Blue Jays Confidential: What will MLB look like when it returns?


Toronto Blue Jays infielder Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (Carlos Osorio / CP)

Blue Jays Confidential asks a panel of Sportsnet Blue Jays analysts to weigh in on issues big and small with the team, and around Major League Baseball. This week, Arden Zwelling asks the panel several questions related to the postponement of the 2020 season due to the CONVID-19 pandemic, and one about the Blue Jays for good measure.

Just how societally disruptive COVID-19 will ultimately prove is impossible to say. Likewise, none of us know when MLB baseball might return.

But based off the very big assumption that games resume sometime in May or June, what do you think that process would look like? How would this all play out?

Shi Davidi (@ShiDavidi):

There’s going to be a lot of arm-wrestling over this once there is a go-ahead, but I would expect Spring Training 2.0 to be real quick, maybe a week to 10 days, with teams allowed to carry three or four extra arms to open the season.

Of course, much of this depends on how often pitchers are able to throw amid current social-distancing efforts (pitchers should start rubbing up balls with Purell instead of Bullfrog – not joking). But obviously the longer this goes, the more challenging the restart will be.

Ben Nicholson-Smith (@bnicholsonsmith):

Well we’ve said for years that spring training is longer than it needs to be. Now we’ll get an idea of just how much it can be condensed.

Working our way backwards, could you really ask a starting pitcher to pitch in a game that counts after just one spring start? That seems a little aggressive, especially if there’s a significant layoff first.

So let’s say two outings per starting pitcher are required. Plus, you’re not going to show up and play games on the very first day back, so let’s add a few initial days for bullpens and batting practice. With that, you’re looking at two weeks minimum – maybe more.

The idea of extra players is interesting. If MLB compresses the schedule to play more games in a short period of time, I think roster size should expand. For example, any time a team has played 10 days in a row or more, the club could be given an extra roster spot.

Arden Zwelling (@ArdenZwelling):

Once they have the go-ahead to resume play, MLB will want to get things up and running as quickly as possible. Every missed regular-season game is costing the league and its teams millions in lost revenue. So I’m expecting a condensed second spring training of 14 to 21 days, with regular-season rosters increased to 28 or even 30 for the first 30 days at least to compensate for the fact starting pitchers will still be building up to full outings.

Pitchers won’t be — and shouldn’t be — happy with how quickly they’ll be asked to ramp back up again. And all players may have to adjust to a compressed schedule featuring fewer off days. So I think creating two to four extra MLB jobs per team for at least that first month is a necessary trade-off for the league to make.

Jeff Blair (@SNJeffBlair):

My guess is teams would require three weeks to a month of spring training to build pitchers up again.

I could see 30-man rosters with the extra places being occupied by pitchers. My preference would be to split the season whenever it comes back: Declare a first and second half champion, unless we get to the point where it becomes impossible to play 120 games. Create two pennant races. It’s been done before. This is a chance for the game to redefine itself.

Mike Wilner (@Wilnerness590):

It seems obvious that the longer the shutdown goes, the longer players will need (pitchers, really) to re-get ready for the season, if you will.

At the very least, one would think there would have to be a 10-day to two-week mini-camp, though maybe the solution is to allow teams to carry a 15- to 18-man pitching staff for the first few weeks of a truncated season in order to be able to play real games while also being able to stretch out pitchers’ arms.

Maybe that way, things can get started before Memorial Day in the United States and there could still be the possibility of a 120-or-so-game season.

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MLB players have been given three options for where to wait out the postponement: Remain in Florida or Arizona to continue working out at club facilities, travel to the city in which their team plays to work out there, or head home. If you were in their shoes, which would you choose?

Shi Davidi:

They’re in a difficult spot because they all want to play and all want to get home to their families, too.

Unless I lived in a COVID-19 hotspot, I’d go home to be with my family. If we’re going to end up in some sort of lockdown — and based on the current trajectory and what’s gone on in Europe, we’re on pace for that because we’re already chasing the spread — I’d want to be with my family.

Everyone’s career will be impacted by this in some way, shape or form, athlete or not. Be with the people you love most in these unprecedented times.

Ben Nicholson-Smith:

No doubt in my mind, I’d rather be home. We don’t know how long the delays will last, and safe social distancing is easier at home than it is anywhere else.

