The Top Storylines to Track as MLB Spring Training Part 2 Begins
Get ready for Major League Baseball like you've never seen it before.
Granted, exactly how visible MLB is going to be over the next few weeks is unclear. After breaking for three months in deference to the coronavirus pandemic, the league is set to resume spring training on Wednesday. But this time, clubs can only play three exhibition games before the season opens on July 23 or 24.
Regardless, the coming weeks are a chance for everyone in baseball to adjust to the sport's new normal.
There are all sorts of new rules that will change the size and shape of rosters, as well as how games are played and even how uniformed personnel behave. And while all of it is meant to keep the coronavirus at bay, it's no secret that it's going to remain a very real threat for the foreseeable future.
Since all this is a lot to process, we thought we'd break things down into eight storylines that are worth monitoring during baseball's second round of spring training.
How Will National League Clubs Fill Their New DH Spots?
The biggest things to know about the 2020 season are that it will be 60 games and that matchups will be regionally based. East teams will play East teams and so on.
The National League also has the designated hitter for the first time in history. Some purists may not be happy about this, but it should help keep pitchers healthy while also allowing for a consistent style of play in interleague matchups.
In the meantime, it's up to NL clubs to figure out which player (or players) they want to use at DH. It's certainly a boon to teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds, New York Mets, Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals, who initially entered 2020 with more quality hitters than they had slots for.
For other Senior Circuit teams, it's not so simple. The Chicago Cubs, for example, have to decide whether to move Kyle Schwarber to DH or keep him in left field. The Philadelphia Phillies also face a dilemma in how to rotate Andrew McCutchen and Jay Bruce at the position.
No matter what happens, it'll be odd to read stories about National League clubs mulling their options at DH.
Which Prospects Will Benefit from Expanded Rosters?
The 2020 season was already due to usher in a new era for roster sizes, as it was going to be the first year in which clubs were permitted to carry 26 players through the season's first five months.
Things are even more different now. Teams have been permitted to include as many as 60 players in the second round of spring training and 30 on their Opening Day rosters.
Even now, this has created plenty of opportunities for some of the league's prospects to make an impression in the next few weeks. And due to the cancellation of the 2020 minor league season, some lucky prospects may be chosen for on-the-job training in the majors.
This might not apply to younger prospects whose MLB-readiness is lacking. To wit, 19-year-old shortstop Wander Franco likely won't get his shot with the Tampa Bay Rays despite being the sport's No. 1 prospect.
Yet it could be a different story for other prospects who were knocking on the door in the first round of spring training. To name just a few, keep an eye on Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Nate Pearson, Los Angeles Angels outfielder Jo Adell and St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Dylan Carlson.
Will There Be Adjustments for the New Extra-Innings Rule?
It's not just the rosters that are changing for 2020. There's also an important new rule that stipulates that every inning after the ninth will begin with a runner automatically on second base.
At least in theory, this will keep games from going too deep into extra innings. That means fewer chances for injuries, and it should also spare teams from having to play subsequent games with worn-out players.
As for whether this new rule will influence how teams go about their business in the second round of spring training, there's a chance that it won't. After all, why plan for extra innings when it's the first nine innings that take priority?
Still, you never know. If nothing else, this rule could be a ticket onto major league rosters for pinch-running types such as Terrance Gore (Dodgers) and Tim Locastro (Arizona Diamondbacks).
There might also be some clubs who envision situations in which they'd rather try for a runner on third and one out than a runner on second and no outs. If so, they might do extra bunting drills.
How Will Players and Coaches Adjust to Health and Safety Protocols?
To minimize the risk of the coronavirus spreading out of control, MLB has also set rules and guidelines for the behavior of all on-field personnel.
- No spitting
- Pitchers should use a wet rag to dampen their fingers
- Extra space in dugouts and bullpens
- Base coaches must stay in the coach's box
- No pregame exchange of lineup cards
- Players, coaches and umpires should physically distance as much as possible
These are all common-sense changes, and they should make a difference if everyone abides by them.
However, that may not be so simple in actuality. Spitting, especially, will be tough to police because that's more an instinctive behavior than a learned one. And after years and years of licking their fingers for a better grip on the ball, pitchers are bound to forget about the wet rag and slip up from time to time.
