The trade deadline, coronavirus, the rookies and other questions for the 2020 MLB season

We are (potentially, almost, maybe) ready to play ball.

The months-long odyssey of the MLB and the Players Association feuding over money, prorated salaries, length of season and more came to an end in June, with the season set for the first pitch in a few weeks.

There are storylines that remain: the Astros, the NL Central and Mookie Betts’ impact chief among them — which should make for some juicy late-summer drama.

That said, if you believe anyone who claims they know with 100 percent certainty how the 2020 MLB season is going to go, please send me a DM: I have a beautiful, slightly used bridge in New Jersey to sell you. I’ll even throw in an oil refinery for you, free of charge, because I like your face.

Baseball is weird, man. And a 60-game season will be, in two words, super weird. It puts a massive emphasis on every game and every series. But, unfortunately, so many of the questions with the 2020 season will be about storylines off the field. With the coronavirus pandemic still raging across the states, this year is unorthodox not only in the length of the season and the schedule, but that franchises and players will be facing the looming threat of COVID-19 all season long.

So with pitchers and catchers warming up in the middle of July, here are nine early questions we have for the upcoming MLB season:

1. Will pitching or offense be favored?

The early goings of a regular MLB season usually show pitchers struggling to find their stuff or continuing to stretch out after spring training. Even with “summer camp” there are going to be questions of how the pitchers will handle a shortened season and prep period.

Generally speaking, it’s easier to get your timing back on a swing than it is for a pitcher to figure out every mechanic of his motion, or find his stuff, or get stretched out accordingly. Logic would dictate that teams with good lineups that can mash will have an early advantage, and that early advantage could be the difference between a division crown or a third-place finish.

2. How many games will it take?

Any team can be good or bad over a short stretch. This year, though, a 15-5 stretch is literally a third of the season and could firmly put you in the driver’s seat of a division race.

So how many games will it take to win a division? Maybe 38? Maybe 40? Both sound about right. Divisions like the NL Central, which features four decent to good teams, could be in for a slugfest all season. The AL East, traditionally a powerhouse division, has two teams at the top with three average to bad teams underneath it.

Every team will head into the season believing it has a chance to win a title this year, but the games are all that matter in the end. So how many games will it take to win a division?

3. Do the underdogs have a chance?

In a regular MLB season, Memorial Day is typically a good benchmark to find out who’s legitimate and who isn’t. In a 60-game season, a 10-2 stretch could put you in a legitimate spot, while a bad two weeks could tank your season.

It would almost be fitting that, in an unorthodox season, the unconventional teams find ways to win. Teams like the Rays — who won 96 games last year, if you need a reminder — or the A’s could have a chance to capture that ever-elusive World Series ring. In fact, here are some records through 60 games last season:

Nationals: 27-33, won World Series

Padres: 31-29, finished 70-92

Rays: 37-23, finished 96-66 (lost ALDS vs. Houston)

Athletics: 30-30, finished 97-65 (lost wild-card game vs. Rays)

Sure, winning a division is still tougher than a two-dollar steak, and the on-paper-good teams could still have a big advantage over the thin-roster teams. But 60 games means anything goes, which means teams like the Reds, Rays, White Sox, A’s and others have as good a shot as anyone else.

4. What will the trade deadline look like?

With the trade deadline at the end of August, teams will have to know very, very quickly whether they’re in or out. There are a few ways teams will look at this season: There’s no point to make knee-jerk roster moves in a shortened season. They could also view it in the opposite: A shortened season means you’ve got as good a chance as anybody to win a championship, so trade those prospects, take on some money and get this shindig started.

There could be players on the move, but there might not be. Who knows? It’s a baseball philosophy question fit for a college course, really. All 30 teams are probably looking at it 30 different ways.

There’s also the added impact of players having to relocate themselves and their families in the middle of a pandemic, which is very short-sighted, selfish and very much gross. (As an aside, just keep in mind that players are risking their health to play for our entertainment this year. Think twice before you send those nasty tweets, OK?)

5. How big of an impact will rookies have?

With a shortened season, teams will be relying on depth more than ever. That means rookie ball, baby.

With no minor league season, 60-man player pools and taxi squads, some of the, uh, less-good organizations will turn to some of their higher-ranked prospects to get them acclimated to the majors and give fans watching a bit of a taste for the upcoming year, meaning rookies and Triple-A guys will have extended opportunities to make an impression at the major league level. 

You figure most teams will massage their rosters to include experienced players outside their 40-man roster, but younger guys could be thrust into division races, too. In a regular year, rookies can make massive impacts on their team (see: Alonso, Pete), but how patient these major league squads might be with rookie players is up in the air.

6. How will players returning from COVID-19 be affected?

Hate to be pessimistic, but it’s pretty much inevitable that some players will contract COVID-19 at some point during the season. Considering that we’ve already seen D.J. LeMahieu, Charlie Blackmon, Joey Gallo, Freddie Freeman and other MLB players test positive, it would be irresponsible to think others won’t catch it at some point during the course of a 60-game travel season. It’s going to be an unfortunate byproduct and truth for all sports looking to return in 2020, not just baseball.

So how will players coming back from coronavirus take to playing again? We know there can be some lasting side effects from COVID-19, and given the testing procedures of MLB, there may be some inaccuracies among results. But those coming back from coronavirus will be worth watching. 

7. How will teams assess managers?

For first-year guys like Luis Rojas, Ron Roenicke and David Ross, a 60-game season is very difficult to navigate. Not having a real spring training and expecting to keep your players mentally in it in the middle of a pandemic is a plot line fit for a “Mission: Impossible” movie.

So how will front offices grade the jobs of their managers? You don’t want to call this year “wasted” or without value, because players are still playing for something, whether it’s passion or money. So how will teams with new managers, or managers on the hot seat, look at the 2020 season?

It seems unfair to want to can a guy for dealing with these circumstances, but some teams might look at the 2020 season as a soft reset or an easy out for managers they might not feel fully confident in moving forward.

8. How will players take to health and safety protocols?

MLB’s coronavirus health and safety protocols have been under intense scrutiny since their inception, but unfortunately they were kind of forgotten about in the middle of the nasty public fights between MLB and the MLBPA.

Asking players not to spit is like asking Ric Flair not to knife-edge chop a guy and yell “Woooo!” It’s just not going to happen. What complicates matters is that players will be on the road, presumably doing what players do: eating out after games, seeing the sights and generally living a normal life (depending on what restrictions are placed where). You’d hope they’ll do all those things while abiding by certain CDC guidelines: social distancing, wearing masks, generally not being a knucklehead.

Even if it’s a weighty assumption, it’s only a matter of time before several players on a team come down with the coronavirus. Whether it’s by a twist of unfortunate luck or by willful ignorance of rules, it’s worth watching how players across the league take to those rules.

9. Will the season actually finish?

This is perhaps the most harrowing thought of a potential MLB restart: Does the season actually have a chance to finish?

Coronavirus cases are climbing around the country, and with MLB players traveling from city to city — even with regional schedules — the idea that active players won’t get the virus during the season is difficult to fathom. 

It’s going to take a massive outbreak among MLB players in order for the season to banged, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility — especially if a few players, personnel folks or others don’t follow the guidelines entirely. It’s going to take a miracle wrapped in luck, but, hey, stranger things have happened in baseball, right?

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