Six ways MLB's shutdown could change teams' on-field outlook in 2020 and beyond
Teams have time to get healthy and postseason races could be more intense in a shortened season
Major League Baseball, like many sports leagues around the world, has been shut down indefinitely because of the growing threat that is the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Spring Training has been suspended and Opening Day has been pushed back to at least mid-May, and that remains subject to change as the situation develops.
At some point there will be baseball again, and I'm hopeful there will be baseball in 2020. MLB will play as many games as possible in order to make money. The league won't punt an entire season's worth of revenue unless absolutely necessary. Even if teams have to play games without fans in the stands or play games in neutral sites in November, they'll do it.
Whenever baseball does return,. On a team level, the shutdown impacts different clubs in different ways. Interrupt spring training and delay the start of the season and there will be an on-field ramifications. It is unavoidable. Here are six ways the on-field outlook could change following the shutdown.
1. Astros' pitching
There's no doubt the Astros were hoping something would take attention away from their sign-stealing indiscretions and there's no doubt the Astros would happily wear boos and taunts all season to end this pandemic. This is not what they had in mind when they hoped something would take them out of the spotlight. Their sign-stealing seems insignificant right now.
On the field, the Astros were set to begin the season without ace Justin Verlander, who nursed a groin injury early in spring training and suffered a lat strain earlier this month. He had surgery to treat the groin injury earlier this week and it feels very much like Verlander and the Astros had it done now, during the shutdown, to avoid missing time during the season.
Verlander's surgery comes with a six-week recovery timetable. That means he will be ramping up his workouts in early-to-mid-May, right about when spring training 2.0 could begin. And, if the season is pushed back further, it gives Verlander more time to recover. I don't think the timing of the surgery is a coincidence. This was timed in such a way to minimize his games lost to recovery.
Also, a shortened season would also work in Lance McCullers Jr.'s favor as he comes back from Tommy John surgery. Even before elbow reconstruction, he was a 120-ish innings a year pitcher. Fewer regular season games would potentially maximize his contributions without putting him at increased risk one year removed from Tommy John surgery.
2. Athletics' innings limits
A's camp was an exciting place prior to the shutdown. Rookie lefty Jesus Luzardo, who was so dominant in relief late last season, was marvelous during Cactus League play, allowing one run and striking out 13 in 8 1/3 innings. He passes the eye test too. Luzardo has nasty, nasty stuff.
Luzardo was locked into a rotation spot to begin the regular season. There was just one small concern: his innings limit. He had Tommy John surgery in high school and shoulder trouble limited him to 58 innings (postseason included) in 2019. Luzardo's career high is the 109 1/3 minor league innings he threw in 2018. Counting on him to be a 180-inning horse in 2020 was unrealistic.
The Athletics will of course remain cautious with Luzardo, but a shortened season would mean his innings limit covers a greater percentage of the season. Letting him throw 150 innings in, say, a 120-game season is much different than 150 innings in a 162-game season. The A's may not have to rein in Luzardo too much. They could turn him loose in a shortened season.
This also applies to fellow lefty A.J. Puk. He is Oakland's other top pitching prospect and he's facing an innings limit in 2020 as well. Puk went down with a shoulder strain earlier this month and he could be healthy by time the season begins. And, when it does begin, the A's may be able to stretch his innings limit as they would with Luzardo.
3. The Dodgers and Mookie Betts
MLB and the MLBPA are currently working through many logistically issues, including service time. A full year of service is 172 days (though the season runs 186 days), and six years of service time qualifies the player for free agency. Three years allows the player to go to arbitration (in some cases the player can go to arbitration with a little less than three years).
How do you award service time in a shortened season? There's no easy answer and I reckon this will be a major sticking point for MLB and the MLBPA. The union will want players credited with a full season no matter how many games they play in 2020 and the MLB won't want to forfeit team control. Service time is already a contentious issue. It could get full blown ugly now.
The Dodgers and Mookie Betts will be at the forefront of any service time talks given his impending free agency. Los Angeles made the trade for Betts knowing they'll have him for one season, but what if the season is a shortened 80-game slate? What if there's no season at all? Do the Dodgers get control of Betts in 2021 and push his free agent payday back?
