 2019, and what they stand to earn again if fans are back in the stands by October.

Of course, for the right amount of money, a deal could still be struck before opening day on April 1.

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