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MLB still hasn’t figured out a lot of things they’ll need to before the 2021 season

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What’s the holdup?

Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Today is December 14.

About two months from today, if all goes as scheduled, pitchers and catchers will report to spring camps, with spring games scheduled to commence about two weeks after that.

And yet, teams are still operating in the dark about a lot of things they’ll need to know before playing a single game in 2021.

Will the universal DH be agreed to by players and owners? Last week teams were told to operate as if it wouldn’t happen, and I suppose they are, but this cuts the market for free-agent DH-types like Nelson Cruz, Marcell Ozuna and Kyle Schwarber in half. It could still change if owners and players would sit down and talk, but per this Minneapolis Star-Tribune article, that’s... not happening, but maybe it will soon?

The New York Post reported last week that MLB and the MLBPA are ambling toward opening negotiations about 2021, perhaps even within the next week, the first step of a long process. Even that prospect is mildly surprising, given that the union has motivation to drag out the process. As demonstrated last June, players understandably want to play as many games as possible and be paid their full salaries for it. But once the length of the season is on the table, as owners will surely demand if fans cannot attend, they can only go down from 162.

“Ambling.” That’s about right... there doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency about any of this, even though we’re only about seven and a half weeks away from camps presumably opening. On the other hand, per the article:

... the notion of staggering major and minor league camps to prevent coronavirus outbreaks has been floated, perhaps with MLB camps limited to 60 players, as last season’s summer camps were. That may be a sound policy, healthwise, but it makes the normal Cactus and Grapefruit seasons unworkable.

Which might happen, even though COVID-19 vaccines are beginning to be administered in the US. However, it could still be months before vaccine use is widespread, and until then, many localities (like Chicago) might not allow fans in the stands for baseball games. I think you can see why teams wouldn’t want to begin another season in empty ballparks, as they played the entire 60-game 2020 season.

The note about MLB camps limited to 60 players is important, too. The Cubs used 95 different players in 2020 spring camp, including guys from the minor-league camp in almost every game — and that’s with the last two weeks of games cancelled. With only 60 players in “spring camps,” wherever they’d be held, the current spring schedule, which the Cubs are scheduled to begin February 27 against the Dodgers at Sloan Park, is likely untenable.

More questions from the Star-Tribune article:

Pitchers’ arm strength, after light usage in 2019, will be a concern that undoubtedly drags into the regular season, too, which may necessitate expanded rosters for a second straight season. Even so, teams may need to carry more young, inexperienced pitchers than usual, just so they can easily be optioned to the minor leagues in order to keep fresh arms available in the majors. Reducing off days in order to squeeze in games will put more pressure on pitching staffs, too.

Then there are all the on-field changes that were stipulated for 2020 but may be necessary in 2021, too. If doubleheaders are necessary to complete a schedule, will seven-inning games be standard again? Will extra innings begin with a runner on second base again, a strategy to ward off extra-long games?

None of this has been answered as of now. All of it needs to be answered before we have a 2021 MLB season.

If I had to guess right now — and mind you, this is just my own speculation, with no inside info, I think this is how the 2021 season will happen:

  • Spring Training as currently scheduled will be cancelled
  • Instead, teams will run a few weeks of “camp” at their home ballparks, similar to what was done last July, beginning sometime in mid- to late April
  • A 2021 season won’t begin until at least some fans are allowed into all MLB parks
  • Which likely doesn’t happen until around Memorial Day
  • At that point, MLB can play a season of around 108 games, which would be two-thirds of a “normal” season

But again, that’s just me guessing. MLB and its teams and players have been silent. Hopefully we get some answers and clarity on all this soon. Because until then, the clock is ticking on Major League Baseball in 2021.