Schedule design could have big effect on eventual season

We don't talk about the schedule much in baseball, because it really doesn't matter all that much under normal circumstances.

During the course of a 162-game season, every team in the majors is going to play every other team in its division 19 times, every team in its league's two other divisions six or seven times and then 20 interleague games.

Sure, teams in tougher divisions - and those that play the toughest division in interleague play - have a little bit of a disadvantage. But rarely do you ever hear any complaints at season's end about one team's schedule being less fair than another's.

What happens, though, when the season is reduced to fewer than 162 games? The schedule could become far more significant to the eventual outcome, especially if it becomes more unbalanced.

We still have no way of knowing how many games will be played in 2020, but it's pretty safe to assume it won't be 162. Even in a best-case scenario, we're probably looking at a number closer to 100, maybe even something in the double digits.

How Major League Baseball decides to set the reduced schedule, then, becomes a major storyline.

Does the league just pick up the original 2020 schedule, lop off the first few months and play the rest as planned? That would be the easiest plan - assuming teams are allowed to play in their home cities and travel to all the other cities - but it would create a very unbalanced schedule.

Nats Park day game.jpgConsider this: The Nationals were going to face the Dodgers six times in April (including this week on South Capitol Street) but not again after that. By June 3, they also would have been done with the Cubs (seven games), Diamondbacks (seven), Brewers (six), Mariners (four), Rangers (three) and Angels (three). But they would still have all 19 games with the Braves on tap.

In a shortened season, would the Nats just never play seven of the 20 teams they were supposed to play along the way? That doesn't seem like a fair way to do this.

So MLB is probably going to need to redo the entire schedule, with a reduction in both intradivision games but also interdivision and interleague games. How will that work out? Well, if everybody faces division opponents 12 times and non-division league opponents six times, you get a total of 108 games. But you still haven't played any interleague games yet, which are mandatory when each league has an odd number of teams.

All of this assumes, of course, games are played in the usual cities with no travel restrictions. We certainly can't assume that's going to be possible at this point. Nor is MLB, which has already begun gauging the feasibility of holding all games in Arizona, or split between Arizona and Florida or possibly even spread out among six or so regular cities that could become "pods" with a bunch of teams playing each other over a prolonged stretch to reduce travel.

We've heard rumblings of radical realignment (like the Cactus League and the Grapefruit League, or even a geographic setup with divisions representing the Northeast, Midwest, South and West).

Any of those scenarios would require a whole new schedule design. Maybe the Nationals end up playing a bunch of games against the Orioles, Phillies, Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, Blue Jays and Pirates in 2020 while barely playing anyone outside the Northeast. Maybe they play most of their games against their fellow Southeast Florida spring residents: the Astros, Cardinals, Marlins and Mets.

Whatever the final decision, you start to understand the dramatic increase in significance the schedule could assume this year.

For all we know, a team's eventual success in 2020 could have less to do with its own roster and more to do with the identity of the opponents it plays most during this unprecedented season.

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