Sixteen weeks after Spring Training was shut down due to the rapid spread of COVID-19 across the country, Summer Camp, as it has been dubbed, is now underway, with the 2020 MLB regular season slated to begin in roughly three weeks, health permitting.
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Let’s jump right in to this week’s edition:
Rob Manfred said the quiet part out loud — and couldn’t clean up the damage.
MLB’s commissioner has received a great deal of criticism in recent weeks, and for good reason. As the public face of the game, Manfred received much of the heat when negotiations between players and owners failed to progress. Then, after saying he was “100 percent” certain there would be baseball in 2020 on June 10, Manfred just a few days later said he was “not confident” there would be a season. The latter statement came after the players told the commissioner to “tell us when and where” to report for the season, which Manfred could — and eventually did — implement under the March agreement between the two sides.
On Wednesday, the commissioner, speaking to Dan Patrick on his radio show, said, “The reality is we weren’t going to play more than 60 games no matter how the negotiations with the players went, or any other factor.” The March agreement between the players and owners required that both sides work “in good faith” to complete the fullest season possible. Manfred’s comments led many to the conclusion the league was never negotiating in good faith, and could prove key if the players decide to file a grievance in the future. Manfred put his foot in his mouth once again, plain and simple.
On Thursday, the commissioner attempted to clean up the mess, telling USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, “My point was that no matter what happened with the union, the way things unfolded with the second spike. We would have ended up with only time for 60 games, anyway. As time went on, it became clearer and clearer that the course of the virus was going to dictate how many games we could play.’’
Manfred’s point about the impact the virus could have on the baseball season, whether it was 80+ games or the currently planned 60, isn’t wrong. But his statement does not explain why the owners were so opposed to lengthier schedules. And if they were never going to play more than 60 games regardless, why were the owners sending offers for more games (with a decreased percentage of salaries)? Manfred was never going to be able to fully walk back that comment, though, and shake the perception that the league negotiated in bad faith for weeks with the goal of paying the players less money.
Marlins CEO Derek Jeter said the other day that “there’s no trust” between the league and the players union. It’s no wonder why.
The MiLB season was officially canceled.
It wasn’t a surprise, but that doesn’t make it any less sad for the sport: the 2020 Minor League Baseball season was officially canceled on Tuesday. The National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the minor league governing body, made the announcement, with president Pat O’Conner saying that the “fans-in-the-stands” nature of minor league baseball made playing without fans infeasible.
With no minor league season, the majority of MLB prospects will not receive any official team instruction any time soon. MLB teams may be more likely to promote their prospects to the big leagues, given the nature of the major league season and lack of minor league season, but that will likely vary from team to team. All major league organizations have agreed to pay their minor leaguers their weekly stipends through at least the end of July, though the future beyond that is largely unknown.
This all comes at a time when the minor leagues are set to change dramatically in the years to come. Roughly 40 teams are set to lose their affiliate status with major league clubs next year, with the minors realigning as a result. Add in the pandemic, and many minor league teams are likely never going to recover.
The changes set for this season will impact the game in a wide variety of ways.
On the surface, the schedule and rules changes slated for Major League Baseball in 2020 appear pretty simple (the health and safety measures and changes are, of course, far from simple). A 162-game season will be cut down to 60 games, the designated hitter will be added to the National League and a runner will be placed on second base to begin extra innings, with a few smaller rules changes as well. But even just those few changes could have major impacts on the game this season.
The significantly shortened season will undoubtedly lead to an increased sense of urgency, as every win and loss will have a significantly greater weight on a team’s overall record than in normal circumstances. Jayson Stark of The Athletic pointed out that a seven-game losing streak in a 60-game season would be the equivalent of a 19-game skid in a 162-game campaign. In other words, teams cannot afford to get off to a poor start to the season or go through extended cold stretches. They’ll likely be left too far behind to recover if they do.
Also as a result of the shortened schedule, more teams will have a shot at making the playoffs. The worst teams in baseball will still likely be the worst teams in the standings at the end of the regular season, but teams expected to be around .500, particularly younger teams with emerging talent like the Blue Jays, White Sox, and Padres, could definitely get hot out of the gate and surprise a lot of people.
Despite plenty of opposition to the topic in recent years, most of the reaction to the DH coming to the National League this season seemed to be either positive or indifferent. This change will particularly help certain NL teams, such as the Mets with Yoenis Cespedes, the Nationals with Howie Kendrick, the Cubs with Kyle Schwarber, and the Brewers with Ryan Braun. There’s a part of me that will miss some of the strategy involved without the DH, but overall the reasons for the change — fewer injuries to pitchers, more game action, prolonging great hitters’ careers — seem pretty indisputable.
The change to place a runner on second base in extra innings was met with the most negative reaction across the game — on social media, at least. I have significant hesitations about this change under normal circumstances — my view now is that it’s fundamentally changing the game too much — but we all know these are not normal circumstances. The league wants to cut down on lengthy extra inning games given the health risks and that teams will be playing 60 games in 66 days. That’s certainly logical, and this seems like the perfect opportunity to try something like this out. I’m not sold yet, but I’m willing to give it a chance in 2020.
And some teams and players will benefit more than others.
Those 60 games that the season will be reduced to — they’ll be a little different as well. Teams will only be playing within their region, with 40 games against divisional opponents and 20 contests against teams in the corresponding division of the opposite league. This leads to some inequity, but that’s simply inevitable. Good teams in the AL Central, the only division in baseball with two teams deep in rebuild mode, will have an easier schedule than good teams in the AL East. The Twins and/or Indians could post some remarkable win totals.
Due to the late start and shorter schedule, some star players — and by extension, their teams — will be more likely to be healthy and effective. Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, the star pitchers for the Washington Nationals who pitched them to a World Series title last October, have had more time to recover and won’t be expected to throw as many innings. And the New York Yankees will likely have a number of players ready to go for Opening Day who due to injury wouldn’t have been under normal circumstances. That list includes James Paxton, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Hicks. Those are just two of several possible examples.
What’s on deck?
Players began reporting to training camps on Wednesday, but things will really start to pick up beginning today, July 3, when most teams are holding their first official workouts.
MLB is expected to announce on July 3 the number of COVID-19 tests taken and number of positive results, according to MLB Network’s Jon Heyman. On an individual level, it’s been reported that in accordance with the MLB/MLBPA Collective Bargaining Agreement, teams will not be allowed to disclose without player permission that a player is sidelined due to coronavirus. Just Thursday, two MLB clubs, the Blue Jays and Phillies, placed four players on the injured list without providing any explanation.
Finally, the league is expected to release its full regular season schedule some time next week, per Heyman. Teams have reportedly had access to an unofficial schedule for planning purposes. There’s undoubtedly going to be plenty to follow across the league in the days ahead.
Photo by “PresidenciaRD” / Flickr