Given his status as an elite player -- Betts is all but assured to sign a $300-plus million contract as a free agent -- my guess is the MLBPA will dig in and ensure Mookie gets a full year of service time in 2020, and becomes a free agent after the season. That'll then trickle down and apply to other players as well. Giving teams an extra year of control feels like a non-starter. As a result, the Dodgers could be facing an abbreviated 2020 season with Betts following the shutdown.
4. Indians' division odds
The Indians were among the first teams to suffer a significant injury in spring training. Right-hander Mike Clevinger required surgery to treat a partially torn knee ligament on Feb. 14 and he was expected to miss 6-8 weeks. That put him on track to join the team in April. A month later, righty Carlos Carrasco went down with elbow inflammation that made him questionable for Opening Day.
We know MLB is shut down until at least mid-May. Players will have to go through another, likely abbreviated spring training to prepare for the season, so we're looking at the regular season beginning in late-May at the earliest, realistically. Given their injury timetables, Clevinger and Carrasco figure to be available to Cleveland without restrictions whenever baseball returns.
Also, the Twins are heavily favored in the AL Central at the moment. SportsLine put Minnesota's division odds at 73.7 percent before the shutdown. The Indians were at 22.0 percent. FanGraphs projections have the Twins as the fourth most talented team in baseball at 47.7 WAR. The Indians are 11th at 41.7 WAR. On paper, the gap between the two AL Central rivals is significant.
A shortened season, which is distinct possibility at this point, would give the Indians a better shot at the AL Central title. Consider Minnesota's division odds in shortened regular seasons according to Dan Szymborski at FanGraphs:
- 162 games: 60.9 percent
- 140 games: 48.9 percent
- 110 games: 47.5 percent
- 81 games: 40.2 percent
The fewer games they play, the better the chances of a team swooping in to steal a division title. Weird things happen in small samples -- how many times do we see the lesser team win a short series? -- and a shortened season may be Cleveland's best hope of beating out the Twins. Minnesota's true talent may not have enough time to fully shine through.
5. Yankees' injuries
Maybe no team -- certainly no contending team -- could see their Opening Day roster change as much as a result of the shutdown as the Yankees. New York was scheduled to begin the regular season on March 26 without five key players:
- Aaron Hicks: Tommy John surgery
- Aaron Judge: Rib fracture
- James Paxton: Back surgery
- Luis Severino: Tommy John surgery
- Giancarlo Stanton: Calf strain
Severino had elbow reconstruction late last month and is not expected back until the middle of 2021. The other four players are all due to return this year. Judge and Stanton were targeting April returns, Paxton late May or June, and Hicks late June or July. The Yankees were looking at a Brett Gardner/Clint Frazier/Mike Tauchman outfield on Opening Day due to the injuries.
The longer the shutdown, the more likely it is the Yankees have their injured players in the lineup when the season resumes. At the very least, they figure to play a greater percentage of games with these players than they would've prior to the shutdown. We're not talking about bit players either. Judge and Stanton are stars, Paxton can be an impact starter, and Hicks is sneaky good.
As noted earlier with the Twins and Indians, the fewer games they play, the more vulnerable each division favorite will be in 2020. The Yankees could gain some of those postseason odds losses back with healthy players. They'd already taken a hit with no Hicks, Judge, Paxton, or Stanton. Now they may not miss any games at all due to injury.
6. The NL Central race
The NL Central figured to be baseball's tightest division in 2020. SportsLine had the four non-Pirates teams between 83 and 86 wins prior to the shutdown (Pittsburgh was at 67 wins). The division race was already set to be fierce and a shortened season could make it even more competitive. Fewer games means less time to separate from the pack (or fall behind the pack).
Here are the NL Central title odds for various shortened season lengths, according to FanGraphs:
The gap between the best and worst teams in a full 162-game season was 21.2 percentage points of division title odds. With an 81-game season, that gap shrinks to 6.9 percentage points, and remember, there are four teams in this race. The shorter the regular season, the more level the field, the greater the race. The NL Central race could be spectacular in 2020.
Once the COVID-19 pandemic passes, a large scale healing process will take place, and baseball can help the nation through that. It did after Sept. 11th, certainly. Even a shortened regular season can help. The shutdown will have a tangible on-field impact for many teams, especially those with injuries, and it also creates the potential for even more intense postseason races. Following MLB's shutdown and long periods of social distancing, baseball will be a welcome sight for many people across the world.
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