Baseball is back!
The question now is how long it lasts.
The Giants will report to Oracle Park next week for the start of Spring Training 2.0, which will kick off not with a round of BP, but of tests for COVID-19.
It’s a whole new world the sport is jumping into, and it’s understandable if you have a lot of questions. The owners and players spent months exchanging proposals before MLB finally announced a 60-game season, and there was a lot of confusion in the process.
Here, I’ll try and provide some answers …
Wait, is this safe?
That’s the biggest question facing the game, and really always has been, even as owners and players bickered for three months. The Giants tried to be safe, tried to practice social distancing and keep everything clean — but on Friday they had to shut down their Scottsdale Stadium facility after a player showed coronavirus symptoms. The tests came back negative, but real fear remains.
There are a lot of people within the game who would prefer not to play this season, citing massive upticks in positive test results and hospitalizations in cities getting ready to welcome 60 baseball players and dozens of coaches and staffers. On Wednesday, as the Giants were preparing to send out a press release stating that Spring Training 2.0 would be held at Oracle Park, the governor of California was sounding alarm bells. Gavin Newsom said COVID-19 cases increased 69 percent in California from Sunday to Tuesday.
“We’ve seen a lot of those numbers are reflected in increases in the Bay Area,” Newsom said. “That’s part of the state that’s moved last into this new phase. They have moved more slowly and now have experienced an increase in the last number of days.”
What are the Giants going to do about that?
While they haven’t released full details, the Giants are planning to build new batting cages and bullpens at Oracle Park to spread players out and use both clubhouses. They have talked of changing air filtration systems and turning existing rooms into auxiliary clubhouses and gathering spaces for players and coaches. Manager Gabe Kapler told NBC Sports Bay Area that he expects to wear a mask during games. Players will be tested for COVID-19 at least every other day, and likely much more than that.
“We’re going to have some level of confidence that the people in the building are not ill and don’t have the virus,” Kapler said on the Giants Insider Podcast. “Now, it’s not a guarantee and so that’s why we really have to respect social distancing, use personal protection, our masks, and we just have to be cognizant of staying separated whenever possible.”
How will they enforce all of that?
At last check, the guidebook given by MLB is 108 pages and covers everything from spitting to shower preferences. But there will be gaps, and team officials expect to adjust on the fly.
The bigger concern is life away from the ballpark. This is no bubble, like the NBA is doing, and teams have no choice but to trust that players will take the proper precautions elsewhere. That more than anything is the major concern in baseball circles. All it takes is a couple of players going to a bar after a game and being exposed to the coronavirus and you might see half your roster get taken off the field within a few days.
What will those rosters look like?
Each team will start with 30 players, with 30 more on a taxi squad. After 15 days, the active roster will be down to 28. A month into the season it will be the now-standard 26. Three taxi squad members can travel to road games but one must be an extra catcher. The Giants hope to carry some of their top prospects on the taxi squad so they have somewhere to play all summer. One lock is Joey Bart, who will be involved but likely won’t be on the opening day roster.
Wait, what about the minor leagues?
That season is unofficially canceled already, but there’s some talk that the Arizona Fall League could be massively expanded or new instructional leagues could pop up. The Giants hold a development camp for minor leaguers in January and that could be a popular solution for clubs.
What does the schedule look like?
To limit travel, the Giants will play 10 games apiece against the Dodgers, Padres, Diamondbacks and Rockies and six against the A’s, their geographical rival. The rest will be against AL West opponents. That’s not great for their hopes. The Astros and A’s should be two of the better teams in baseball, the Rangers are improved, and the Angels have a loaded lineup.
What does the playoff race look like?
That’s what we’re looking at here, but it just might be the ladder for some less talented teams to get into the postseason. The Giants, for instance, hope to platoon and mix-and-match their way into a late September race. Even a .500 start over the first month would put them right there over the final four 30 games, and remember, as mediocre as last year’s team was, the Giants were the hottest team in the majors in July.
It has never been more important to get off to a hot start, and last year’s 60-game standings prove it.
A year ago at the 37 percent mark, the eventual champion Nationals were nowhere near the postseason. They famously started 19-31 before getting hot. The A’s and Cardinals also would have been left out, and Kapler’s Phillies would have been champions of the NL East. In 2018, the A’s, Dodgers and Rockies — eventual playoff teams — were all on the outside through 60 games.
Remember how crazy hot the Mariners were in 2018? Maybe not, because they didn’t make the playoffs, but through 60 games they were AL West champs.
Anything can happen over 60 games, so prepare for the wildest playoff race you’ve seen, with the real possibility that there are multiple play-in games just to figure out the division winners and wild card spots.
Important sidebar: Can Pablo pitch?
Technically, yes. MLB will reverse a new rule limiting how position players can pitch. Sandoval is 100 percent healthy, but you won’t see him on the mound, not after Tommy John surgery.
I’m a longtime Giants fan, which other rules am I going to hate?
The DH has come to the National League, and the Giants expect most of those at-bats to go to Hunter Pence, Alex Dickerson, Sandoval or lefty-masher Darin Ruf. That’ll take some getting used to, but it’s necessary for health reasons. Starting pitchers aren’t expected to go more than three or four innings initially, so MLB is trying to limit the number of times relievers take hacks after not grabbing a bat for three months.
That sucks for one baseball writer in particular:
CORY GEARRIN AT-BAT TEXT YOUR FRIENDS. (They’re going to be mad at you it’s pretty late but whatever.)
— Alex Pavlovic (@PavlovicNBCS) June 28, 2017
The bigger concern for most fans may be extra innings. MLB is adopting the minor league rule, meaning a runner will be placed on second from the 10th inning on. It’s lame, but it could provide a big edge for the Giants.
[RELATED: Billy Hamilton could provide advantage for Giants]
Speaking of the fans, will they be allowed at games?
I was asked this about a dozen times on Twitter right when baseball returned, and was initially surprised. But I understand that there’s a lot of confusion about which businesses are open and which ones are not.
Teams do not expect to have fans at games this season, and if the trend lines keep going the way they are, there’s a good chance the 2021 season starts without fans, too. The Giants already have pushed back all events involving big ovations. For 2020 at least, you’ll need the TV broadcast to watch your Giants.