Scott Miller’s Guide to the Unknown: Making Sense of MLB’s 2020 Season

Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez wears a mask as he watches an intersquad baseball game at Nationals Park in Washington, Friday, July 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Susan Walsh/Associated Press

Welcome to Opening Day…and the stretch run.

Greetings from the starting gate…and darn near the trade deadline (Aug. 31.)

Never before has there been a baseball season like this…and, hopefully, never will there be again. MLB 2020: Asterisks and Antibodies. Like an ice-cold, midsummer watermelon, this season is best served seedless: No sunflower or pumpkin seeds, please, because, no spitting.

At once, this 60-game stretch will be both the most joyous and the saddest season of all.

Joyous because, following a four-month coronavirus-induced timeout and an early summer in which it looked like we may not get baseball until 2021, how great will it be to again have nightly games?

And saddest because, well, so many of our fellow brothers and sisters are suffering—some because of illness or financial concerns. So we proceed not only with joy but also with great respect and empathy for those who are struggling.

The hope is that baseball will contribute what it always has: exuberance on the best of evenings and a salve on the nights when maybe things aren’t going so well.

But while this season will look different, understand this: The competition will not be diminished.

“I do think one of the separators this year is going to be the teams that are going to find that energy, to find that focus and to find that edge on a daily basis in what is going to be unique and challenging circumstances,” New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone said on a conference call early this month.

Boone added: “Because circumstances have changed and certainly this season has changed, that goal hasn’t changed. We want to be champions.”

Or, as new Chicago Cubs manager David Ross said on a Chicago reporters Zoom conference: “If they’re passing out a trophy, I want it. If they’re handing out rings and we’re all starting at the same point, I don’t care if it’s a five-game season. This is competition.”

From there…you have questions, we have answers.

How Strange Will This Be?

Biggest oddities:

  • Pumped-in crowd noise: Every team is expecting to use this, with the decibels varying. Between pitches will be the normal dull buzz of a crowd, while the volume increases during key moments during a game, courtesy of the official video game of baseball, MLB The Show. Organists will provide background music. Hitters will hear walk-up music. Basically, the empty stadiums will become sound stages for the show you’ll be watching at home.
  • Cardboard fan cutouts: Many teams are doing this, some to raise money for charities, including the Boston Red Sox with their Monster Home Run Challenge: Make a donation of $500 or more to the Red Sox Foundation, and you, too, can have your likeness on a cardboard cutout above the Green Monster, with prizes for those fans whose likenesses are hit by a Boston home run ball.
  • No high-fives, no spitting: Human contact is out. Glove taps are in. Good luck with disallowing players to spit. I can’t make it through my daily run without spitting at least a few times.
  • Aug. 31 trade deadline: Yes, it’s five weeks into the season. How active will it be? Maybe not a boil but definitely a simmer.

Opt-Outs: Who’s Missing?

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

So far, 14 players (and counting) have opted out of this season because they are high-risk, or they are simply not comfortable participating given the current circumstances: David Price (Dodgers), Buster Posey (Giants), Mike Leake (Diamondbacks), Nick Markakis (Braves), Felix Hernandez (Braves), Ryan Zimmerman (Nationals), Joe Ross (Nationals), Tyson Ross (free agent), Ian Desmond (Rockies), Welington Castillo (Nationals), Hector Noesi (Pirates), Michael Kopech (White Sox), Jordan Hicks (Cardinals) and Collin McHugh (Red Sox).

Per the agreement between players and owners, players deemed high-riskor those with high-risk family memberscan opt out and will still receive their pay and service time for this year. The same rule applies if the player lives with somebody deemed high-risk. Players who are not deemed high-risk will receive neither. And in case you’re wondering, those who have opted out of the season cannot reverse that decision and return.

New Rules: Most Impactful?

