MLB Could Have Return Plan Formulated by May for Possible Resumption of Season in July

The questions surrounding MLB’s return to action remain innumerable, with most answers clouded by the inability to accurately predict the future with any degree of certainty, but it has become increasing clear that nearly everyone involved believes the 2020 season will happen. Now all they’ve got to do is figure out when, where, and how it’ll all happen. Easy-peasy, right?

Sure, until you factor in the cooperation of local, state, and federal health officials on matters of testing and treatment for players and staff members. Then there are the logistics of televising the games, which will ultimately be a huge factor in the eventual resumption of play. As big a PR boon as this will be for the league, it ain’t happening if they can’t generate some scratch along the way.

Speaking of which, the league and the players union are going to have to reach further resolution on the agreement they’d already come to regarding pay and service time. The latter topic isn’t at issue, at least not that we know of, but neither side apparently saw fit to make clear its position on the former. Either that, or someone is moving the outfield fence.

Ed. note: I was initially going to use the more familiar “moving the goalposts” idiom, but then I felt it’d be better to remain sport-specific. And now my explanation of my rationale has added a bunch of unnecessary words. Man, this must be what Jeff Passan feels like. I’m actually just making a joke at his expense because his lengthy recent column spurred this post.

While the players believe a shortened season should see them paid prorated portions of their contractual salaries, owners believe they have the ability to decrease pay as a result of extenuating circumstances arising from empty ballparks. Mind you, both sides believe their existing agreement makes it clear that their disparate interpretations of some admittedly vague language are correct. Which is weird because it’s the first time in human history that such a thing has occurred.

Despite this current impasse, the implications of which could well stretch into negotiations for the new CBA following the close of the 2021 season, it seems ever more likely that some kind of baseball will be played this year. That is the subject of Jeff Passan’s latest “20 questions” column at ESPN, a distillation of an amorphous elephant into a reasonable number of more palatable chunks.

Though several states are taking steps to reopen on some level over the coming days and weeks, it’s not the least bit likely that we’ll have any sort of universal blueprint by May. As Passan writes, however, the prevailing thought is that MLB will have the framework of a plan in place at some point next month. Even if some tweaks have to be made prior to actually enacting it, having a set of parameters allows them to move quickly once they get the green light.

The prevailing belief seems to be that a rebooted spring training could take place in June, with the regular season getting underway at some point in July. That lines up nicely with the report from earlier this month that laid out the potential for a 100-game season that would begin on July 1 and continue through mid-October, with the World Series taking place in Los Angeles in order to avoid as many weather related issues as possible.

The three-hub scenario of Phoenix, Tampa, and Dallas seems to be the most feasible at this point, though establishing a single biosphere in Arizona is probably best from an epidemiological perspective. Passan also presents the idea of a giant tournament that could be staged across October and November. The basic premise is that each division would be assigned to a hub for pool play, after which each of the division winners would reconvene at one of two hubs by league. Wash, rinse, repeat all the way to the World Series.

As much as I’d like to see a regular season that hews as closely as possible to “normal,” the structure of a league-wide tournament is built for television. It’s like the Olympics or World Baseball Classic, only with MLB teams no one has gotten to watch for nearly seven months at that point. This would be more of a fallback in the event in a coronavirus spike or other extenuating circumstances, but the intrigue would be legit.

Some of that is the hunger for baseball, or any live sports for that matter, and more is that fans probably won’t be able to attend games. In the most optimistic scenarios being presented by Dr. Anthony Fauci and other experts, attendance at large sporting events may only be possible by observing social distancing policy in and around the ballpark. The logistics of such a drastic change for those outside of Miami are mind-bottling, but that doesn’t mean MLB will scrap it entirely until forced to do so.

When it comes to scrapping things entirely, the minor league season is still facing a potential doomsday scenario no matter what MLB figures out. Setting aside for a moment the possibility that MiLB will agree to slash 40 teams from its list of 160 affiliates, the viability of fielding dozens of teams across various municipalities with different health guidelines is right up there with building a road to the moon. The infrastructure simply isn’t conducive to regulation.

That will naturally put many teams in dire financial straits, perhaps to the point that accepting the terms of MLB’s offer on a new Professional Baseball Agreement may be the only choice. Other options, such as playing at spring training sites or Dominican facilities, could provide some form of development and competition structure for prospects, but the way forward in the minors is even cloudier than at the highest level.

Trying to refine the bigger topic into 20 questions was an impossible task that Passan wasn’t able to accomplish, as evidenced by all the questions within questions, though he did pack hella details into 4,500 words or so. There’s a lot in there if you care to comb through it, which I’d recommend even though you’ll find yourself walking in some of the same footprints we’ve created here at CI over the last few weeks.

That’s not a knock on Passan’s piece, either, just an acknowledgement that we’re all tramping around inside a relatively small informational ecosystem in which entropy is far more prevalent than evolution or innovation. Perhaps it’s better to liken this to archaeology, as we’ve already exposed the skeleton of a very large creature that must now be painstakingly exposed from the earth one millimeter at a time.

Whatever you call it, the fact of the matter is that finalizing a plan is a tremendous undertaking all on its own. Then they still need to put that plan into action, which is going to require everyone working together and executing almost flawlessly over a period of weeks or months. It will not be easy.

Now if you don’t mind handing me that small pick and a set of brushes, I’m going to get back to work.

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