When Major League Baseball games begin Saturday night, eight teams will not be in action due to players testing positive for coronavirus.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already caused stops, starts and headaches in the young, truncated season, with two teams — the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals — experiencing an outbreak. On Saturday, the Cardinals-Brewers game was postponed again, moving Milwaukee's home opener to be pushed to a doubleheader Sunday.
It's certainly not the way MLB drew it up when Commissioner Rob Manfred instituted a 60-game season to be completed in 66 days. And although the season is more than a week old, questions about how MLB will make it to the World Series in October continue to pile up.
"We are playing," Manfred told ESPN. "The players need to be better, but I am not a quitter in general and there is no reason to quit now. We have had to be fluid, but it is manageable."
Below, we do our best to ask, and try to answer, the essential questions MLB must address for the 2020 season to forge ahead.
First: Is playing a full season possible at this point?
For some teams, such as the Marlins, the numbers are not adding up. They must make up seven games, which means playing 57 games in 56 days assuming they're able to resume their season Monday. The Phillies (seven games), Nationals and Blue Jays (three each) all have at least one full series to make up.
The season was already a condensed sprint; it's only going to get tighter.
The Mariners watch a live batting practice session with teammates. (Photo: Joe Nicholson, USA TODAY Sports)
Television drives much of this bus, and that’s where the big revenue remains for almost all interested parties — the networks, the league, team owners and, to a lesser degree, the players. If some shell of a reputable season is completed by then and expanded playoffs commence on time, it will be, to some degree, mission accomplished.
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When will these "postponed" games (eight teams have now endured COVID-related postponements) be made up?
The league and union have agreed to install seven-inning doubleheaders, effective Saturday, to help make up games, with mixed reaction from players and managers.
"Given the frequency of doubleheaders, the effects of doubleheaders on rosters, and the need to reschedule games due to dynamic circumstances, both the Clubs and the Players have determined that this step promotes player health and safety."
Rule 7.01 (a) ("Regulation Games") has been amended to reflect the change.
Sounds like the league is counting on twin bills to sustain it through the rest of the regular season.
What are MLB's options if games continue to be postponed and open dates and doubleheaders are no longer available?
As we've seen with the doubleheaders, making it up on the fly is an acceptable modus operandi for Manfred and Co. this year. Officially shortening the length of the season is an option. Teams playing an uneven number of games could also be on the table; while not the preference, there is precedent for winning percentage determining playoff spots should an unequal amount of games be played (as recently as 1981).
If teams play a different number of games, how will paying players work?
The players are being paid a pro-rated portion of their salaries, as per the March agreement. But if teams play an uneven number of games, or reaching 60 games becomes unattainable, what happens?
The belief is that all players will receive their full 60-game stipends — unless the entire season is interrupted, which would cause a litany of other issues. For example, the Philadelphia Phillies, who have not recorded a positive test despite playing the Marlins during the early stages of their outbreak, will receive pay for 60 games, even if they do not end up playing all of them due to necessary time off.
Would daily testing (instead of every other day) make any difference?
The NBA had success (granted, inside its Disney bubble) with daily testing. Turnaround times are essential and may help weed out false positives faster and lead to more efficient contact tracing. It can also give players and the league increased confidence.
If teams with outbreaks need to be left behind for the sake of remaining on schedule, would MLB do that — similar to what MLS and NWSL teams did to teams with mass infections?
The difference between MLS and NWSL is that they, too, employed bubbles and had a tournament-style competition. It would be more difficult with baseball’s plan because all 30 teams are assigned regionalized schedules against nine teams, and eliminating one midway through would throw that schedule into significant imbalance. It’s the reason the league has deployed a 60-player pool for every team – so that a major outbreak wouldn’t result in a franchise unable to field a team – even if it’s a motley crew of minor-leaguers, veteran free agents and others.
Will there ever be a point where a positive test won’t immediately postpone games?
Unfortunately, a positive test will almost always certainly lead to a postponement. We've seen how quickly this can spread through a locker room. The odds that only one individual in the group is positive are unlikely.
It's obviously too late to create a sterile bubble (or multiple bubbles, for that matter), but is there any chance the league would sequester some teams to preserve part of the season?
A bubble idea may have been the best idea for MLB to proceed this season, but the logistical undertaking appears Herculean at this juncture.
The expanded rosters and larger nature of baseball clubs, in addition to the support staff required, make MLB a difficult "bubble" match anyway. Traveling from city to city will be the default. This week the league instituted stricter protocols for traveling teams.
What happens if an outbreak occurs in the playoffs?
Let's get to October first.
Contributing: Bob Nightengale
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