The game will look different this season in these particular areas:

  • Three-batter minimum: In an effort to improve pace of play before the pandemic, MLB determined when a relief pitcher is summoned into a game, he must now face a minimum of three batters. So say goodbye to the LOOGY (left-handed one-out guy). The only exception: When a reliever enters the game and the inning ends with him facing fewer than three hittersthen, a new reliever can begin the next inning. 
  • Designated hitter in National League: Every game will have a DH in 2020 (pitchers will return to hitting in the NL in 2021, the final year of the current collective bargaining agreement, and then it is widely projected that the DH will return to the NL when a new CBA is negotiated for the 2022 season). So, who might this benefit the most? The first clubs who come to mind are the Chicago Cubs (Kyle Schwarber is a perfect DH), New York Mets (Yoenis Cespedes is returning), Los Angeles Dodgers (Joc Pederson, Justin Turner) and San Francisco Giants (Pablo Sandoval, Hunter Pence).
  • Extra innings will start with runner on second base: Even more than the DH in the NL, this is the rule designed to drive purists bonkers, and the rest of the world, well, we’ll see. The thought is to avoid marathon games during a pandemic and lessen the hours of extra exposure and human contact for the players. It will wreak havoc with scorekeepers: Say the Cincinnati Reds start the 10th inning with a runner on second and Joey Votto singles him home against the Milwaukee Brewers’ Josh Hader to win the game. Does Hader get charged with the loss even though the runner who scored wasn’t allowed on base by Hader? Or, say the Detroit Tigers pitchers are throwing a perfect game, a runner starts the 10th on second and is moved to third by a ground ball and scores on a sacrifice fly…then the Tigers’ perfect game remains intact, yet they still lose? The greatest hope is this rule is a one-off that will disappear after this summer.

Where Will Toronto Play?

Well, not in Toronto. The Canadian government requires tourists entering from the United States to quarantine for 14 days and informed the Blue Jays over the weekend that they will not be granted an exception. The Jays were looking at their Triple-A affiliate in Buffalo (but Sahlen Field needs work), their spring training site in Dunedin, Florida (but COVID-19 rages in Florida, and the late-summer weather is borderline unbearable) and other MLB parks, such as Pittsburgh. On Wednesday, ESPN reported the Jays will play the majority of their home games at PNC Park.

           

The Divisions: Who Wins?

In order of predicted finish…

AL East

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Rays: Tyler Glasnow is back after testing positive for the coronavirus to join Blake Snell and Charlie Morton at the top of the rotation. Tampa Bay’s bullpen is loaded, and pitching will carry Kevin Cash’s club a long, long way. Over 162 games or 60, pitching wins.

Yankees: There’s a ton to like about these guys. But Aaron Judge’s mysteriously consistent health issues (stiff neck less than two weeks ago, cracked rib this spring) are foreboding, and Gerrit Cole is going to have to be Cy Young-worthy to help New York keep up with Tampa Bay.

Blue Jays: Moving Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to first base from third was inevitableand smartgiven his body type. Fun team with Guerrero, Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio, but after finishing second in NL Cy Young voting last year, new Jay SP Hyun-Jin Ryu is about to find out that pitching in the AL East is a vastly more difficult assignment than working in the NL.

Red Sox: No Mookie Betts, no David Price, no Dustin Pedroia, no Chris Sale (Tommy John surgery). Projected No. 1 starter Eduardo Rodriguez has been out after testing positive for COVID-19. A year of cost-cutting and rebuilding is in full force.

Orioles: Only chance Baltimore has is backup catcher Chance Sisco.

AL CENTRAL

Jim Mone/Associated Press

Twins: The late start allows Rich Hill to pitch a “full” season, such as it is. Coming off elbow surgery, Hill initially was expected to miss half of the campaign, but a July start date has him ready to join Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi, Kenta Maeda and Homer Bailey in an interesting rotation. If the Bomb Squad—which has added Josh Donaldson to Nelson Cruz, Eddie Rosario, Miguel Sano and Co.—rakes, this team is going places.

White Sox: Look out, youthful, talented clubs could thrive in a short, college-length season, and with Tim Anderson, Lucas Giolito, Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert and more, this club could make as much noise as anyone.

Cleveland: A good or bad start could be the difference between the club dealing All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor by the Aug. 31 trade deadline and competing for a playoff spot.

Royals: If Adalberto Mondesi can stay healthy, Kansas City has something that just may be more delicious than burnt ends. This kid has all the talent to be one of the game’s best.

Tigers: C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop and Cameron Maybin at least raise the bar a little for Ron Gardenhire’s rebuilding club.

AL WEST

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Athletics: Pitcher Sean Manaea is good to go this year for a team that won 97 games in 2019, and A.J. Puk was until his shoulder started barking this week. Still, this is the year Bob Melvin’s team gets straight A’s in chasing down Houston.

Astros: Playing in empty stadiums is good for exactly one team, Houston, which now will go in peace on the road. But with no Cole and no rigged system to tip pitches to hitters, manager Dusty Baker’s deserved return to the game will be challenging.