Arden Zwelling:

Obviously, everyone in North America needs to be prioritizing social distancing at the moment. That means spending as much time at home as possible.

But I also understand the motivations of players who want to continue working out at their club’s spring training facility, whether out of a sense of obligation to their teammates or the fear that going home would give MLB reason to further postpone the season, and thus their pay cheques.

Honestly, I’d probably remain in Florida/Arizona for a few days and see how things develop. But I bet we’re heading towards a point at which MLB teams are going to force players to go home anyway.

Jeff Blair:

I’d get out of Florida as fast as I could. The place is going to be overwhelmed. Besides…it’s a good rule to live by at the best of times.

Mike Wilner:

There’s no choice in my mind, which is why I got on the first flight home as soon as word came down that spring training was cancelled.

I wanted to be with my family, even though with self-isolation I can’t really “be” with my kids. But also importantly for me, if I’m going to need a health care system, I’d much rather it be here in Canada than in the United States.

Most MLB players don’t have the benefit of coming to Canada for their health care, but then again, many of them are in the upper tier of U.S. health care so it’s not as much of an issue for them. If I were in their shoes, I would want to be at home, with my family and in my own personal space rather than a hotel, continuing my winter workout routine on my own so as to reduce the risk of both getting sick and getting other people sick, and being ready to return to camp as soon as possible.

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Significantly shortening the season may only serve to further unbalance an already unbalanced schedule, creating advantages for teams that play in weaker divisions. Does a division winner in a 110-game season hold up to one that played 162?

What do you think is the minimum number of games that would need to be played in 2020 for the season’s results to be considered legitimate? Should the league consider altering the playoff format to reflect the imbalance?

Shi Davidi:

This is a fascinating question and a smaller sample certainly increases the chances of outlier outcomes. The element of randomness would be fun. To me, 100 games is the minimum number of games needed to have some semblance of normalcy.

You could do a schedule of 12 games versus division rivals, four games versus each of the other teams in the league plus two three-game series and three two-game series of interleague.

As for playoffs, this is the year to experiment. Maybe scrap the divisions entirely, play a balanced schedule and have an NCAA style tournament, seed teams one through eight and go best of three, best of five and then two best of sevens. More post-season baseball the better.

Ben Nicholson-Smith:

I mean, the Atlanta Braves’ 1995 World Series is clearly legitimate and that season lasted just 144 games. Even a 110-game season is still 33 percent longer than an NBA or NHL season.

This year will be different than any other for many reasons, some of which we probably haven’t even anticipated yet. But as long as the regular season lasts 100-plus games, I don’t think it’d be fair to attach any asterisks. The best teams will separate themselves during that time, and October will be as unpredictable as ever.

Arden Zwelling:

I’ve been advocating for shortening the regular season, realigning divisions and expanding the playoffs for years. And this season — which I don’t anticipate starting until June at the earliest — presents a perfect opportunity to test run all of the above.

For one season only, abolish the divisions and create a balanced, 84-game schedule within the two leagues that would see each team play a pair of three-game series — one home and one away — against the other 14 clubs. The top-four finishers in each league get to pick, in order, which of the next four highest-finishing teams they play in a three-game, first-round playoff series contested entirely at their own ballpark. The winners of those series then move on to a pair of five-game series. A seven-game league championship series follows that. Then the two league winners play one another in a seven-game series for the 2020 MLB Championship, which would be named anything but the World Series.

For 2021, the 162-game season, traditional playoff structure, and World Series can return to normal — or be adjusted to incorporate any of the 2020 elements that proved particularly successful. This way, the 2020 season isn’t held up in comparison to any other seasons that have come before it. And MLB might get to learn a thing or two about how to improve its operation going forward.

Jeff Blair:

I don’t think anybody’s going to worry about a “legitimate” champion.

Mike Wilner:

I don’t think the question of legitimacy is all that important. We’re all going to be so happy to see sports come back, and whenever people look back on 2020, it will be impossible not to remember that it was the year when all sports leagues shut down for a while.

Whoever wins the World Series this year will be a legitimate champion of the post-season tournament, which is very rarely a reflection of which team was the best over 162 games anyway. It would be cool, though, since it’s going to be a shortened season, to have a little fun and experiment with different ideas for the playoffs, I would be all for that.

We could spend all day considering the many ramifications this postponement will ultimately bear. How fan safety will be managed once play resumes; what it means for player salaries, bonuses, and service time; the impact on part-time and seasonal employees such as concession staff and stadium security.

