Somewhere, in the recesses of a country in chaos, there is a question that lingers: Will there be a baseball season in 2020? Yet another one, nearly as hazy as the first, lingers behind that: What form would such a season take?
To imagine what a 2020 season might or might not be, it’s perhaps worth a moment to look back to April 17, 2018. That night, the Red Sox visited the Angels — a team anchored by the best player in the game, Mike Trout — for their much-anticipated first glimpse of Shohei Ohtani.
Yet Mookie Betts managed to upstage both. He led off the game with a homer off Ohtani and later hit two more in a rout, an impressive early statement in what proved an MVP season.
It’s possible that such constellations of stars could be a regular occurrence in Southern California if there is a 2020 season. Betts is now a member of the Dodgers, while Trout and Ohtani remain Angels.
If there is a season, it’s expected to pit teams only against their own region (i.e., the NL West would play just other NL West and AL West teams). The potential confluence of Betts and teammates Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner, and Clayton Kershaw or Walker Buehler against Trout, Ohtani, and Anthony Rendon in one park promises great theater.
Yet it’s also possible that even if there is a season, even if there is a full complement of games between the Dodgers and Angels, several of those luminaries might not be a part of them. After all, it isn’t hard to imagine a season without a number of the sport’s greatest talents.
Players have voiced a number of concerns about a season played amid the COVID-19 pandemic, some driven by their own health because of preexisting medical conditions or more general concerns about elevated risks of exposure, some by the health of family members who have preexisting conditions, and some out of concern about isolating from their families.
For some, doubts about the wisdom of playing may be impacted by the terms of a potential agreement between the MLB Players Association and owners. MLB recently proposed an 82-game season that would result in some of the game’s biggest names receiving a fraction of what they might get in a full season of salary.
Would Betts, for instance, find it worthwhile to assume the on- and off-field risks of playing for a couple months before free agency if he’d be asked to do so for a guarantee of about $4.6 million (the approximate amount he’d receive for an 82-game season under MLB’s proposal)? If MLB continues to seek the greatest salary cuts for the game’s best-paid stars, might Trout — whose wife, Jessica, is pregnant — have pause about the merits of playing?
No player has said publicly that he would not take part in a 2020 season. The subject remains speculative.
But the possibility of players sitting out has been raised by “more than a handful of guys … including some pretty prominent players,” according to a source familiar with those conversations. Agents and team officials recognize that the possibility is real.
“You think about it in passing,” said one executive. “If Mookie doesn’t play or Trout doesn’t want to play, holy crap. But depending on the details or the dynamics of the season, you could make an argument for it.”
On Sunday, the MLBPA made a proposal to MLB for a 114-game regular season — which included the right for players to opt out. According to the proposal, those deemed high-risk for health reasons or those who live with someone identified as high-risk could sit out the season and get paid.
Those who are not considered high-risk could sit out but would have to forgo their salaries. However, they would still receive credit for big league service time — so a player such as Betts would sacrifice his salary if he sat out but would still be eligible for free agency after the season. It remains to be seen how MLB approaches the subject, but commissioner Rob Manfred has already said that players won’t be forced to play.
The possibility of players sitting out for any reason represents a huge wild card. How different does the AL East look without Yankees ace Gerrit Cole (whose wife is pregnant) or Rays ace Blake Snell (who expressed his discomfort risking his health to play if subjected to a pay cut)? How different do the West divisions look if players such as Betts and Trout don’t play?
“Every team that runs simulations is wondering what the hell to do right now,” said the executive. “You can’t project this season. The randomness and chaos of this potential setup will be obviously unlike anything else.”
Alex Speier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.