The 60-game MLB season is inching closer. On July 6, MLB released its full slate of games for 2020, with July 23 officially scheduled as the new Opening Day for the shortened season.
And yet, there are still significant issues due to the impact of COVID-19. Testing delays have resulted in canceled workouts for multiple teams. Reports are surfacing daily of players from many teams testing positive for coronavirus. And so far, nine veteran players — including Félix Hernández, Nick Markakis, David Price, Ryan Zimmerman and more — have opted out of the 2020 season.
Reasonable questions persist: How many more players will opt out of the season? What happens if the positive tests for players and team staff members just keep coming? How much would be enough for a team to cancel games or for the league to shut the whole thing down? You can see the worries and frustration not just on Twitter or in any comment section having to do with baseball and coronavirus-related topics — “Just cancel the season”; “Is this really worth it?”; “Wait until spring and try this again” — but in statements from Sean Doolittle, Mike Trout and others.
Considering the seriousness of COVID-19 and the everyday effect that it has on our daily lives, focusing on baseball feels trivial. But at least for now, the 2020 season is on track to take place, which means it’s worth examining what happens on the field. That’s not because it necessarily matters or it’s more important than anything else, but because people care about it and it’s supposed to generate fun. If this season does actually happen, it will be bizarre and unlike any other, but hopefully that leads to some excitement. It better.
Looking at this from a local angle, it’s worth wondering what this shortened season means for the Orioles, who are in the early stages of their rebuild. A majority of the players who could conceivably appear on the roster of the next playoff-hopeful O’s team are nowhere to be found on the team’s current 45-man player pool, though several could realistically find themselves among the rest eventually added to the group of 60.
In that sense, how will the Orioles decide what success looks like during 60 games when so much that matters won’t be happening at the major-league level? Here are three potential ways of how the upcoming season could go, viewed in terms of progress of future contributors and key prospects.
Low success: The season is called off, but everyone stays healthy.
Let’s be clear: Just about the worst thing that could happen to any player in 2020 would be to get infected with the coronavirus and spend time battling the illness (let alone having family members get infected as well). And unfortunately, regardless of how strictly players and teams follow safety protocols for dealing with COVID-19, there is no way to entirely eliminate the risk of testing positive.
Focusing specifically on the developmental aspect, though, having the season get canceled would be quite the setback for a team that is assembling a number of important prospects who need playing time. No amount of organized Zoom trainings or virtual book clubs can replicate actual game reps and situations. Without games and in-person instruction, much of a player’s growth will come down to not just putting in the work, but making sure it’s the right kind of work.
In terms of maintaining health, arguably nothing would be better than calling off the season. But at the same time, maybe nothing would be worse for the ongoing development of Orioles top prospects Adley Rutschman, Grayson Rodriguez, DL Hall, Gunnar Henderson, Yusniel Diaz and more. Still, it’s hard to argue that the trade-off wouldn’t be worth it.
Medium success: The season is played in full, but little progress is made with the rebuild.
If the season progresses as planned, a couple of things could define a lack of success during the 2020 campaign. The first would be that several young players or players looking to establish themselves perform poorly — think John Means, Austin Hays, Hunter Harvey, Anthony Santander and more. A bad showing in 60 games is far from definitive, but it would still be disappointing nonetheless.
Second, that close-to-the-majors players like Ryan Mountcastle, Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer and others don’t get any major-league reps. All three are strong candidates to appear on the O’s 60-man player pool at some point, but there’s no guarantee they see time on the major-league roster in a truncated season. It would be particularly unfortunate for Mountcastle, who was all but assured of a mid-season promotion (at the latest) before things went south.
It would be defensible not to simply throw those guys into action just because the shortened season blew up any well-thought-out plans. But with Mountcastle and Akin in particular, they’ve both completed a full season at Triple-A and seem to be on the cusp of the majors. It would be nice to see them take that next step, even if fans only get a glimpse in 2020.
High success: The season is played in full, and the rebuild takes a step forward.
Encore performances for John Means and Hanser Alberto? Sure! Hunter Harvey looking like a dominant, late-game reliever? Yes, please. Austin Hays and Anthony Santander continuing to look like potential pieces? Sign me up. Bounce-backs for Alex Cobb, Mychal Givens and even Chris Davis? Why not?
Any of the options above would qualify as welcomed signs, along with any other surprise performances on a roster with plenty of unknown and overlooked players. It would also be intriguing for Mountcastle, Akin or any others who make the leap to the majors to not only appear for the O’s but to perform well in limited action.
At the same time, while it’s nearly certain that the O’s top prospects besides Mountcastle won’t be appearing at the major-league level, it would be interesting and beneficial for the season to last long enough for them to get promoted to the team’s 60-man player pool and appear in organized, in-person workouts.
A shortened season would have to be considered a win if a handful of current roster options meet or exceed expectations, a couple of prospects make their major-league debut and impress and the team’s top, young prospects get desperately needed reps. And that’s important, since actual wins will almost surely still be hard to come by.
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