With MLB season delayed (at least) into May, these are the biggest questions about what 2020 may look like

Another day, another conference call, another statement from Major League Baseball delaying the start of its 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic.

And still, very little clarity about when, or how, this season may unfold.

The only thing we do know is it’s going to be a good while. Monday’s announcement by commissioner Rob Manfred that the league’s hoped-for April 9 Opening Day will not happen came as little surprise, hours after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended a 60-day ban on gatherings of 50 or more people.

And with all statistical and anecdotal evidence suggesting the CDC’s recommendation is a mere starting point, it’s not a stretch to say the season itself is jeopardized to a degree.

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But conjecture gets you nowhere in this unprecedented time for the modern game. All we know is that, barring an unlikely reversal of the COVID-19 outbreak, MLB will not start games before May 9 – and likely not for a few weeks after that date, given players’ need to get back to game speed after a nearly two-month layoff.

With that in mind, a look at what we now know and how it may frame the approach to a truncated season and potentially disrupted postseason:

Ramping up

Major league players, creatures of habit more than almost any species that walk this earth, will now be taken far away from their comfort zone in a new quest: Hitting a moving target.

For pitchers, winter throwing programs give way to bullpen sessions, at home and then in spring training camp, followed by a well-worn path of buildup to Opening Day.

With that date now cloudier than ever, and with teams asked to avoid working out in large groups, it will only further complicate the arms shutdown.

Most pitchers had reached the four-inning mark at the time spring training games were shut down. Now, they’re faced with cooling their engines and firing them back up again, not an impossible ask but certainly a challenging one.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in getting a representative season in will be feeling relatively confident about a start date. If by mid-April the CDC, MLB and any other stakeholders feel relatively confident about, say, a June 1 start, pitchers can respond in kind and re-start their throwing programs.

If there’s less lead time before an all-clear, it would almost certainly force MLB to carry expanded rosters for early-season games, lest they waste most of the summer building starting pitchers into the 90-pitch range.

Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. throws in the bullpen during spring training. (Photo: Steve Mitchell, USA TODAY Sports)

California Stars?

Can an All-Star team be selected after just one month – or less – of games?


For now, the July 14 All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium is on, though it seems it’d have to take on a different form than we are accustomed.

The past two seasons, All-Star voting began around May 28, a full two months after the season started. Choosing a true All-Star team based on just five weeks or less of play would likely produce a small-sample hellscape.

So perhaps MLB could do away with any concept of merit-based selections and call this 2020 edition what it always is, anyway: A popularity contest.

Have fans vote for who they want to see. Leave a few slots open for manager’s discretion.

It could be simpler just to cancel the thing altogether, but the Dodgers have waited 40 years to host a Midsummer Classic, and just sunk $100 million into Dodger Stadium to pretty it up. It also wouldn’t hurt for MLB to have a showcase for its greatest players after months out of sight and mind.

How many games?

About the only passage in MLB’s press release with any deeper meaning was that its clubs “remain committed to playing as many games as possible when the season begins.”

In other words: Start as soon as possible, with a likely extension to a season now scheduled to conclude Sept. 27.

A June 1 start would leave them with, roughly, a 103-game schedule. Jam another seven games on at the end and it’s a 110-game ledger, roughly equaling the total played in the split-season, strike-shortened 1981 campaign.

Yet if teams are that concerned with lost revenue – mostly from mega-bucks local TV deals – how far into October would they be willing to play?

And that brings us to the most nettlesome portion of this equation.

November reign?

MLB has started its past three seasons in March largely so the World Series will conclude before November, creating a more aesthetically pleasing jewel event. But tacking on even one week to this truncated season would, based on last year’s playoff template, push Game 7 of the World Series to Nov. 10.

And should the league desire even more regular season inventory, it will almost certainly push them to one displeasing scenario: Warm-weather or neutral-site playoff games.

It will certainly force the league and fans to grapple with an equation already tilting in one direction: Is the TV audience or the live audience the priority?

It would be a shame to see, say, the Chicago White Sox snap a 12-year playoff drought only to see their games moved under a roof in Milwaukee or to a Sun Belt stadium, rather than risk a November average low temperature of 32 degrees at their home ballpark.

Getting more regular season games in and, perhaps, an expanded playoff season, would help recoup short-term losses. But further propagating the notion that stadiums are merely TV sound stages rather than communal gathering places may further dent the industry’s attendance problem.

Of course, this season is already delayed because groups can’t gather anywhere – churches, bars, stadiums. So perhaps we should prepare ourselves for a conclusion that reflects this new reality, too.

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