There’s just one guarantee as Major League Baseball aims to wedge an 80-plus game schedule and expanded playoffs into a pandemic-driven four-month window: Roughly half the season is gone forever.
Some franchises have pointed to 2020 for several years as the moment their plans would coalesce. Others decided, in a more impetuous fashion, to go all-in on this season. And dozens of players will lose wages, statistics, records and indelible pieces of their legacies they can never get back.
But like everything amid the fallout from COVID-19, some will lose more than others.
Provided health and financial concerns are mitigated, everyone will get a shot at the 2020 World Series. But here are the teams and individuals who will most feel the gut punch that comes with a lost half-season of baseball:
Outfielder Mookie Betts enters the final year of his contract with a new team after being traded from the Boston Red Sox to the Los Angeles Dodgers during the offseason. (Photo: Joe Camporeale, USA TODAY Sports)
Mookie Betts and the Dodgers
Theirs was to be a temporary marriage, almost certainly: Betts, the best right fielder in the game and 2018 AL MVP, and his new club joining forces to end L.A.’s increasingly frustrating title drought before Mookie vaulted into the $300 million players’ club via free agency.
Now, they are joined at the hip in trying to make the best of a situation that quickly turned sour.
Yes, it’s still possible the Dodgers gave up three young players to the Boston Red Sox and won’t see Betts take an at-bat for them due to the novel coronavirus. That alone casts a pall over what would have been something resembling a superteam in more conventional circumstances.
And it’s also a bummer for Betts’ fortunes. Adjusting to a new league is a pain, anyway, and 80 to 100 games allows little runway to overcome a slow start. In moving from east to west, a geographically-based schedule means he’ll be facing almost entirely unfamiliar pitchers and playing in largely foreign ballparks. Betts will still probably fare better in free agency than he would have entertaining extension offers from the Red Sox, but will face a winter in which franchises will cry poor (some of them justifiably) due to big losses in 2020-21.
Meanwhile, a team that has won seven consecutive division titles – most of them in convincing fashion – faces a more daunting foe than any of their NL West rivals: Short-season randomness. Sure, the Dodgers may go 50-30 and roll into the playoffs. But the Diamondbacks and Padres, most notably, have a much better shot at beating them over 80-plus games than 162.
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The incredible shrinking Cubs
Wipe most of a season from a calendar, and it only makes 2016 seem even further in the past. Joe Maddon is gone and David Ross is the manager, which is weird enough, but now the Cubs’ more pressing issues are on an even faster track.
First, pass the hat for ownership, which claims 70% of its revenues come from game-day proceeds, a considerably higher rate than other franchises. Here’s hoping the Ricketts family can weather these uncertain times.
Now, consider the fact that at least one of Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo or Jon Lester have played their last games in front of the Wrigley faithful, assuming no fans are let in until next year.
The Cubs hold 2021 club options on Rizzo and Lester. But the huge decisions will come on Baez and Bryant, both free agents after 2021 and headed for certain nine-figure paydays. That makes 2020 far more crucial for the Cubs than most franchises.
But how does one chart a course for the future based on 80 or 100 games? Does a sluggish but inconclusive .500 season cause the team to retrench? Would snagging one of the expanded playoff berths engender false hope?
A new TV network needs distribution and development continues apace around Wrigleyville. Meanwhile, the team’s soul is very much in limbo – and perhaps headed for its own last dance.
A's shortstop Marcus Semien had a career year in 2019, hitting .285 with 33 home runs, 92 RBI and finishing third in the AL MVP race. (Photo: Christian Petersen, Getty Images)
Marcus Semien and the A’s
It’s already been a disastrous 2020 for the Oakland Athletics, all of it self-inflicted. The A’s have decided not to pay their rent, not to pay many of their employees and now are the only franchise on record not paying their minor-leaguers after MLB-provided stipends expired May 31.
It can only get better, right?
In theory. But this Oakland team was built to win in 2020.
All-Star third baseman Matt Chapman and Gold Glove-winning first baseman Matt Olson are in their primes. Shortstop Marcus Semien, who finished third in last year's AL MVP voting, will walk into free agency after this season.
And a pitching staff that will welcome back ace Sean Manaea after an abbreviated 2019 figured to glean significant advantages over a full season with its enviable depth in both the bullpen and rotation.
What’s more, if there’s one thing that seems baked into Oakland’s DNA as much as bidding superstar players farewell, it’s starting slowly. Their past two teams won 97 games and claimed wild-card berths, but only after starting 15-21 in ’19 (and sitting fifth in the wild-card standings after 82 games) and not clearing the .500 mark until the 73rd game in 2018.
Urgency would come in many forms for Oakland in a 2020 season.
A smaller serving of Trout
To be certain, this is not Ted Williams losing three seasons of prime production due to World War II. Or Kirby Puckett’s career ending amid 10 consecutive All-Star seasons due to an eye condition.
But Mike Trout is this generation’s Williams or Mays or Aaron, and there is a glorious symmetry to his career that will be undeniably disrupted.
Sure, he’s spent several stints on the injured list, and his other-worldly rate stats (the man has a .419 career on-base percentage and 1.000 OPS) could conceivably be better in a shorter season.
But consider how the proverbial back of his baseball card looks:
Never fewer than 27 home runs a season.
Never fewer than 92 runs scored.
Never a season in which he didn't have at least 172 hits or 94 walks.
Had he equaled his 45 home runs of 2019, Trout would have 330 in his career, through his age-28 season. That’s exactly halfway to Mays, who had 250 to that point (and also lost a season to military service).
Should the season come off, Trout will almost certainly eclipse 300 home runs, about a year older than Alex Rodriguez, youngest to 300, was when he pulled it off. That’s certainly nothing to downplay.
And like the game itself, a little less Trout in 2020 is better than none at all.
Follow Gabe Lacques on Twitter @GabeLacques
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