At the very least, there figures to be some growing pains as everyone works to rewire their brains to accommodate these new stipulations.
Will Rust or Even Injuries Run Rampant Through Camps?
The territory that MLB is in right now is so uncharted that it might as well be on a different planet. And while it may be a secondary concern, the sport's long layoff is very much part of the equation.
In a normal year, players report to spring training in February and are game-ready by March. They then do their best to keep themselves that way up to and, if necessary, into October.
This year is obviously different. Baseball suspended operations on March 12, or right around when players were on or over the cusp of being ready for real games. After a three-month break, they now have to quickly ramp up their game-readiness all over again.
Ideally, players will have stayed in shape and as sharp as possible during the layoff, and the second round of spring training will go off without a hitch. It's possible, however, that there will be some rust that will result in dead arms, tired legs and perhaps more outright injuries than teams see in a normal spring training.
If this is the case, they may have to dig deeper into their 60-man player pools than they'd prefer to.
What's the Mood Going to Be Like?
When the news broke on June 23 that baseball was finally returning, the initial mood was decidedly celebratory. Before that, however, things were pretty ugly between MLB and the MLB Players Association.
Different interpretations of their original agreement from March resulted in heated negotiations over how many games and for how much money players should play this year. At one point, Commissioner Rob Manfred even insinuated that he could cancel the season altogether.
With this spat immediately behind them and yet another labor fight looming in the not-too-distant future, players might still be harboring some hard feelings. As the celebratory mood fades, there may not be much to keep them from bubbling to the surface.
There's also the question of how players are feeling about only getting a chance to play 60 games, much less in stadiums that will be sans fans for at least the start of the year. This, too, could affect the mood in camp.
Managers and coaches have feelings too, you know. In this case, the older ones may not feel entirely at ease with the situation they're walking into. For instance, the Houston Astros' 71-year-old manager, Dusty Baker, has acknowledged feeling "a bit nervous" about returning to work during a pandemic.
Will There Be More Opt-Outs?
No matter how well thought out MLB's new health and safety protocols may be, there's still the question of whether players even want to risk playing in 2020.
To this end, there have already been four opt-outs. Diamondbacks right-hander Mike Leake was the first on Monday, and he was promptly joined by Washington Nationals stars Ryan Zimmerman and Joe Ross (see here) and Colorado Rockies utility man Ian Desmond (here).
This was bound to happen. As noted by Zach Buchanan and Brittany Ghiroli of The Athletic, the one catch in this situation is that only "high-risk" players can opt out and still accrue pay and service time, and also opt back in if they want. Players who aren't high-risk get nothing if they opt out, and can't back opt in.
In any case, it's a good guess that we haven't seen the last of the opt-outs.
Nobody will be totally safe from the coronavirus until there's a vaccine, and it's not a given there will be one this year. Players also have to worry about their families in addition to themselves. As Leake, Zimmerman, Ross and Desmond have, more will surely conclude that playing this year just isn't worth it.
What If One or More Teams Experience an Outbreak?
Though MLB is obviously going to try, it's already apparent that the league can't shield itself from the pandemic entirely.
According to Bob Nightengale of USA Today, 40 players and staff members tested positive for COVID-19 (which, to clarify, is the disease caused by the coronavirus) during one week in June alone. More recently, four-time All-Star Charlie Blackmon was one of three Rockies to test positive.
In fairness, players and other personnel reporting this week can only proceed after testing negative. They'll also be tested every other day afterward. In the event of a positive test, teams will have plans in place for isolation and treatment.
But while these measures should keep teams from being overrun by the virus, there are no guarantees. In light of the rising cases in those states, this would seem to go double for teams in Arizona (Diamondbacks), Texas (Rangers and Astros) and Florida (Marlins and Rays).
According to Andy Martino of SNY (via Craig Calcaterra of NBC Sports), a sudden implementation of travel restrictions in the United States would trigger a cancellation of the 2020 season. Otherwise, that's a button that only Manfred can push. If things do indeed get out of control, he may have no choice but to do so.