As Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association mull creative ways to embark on a 2020 season amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the latest plan being explored would feature realignment into three geographically determined divisions of 10 teams, USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reports. At least over the course of the regular season, teams would only play within their makeshift divisions, so as to minimize travel requirements. There’s “cautious optimism” among MLB officials of starting play by July 2 and perhaps even in late June, according a handful of decision-makers who spoke with Nightengale.
The current proposal would apparently eliminate the traditional American and National Leagues. While the report doesn’t specify as much, that would presumably bring about the implementation of a universal DH for the 2020 season. That could be a temporary alteration unique to the 2020 campaign, although a universal DH has been increasingly seen as an inevitability in recent years, so perhaps the league would prefer to use this as a sort of testing grounds for future seasons. There’s also some hope that teams could begin the season in either Arizona, Texas or Florida but eventually be able to return to their own parks.
Obviously, there’s plenty of reason for any optimism to be rather guarded in nature. Medical experts and government officials would need to green-light a return to play, and both will be highly dependent on the availability of testing. Capacity would need to expand to the point that players can be tested regularly without those tests coming at the expense of availability to the greater public.
For all of the recent talk of increased hope regarding a return to play — whether by Nightengale in this afternoon’s column or in previous pieces from Ken Rosenthal and Jeff Passan — there’s still no indication as to how the league plans to proceed if/when a player or players test positive for the coronavirus. Perhaps MLB will look to how other leagues are handling such scenarios; the KBO will reportedly immediately quarantine any such player and shut down his team’s facility for a period of 48 hours for cleaning purposes.
More drastic scenarios where several players/coaches on a single team contract the virus would need to be planned for as well. And while most players could be reasonably expected to have relatively mild symptoms given their age and general health, that’s certainly not true of all players (nor is it true of the much older coaches who will inherently be in close quarters with said players). Players with preexisting conditions (e.g. asthma, diabetes, ulcerative colitis, etc.) and those who’ve previously battled cancer are clearly at higher risks than others. Outlining a general arrangement that allows all parties to feel comfortable is a daunting challenge.
Furthermore, while it’s certainly encouraging to hear of budding optimism in a number of reports, Nightengale mentions that the league and the union have still “yet to engage in formal discussions about the financial ramifications of playing without fans.” That’s an enormous roadblock that must be addressed. The MLBPA already felt that the situation was addressed by the agreement reached in late March, but league officials have since made clear that they feel a renegotiation of terms will be necessary if games are played without fans in attendance. While the optics of a lengthy squabble over finances would be astonishingly bad at a time when unemployment has skyrocketed, one would still imagine those discussions will be both contentious and complex.
Of course, outside of waiting for the development, testing and large-scale distribution of a vaccine — which would likely require more than a year without any baseball — there’s no scenario that is without risk and pitfalls. Every plan regarding a potential return to play is going to be wrought with contingencies. The 2020 season, if played, is bound to look like no season we’ve seen in the past or will see in the future.