Rangers: Interesting pitching with Corey Kluber, Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson in the rotation and a brand-new ballpark

Angels: Shohei Ohtani‘s return to the mound on the days he doesn’t DH will be must-watch. New manager Joe Maddon sure will enjoy watching the game’s best player, Mike Trout, every day, but Maddon and new pitching coach Mickey Callaway will be working overtime to make the thin rotation hold up.

Mariners: Take heart, Seattle, because this is the kind of fluke a brief 60-game season can cause. While the Mariners own the longest postseason drought in the game, not having participated in the playoffs since 2001, if you chopped off the rest of the season after 60 games just two years ago, your 2018 AL West champions would have been…the Seattle Mariners. It’s true: On June 5, they were 38-22 and in first place in the division by two games over Houston.

AL Wild Cards

Yankees and White Sox: Something old, something new, something white, something blue.

NL EAST

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Mets: Jacob deGrom’s sore back gave everyone a scare earlier this month; let’s see how it reacts from HERE as he aims for his third Cy Young award. Veteran starters Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha are the wild cards, especially with Noah Syndergaard (Tommy John surgery) out for the year: If its pitchers step up, a rotation that also features Marcus Stroman and Steven Matz could carry Luis Rojas’ team through a 60-game sprint. And Pete Alonso!

Phillies: The clock is ticking on the game’s best catcherJ.T. Realmuto can become a free agent this winter if the Phillies don’t extend him. New manager Joe Girardi will be reunited with shortstop Didi Gregorius and rely on newly signed right-hander Zack Wheeler to boost Aaron Nola and a fading Jake Arrieta.

Nationals: Losing third baseman Anthony Rendon takes a bite out of Washington’s offense, as does Juan Soto’s late start (coronavirus.) The fact that Ryan Zimmerman and Joe Ross opted out of the season further lessens the Nats. But they’ve still got Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin atop the rotation…

Braves: Well, they had Yasiel Puig for one hot second before a positive COVID-19 text zapped the deal. And Nick Markakis has opted out of the season. Perennial MVP candidate Freddie Freeman tested positive for the coronavirus and is slowly coming back, and Cole Hamels (shoulder) won’t be ready for the opener. Mike Soroka elevated into true ace status in 2019. Now the question is: Can he do it consistently every year?

Marlins: Catch and release…

NL CENTRAL

Aaron Doster/Associated Press

Reds: Good, smart additions on offense with Mike Moustakas and Nick Castellanos, but the difference for Cincinnati will be a full season of Trevor Bauer and Luis Castillo’s continued emergence. Solid bullpen too in Raisel Iglesias, Amir Garrett, Michael Lorenzen and…Pedro Strop?

Cardinals: Jack Flaherty is on deck as the game’s next great ace, Paul DeJong blossomed into an All-Star last year and Paul Goldschmidt is past the adjustment phase in St. Louis. But will Mike Shildt’s bullpen hold up?

Brewers: Christian Yelich owns two batting titles, the 2018 NL MVP award and was MVP runner-up last season before signing a nine-year, $215 million deal to remain in place as Milwaukee’s most beloved icon next to its breweries. As usual, the Crew looks a little short in the pitching department, but manager Craig Counsell and Co. are pretty good at finding workarounds.

Cubs: Anthony Rizzo’s sore back is the latest indicator that the World Series collection may well stop at just one championship trophy for the Cubs.

Pirates: Jameson Taillon is out for the season following Tommy John surgery, and outfielder Gregory Polanco wasn’t working out with the team after testing positive for COVID-19. What the Pirates need is more plundering and less rebuilding.

NL WEST

Gregory Bull/Associated Press

Dodgers: Can they win an eighth consecutive division title? Why, in the names of Clayton Kershaw, Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner, Walker Buehler and many more, yes they can. Heavens yes.

Padres: Whatever you do, San Diego, keep Fernando Tatis Jr. healthy! If that happens and Chris Paddack continues his ascension, Tommy Pham continues his on-base assault, Manny Machado keeps his promise to stay focused and maybe MacKenzie Gore introduces himself, the long slog through rebuilding might finally start paying dividends.

Diamondbacks: Robbie Ray looked great in Spring Training 2.0, and the Snakes have added starter Mason Saunders, er, Madison Bumgarner and outfielder Starling Marte. Manager Torey Lovullo is a keeper.

