The plan to start the 2020 Major League Baseball season is now officially in place. Whether it is completed in full depends on the spread of the novel coronavirus and the ability of more than 1,000 players, coaches, trainers, clubhouse staffers, team executives, umpires, groundskeepers and other assorted support staff to keep it from spreading.
It’s a daunting task, one that has no guarantee of being successful. But MLB is going to give it a try after getting approval Tuesday night from the MLB Players Association on the health and safety protocols for the proposed season.
What’s it going to look like? How’s it going to work? You’ve got questions. We’ve got (some) answers ...
Q: When does spring training 2.0 start, and where will it be?
A: Camps are set to open July 1, one week from today. The vast majority of them will be held at teams’ home ballparks, with perhaps a few exceptions. The Nationals, according to a source, are planning to hold their camp at Nationals Park, but that’s contingent on D.C. officials lifting the restrictions that currently would not allow that kind of mass gathering to place. If the approval is given, there’s a good chance the workouts will be staggered through the day and evening, with different groups of players attending at different times. This would be the case both to keep the numbers down to help avoid close contact with others and to make sure everyone gets ample workout time. Teams usually use four or more practice fields at their spring training complexes. They’ll only have one field in their home ballparks.
Q: Will they play exhibition games?
A: Most of the planned three-week camp will be limited to workouts, but there could be a few intrasquad scrimmages during the final week. And it’s possible there will be one or two exhibition games against another nearby team. But there won’t be a full exhibition schedule like there normally is in March.
Q: When is opening day? When does the season end?
A: MLB says the regular season openers will be held July 23 or 24, with the finale scheduled for Sept. 27 (same as originally planned). The league will be revealing the full schedule in the next day or two, but teams are slated to play 60 regular season games, 40 versus division opponents and 20 versus teams from the opposing league’s same division. So the Nationals will be scheduled to face the Braves, Marlins, Mets and Phillies 10 times each. They’ll reportedly face their interleague geographic rival, the Orioles, six times (three at home, three on the road). The remaining 14 games would then be split up against the Blue Jays, Rays, Red Sox and Yankees.
Q: What’s the postseason format?
A: Same as it has been since 2012: Three division winners, plus two wild card teams, in each league. MLB offered an expanded, 16-team postseason in its final proposal to the union, but in voting down the entire proposal, the players killed the chances of an expanded postseason field.
Q: How many players will be on the roster?
A: To begin the season, teams will carry 30 active players. That will help account for the lack of innings pitchers will be ready to throw after the condensed training camp. After a few weeks, they’ll reportedly be required to reduce the roster to 28 players, then eventually to 26.
Q: What happens to players who aren’t on the active roster?
A: Every team will have a taxi squad of players who aren’t on the active roster but will be available to be called up if needed. MLB has instructed teams to hold those taxi squad workouts in a facility close to their home ballparks. The Nationals are hoping to set up a base for their players at the new Single-A ballpark in Fredericksburg, according to a source, but that’s not a done deal yet.
Q: Is the trade deadline still July 31?
A: No, that would be kind of ridiculous, wouldn’t it? The trade deadline will be pushed back to Aug. 31. That’s still going to be tricky, though, because it’s not a lot of time for teams to identify needs. And with no minor league season taking place, it’s going to be harder to scout prospects and decide their value.
Q: Is there going to be a designated hitter in the National League?
A: Yes, for the 2020 season. Again, with starting pitchers likely to be limited early in the season, and with 33 percent of the schedule interleague games, it just makes sense for everyone to use the DH in this unusual year. But for now it’s only this year. MLB did include the universal DH in 2021 in their final proposal to the union, but the players’ rejection of the proposal killed it.
Q: Are there any other rule changes?
A: It hasn’t been officially announced, but it’s been reported that any extra innings will begin with a runner on second base. Yep, you heard that right. It’s the same rule that was used in the minor leagues last year. It’s designed to try to prevent games from going on too long and burning up pitchers. It’s controversial, but in an unusual season like this it probably makes sense.
Q: What about the three-batter minimum rule?
A: That will be implemented as planned all along this season. Any reliever who enters a game must face at least three batters or complete the inning he inherited.
Q: What kind of precautions will everyone be taking to avoid contracting the virus?
A: MLB’s health and safety protocols manual is reportedly 101 pages long, so there are a lot of regulations planned. Among the ones we know of so far: Everyone must go through daily screening for symptoms, with COVID-19 tests performed every other day. Players and coaches will be socially distancing in the dugout (and some will even be in the first few rows of the stands). Non-uniformed personnel must wear facemasks. Players will be banned from spitting (can’t wait to see how that one’s enforced!) and will be encouraged to avoid close contact with others in all situations other than the actual game.
Q: What happens if someone tests positive?
A: If? You mean when. It’s going to happen. Shoot, it’s already happened to players and staffers from several teams during recent informal workouts. There is a very detailed procedure in place when it happens. Anyone who tests positive must go into quarantine and will not be allowed to return until he has gone two straight days without testing positive. Anyone else who could have been exposed to the person who tests positive will be tested and could be put into quarantine depending on the results.
Q: How many people would have to test positive before MLB shuts things down?
A: That’s the $5 billion question. Nobody has said yet. Let’s sincerely hope it doesn’t come to that.