What’s one little-considered repercussion or unintended consequence of these unfortunate events that’s been on your mind?

Shi Davidi:

What if people find alternatives to sports and don’t return in the same numbers and with the same fervor?

This lockdown will likely prompt many to reflect on priorities, how we spend our time, what we look to when filling our hours. Some people will surely be deeply affected by all this. And some will certainly be more reluctant to re-enter a sports stadium with tens of thousands of others, for a while at least. Also, it’s very possible disposable income will be impacted for a long, long time. Sports teams should take nothing for granted.

Ben Nicholson-Smith:

Minor-league players have it pretty tough already. Now they face a challenge on three fronts: keep themselves and others safe from the virus, stay in game shape and support themselves financially without a regular salary. From a player development standpoint, that’s way less than ideal. And on a human level, that’s a highly uncertain place to be.

Arden Zwelling:

I think most fans are aware players are only paid in season — not during off-seasons or even spring training. But I’m not sure everyone understands exactly what that entails. Most minor-leaguers and many early-career MLBers earning the big-league minimum will have carefully planned and budgeted their years expecting paycheques to start rolling in by late March or early April. Suddenly, that money won’t be there. Meanwhile, bills and expenses won’t stop. Many minor-leaguers already work for rideshare and food delivery companies during off-seasons to make ends meet. Now, they’ll have to return to that gig work — if they can find it in a struggling economy — while trying to maintain conditioning for a season without a firm start date.

Jeff Blair:

Really small matter: Clubhouse access for media is over. General managers and players have fought for it for years — only Bud Selig prevented it. It’s done. Going to be like European soccer: Staged news conferences. No access. Less need for a tape recorder, more need for writing talent.

Mike Wilner:

It’s quite possible that what comes out of this is that we learn how little (or how much) spring training actually means as far as results of a season go.

If players come back for a 10-day mini-camp and then perform as usual once the season begins, and get injured at the same rate, maybe that amplifies the voices of people who believe spring training is much too long. The reverse is just as likely, though.

Those first four questions were a lot. Let’s end on an optimistic note with some actual baseball talk. We all spent time in Dunedin before spring training was called off — what was the most pleasant surprise you saw at Blue Jays camp?

Shi Davidi:

Well, it’s not really a surprise, but damn Nate Pearson is fun. Serious, serious fun. And not to delve back into coronanalysis, but if the season is starting in June, dude better start the season in the Blue Jays rotation because the primary argument against was managing his workload so he could go wire-to-wire. In a shortened season, he could really change things and there isn’t the same amount of time for things to normalize. Sprint to 100 and see what happens.

Ben Nicholson-Smith:

I’ll go with Alejandro Kirk. He held his own in big-league camp with one tough at-bat after another despite being just 21 years old. He’s more than just a contact hitter, too, as evidenced by the opposite-field home run that impressed manager Charlie Montoyo. If and when the season resumes, it’ll be fun to see what Kirk can do in the upper minors.

Arden Zwelling:

The continued development of young pitching within the organization. It’s taken a while, but the club finally has some exciting, up-and-coming arms it can dream on — from the near-ready guys with difference-making stuff like Nate Pearson, Patrick Murphy, and Julian Merryweather, to the emerging prospects like Joey Murray, Simeon Woods-Richardson, and Alek Manoah, to the younger talent we don’t talk about enough like Maximo Castillo, Adam Kloffenstein, and Kendall Williams. There is a real wealth of pitching talent here, and the Blue Jays are bound to get an unexpected developmental success story a la Cavan Biggio at some point. Now, the outfield pipeline on the other hand…

Jeff Blair:

Has to be the state of the starting pitching. There’s some innings, there. Big, big step forward.

Mike Wilner:

I fell in love with Alejandro Kirk last spring, so I don’t know if it’s fair to say he was my most pleasant surprise, but he was incredible. He made four outs in 12 plate appearances, didn’t strike out once, hit an opposite-field home run and ended a game by throwing a runner out who was trying to steal third. It feels like he’s really going to be something.

But for a this-year-only pleasant surprise, how about the three-headed beast of relievers A.J. Cole, Justin Miller and Jordan Romano? The righties combined to throw 17 innings and allow just one run on eight hits with two walks and 17 strikeouts and it felt as though all three were going to make the team.


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