Rockies: Colorado collapsed last year following consecutive wild-card appearances when its rotation imploded. Kyle Freeland lost his touch and then his confidence. All five starters went down to injury after the All-Star break. They need many pitchers to bounce back if the world again is to be their Rocky Mountain oyster.

Giants: The way things are headed, we’ll all wake up one day on the eve of the 2040 season, and lo and behold, Hunter Pence, now 57, will still be dressing for the Giants.

NL Wild Cards

Cardinals and Padres: Toasted ravioli and fish tacos for everyone!

World Series

John Bazemore/Associated Press

Rays over Reds: Hey, in a 60-game season, anything can happen. (And for those beloved readers preparing wise-guy comments HERE, may I point out that I absolutely nailed the World Series prediction last year in picking the Nationals over the Astros.)

MVPs

Mike Trout, Angels (AL): Rinse, wash, repeat.

Mookie Betts, Dodgers (NL): SoCal baseball fans are spoiled by the riches this year.

Cy Youngs

Gerrit Cole, Yankees (AL): He has won a Cy Young…never? That changes this year.

Jack Flaherty, Cardinals (NL): Everything you need to know about him, here.

Rookies of the Year

Luis Robert, White Sox (AL): Did you see Robert’s home run while falling down during an intrasquad game last week? Damndest thing ever.

Gavin Lux, Dodgers (NL): Though he won’t begin the season on the active roster, Lux still should show up soon to smash the Dodgers’ recent tradition of NL Rookie winners whose first names start with the letter ‘C’Corey Seager (2016) and Cody Bellinger (2017).

Managers of the Year

Rick Renteria, White Sox: This is an underappreciated manager and a man long overdue to be rewarded with a good team.

Luis Rojas, Mets: Making Mets fans forget about Carlos Beltran since…2020.

Biggest Urgent Questions of 2020?

What is the future of Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo? His contract is up after this year, and despite pulling all the right levers to bring D.C. a World Series title last October, ownership has been conspicuous by its failure to extend his contract. The Lerners are an odd ownership group, but you would think the man who has made them look good would deserve better.

What is the future of the Mets? They’re still for sale, and Alex Rodriguez and Jennifer Lopez continue forward as potential buyers. Sheesh, haven’t the Mets already suffered enough in recent years?

How much is a manager worth? Talk about change. One-third of clubs have new managers this season in a year unlike any other for a manager. These guys started spring training and then spent April, May, June and July “managing” from home, basically FaceTiming and Zooming their players to stay in contact, make sure they were together and headed in the right direction and then started all over again when clubs reconvened in June. The 10 new managers among the 30 clubs this year: Joe Girardi (Phillies), Joe Maddon (Angels), David Ross (Cubs), Mike Matheny (Royals), Luis Rojas (Mets), Jayce Tingler (Padres), Gabe Kapler (Giants), Derek Shelton (Pirates), Dusty Baker (Astros) and Ron Roenicke (Red Sox).

What is the future of Cleveland’s nickname? After Washington dumped its nickname in the NFL, Cleveland announced it plans to “determine the best path forward with regard to our team name.” In layman’s terms, that means it’s only a matter of time before the team changes its nickname. The organization could do worse than a throwback to the late 1800s and go with Cleveland Spiders.

Parting Shots?

Why, yes…and they’re funny too.

Maybe it’s having been cooped up at home for the first half of the summer. Maybe it’s just a new determination to let things fly. Whatever, HERE are a couple of things that have caused some pretty good chuckles over the past several days.

First, White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson smack-talked ESPN pretty good live on the air during a Sox-Cubs broadcast over the weekend: “You guys [have] noticed us. We’re on ESPN. I thought y’all guys forgot about us. You all are starting to notice now.”

Next, Milwaukee’s Logan Morrison on playing in empty stadiums with no fans:

Tom @Haudricourt

Logan Morrison, when asked about playing with no fans in stands: “For me, it’s not going to be that difficult. I played for the Rays and the Marlins.”

Then, the New York Mets’ Brandon Nimmo piled on. Poor ol’ Marlins:

Anthony DiComo @AnthonyDiComo

Brandon Nimmo on playing a game in empty Citi Field last night:

“No knock against Miami,” Nimmo said, “but it kind of just felt like playing in Miami.”

With that, how about, after four-plus loooong months, we play ball? May the games give you some relief, some entertainment and provide escape, even for a couple of hours a night. And most of all, may you and your loved ones stay healthy.

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.