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Steve Phillips

TSN Baseball Insider

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After months of turmoil and delays caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the tone-deaf negotiations between Major League Baseball owners and players, baseball is finally just around the corner. 

Opening Day 2020 is scheduled for Thursday, July 23, as the defending World Series Champion Washington Nationals take on the New York Yankees, while the Los Angeles Dodgers battle their rivals, the San Francisco Giants. The Toronto Blue Jays and rest of the league begin play in the 60-game season on July 24. 

Players have reported to Spring Training 2.0 or "Summer Camp," as it is being called, and are preparing for the season in a disjointed fashion. Players are participating in staggered workouts throughout the day while using multiple facilities in their major league cities.

Preparing a club for a season is a challenge under normal circumstances. It is more of a challenge when it's not done at Florida or Arizona spring training facilities. It is even more daunting when the players only have three weeks to get ready for the season after being shut down for three and a half months. Throw in a worldwide pandemic and you create an environment with potentially insurmountable odds of playing a season.

Unlike the NHL and NBA, baseball has opted not to go to the hub-city structure in its Return to Play plan. The notion of finding one or two locations to handle 30 teams of 60 players each with medical and coaching staffs as well as umpires and other officials sounded like a good idea, but it just wasn’t practical. The players made it clear that the hub-city plan was not something they were comfortable with at all.

Plus, the plans that were suggested were based on players going to Arizona and Florida, two states that have seen recent significant spikes in positive COVID-19 tests. 

The NHL and NBA have a chance of successfully returning to play based upon the structure of the hub cities creating a bubble around the players, coaches, team personnel, officials and the media. 

In MLB, the structure isn’t going to keep players healthy. The key to baseball’s success will be the commitment that every individual player and staff member makes to one another to keep everyone safe. Sure, baseball has a 100-plus-page document with health and safety protocols, but it will be human beings making good decisions when they are away from the ballpark that keeps the game on the field. 

Like other sports, baseball has had its fair share of positive tests upon players reporting to camp, but not an alarming number. There were some imperfections in the testing process out of the gate, but it seems like they have cleaned up those flaws. The positive tests are not enough to shut the game down. The trick will be how to keep players from spreading the virus to other players. This is where the commitment and discipline of each player will be tested. 

If you asked players on every team to name a guy on their team they are most worried about not taking the appropriate precautions away from the park, they would be able to tell you. The Cleveland Indians just had to place outfielder Franmil Reyes in quarantine because there were pictures of him on social media at a weekend holiday party not wearing a mask. He put himself, his family and his teammates and their families at risk. That just can’t happen. Player-to-player accountability will be critical to manage the weakest links on each team. 

The success of baseball returning in Taiwan, Korea and Japan shows that the virus can be managed. The question is whether major league players will be able to maintain the same level of discipline as the players in Asia while living in an environment where people around them are not nearly as disciplined. It is not a matter of if, but rather when, players test positive in MLB as we move forward. Containing the virus within the clubhouse and dugout will be critical. 

One advantage MLB has over other major North American pro sports leagues like the NHL, NFL, MLS and NBA is that baseball is not a contact sport. Social distancing is easier to achieve in baseball than it is in hockey, football, soccer or basketball.  Trying to follow guidelines set out by health authorities to further prevent the spread of the coronavirus is less of a chore for baseball players. They won't sweat or breathe on one another, nor will players be making much contact with other players on the field. Interactions in close proximity are pretty limited in the game, except at home plate and when a first baseman holds the runner on the base. 

Taking everything into account, I believe we not only have a chance to start the season in less than two weeks from today, but finish it – if everyone takes personal responsibility seriously. That is a big if when it comes to professional athletes in their 20s. But, as we have seen overseas, it can be done. I am going to hold on to hope.

One of the other challenges teams are facing this year is trying to build camaraderie and chemistry. It is very difficult to build unity when workouts are staggered throughout the day and players are socially distanced from one another in the clubhouse, dugout and dining hall. Many team meetings will be done virtually as well in an attempt to limit personal interaction.

 

Blue Jays may surprise people

Interestingly, the Blue Jays may have the best chance of team-building and forming a connection with one another. Because the players are all staying at the Toronto Marriott City Centre Hotel connected to the Rogers Centre, they are literally living together. They have their own bubble as a team.

Players on every other team are going to and from their own residences in their major league city. The Jays are spending more time together than any other team as they can play video games together and walk to and from the ballpark together. They can act more like teammates than every other club.  They are in each other’s “germ circle” and are protected as much as any team from the outside world. The Jays are effectively in a hub city, just like NHL and NBA teams will soon be.

The Blue Jays are one of a handful of teams that I think could unexpectedly make the playoffs this year. The 60-game season is a sprint in comparison to the marathon of a 162-game slate. The 162-game competition really identifies the best teams in baseball. It allows teams to overcome slumps and losing streaks and separates the men from the boys. The shorter season allows for a high level of unpredictability. A hot team can outperform a good team. A good team can have a bad slump and never recover in a 60-game season.

The longer the season, the greater the margin for error.  For instance, last season, the Nationals started the season 27-33 after the first 60 games of the season and had the third-worst record in the National League. But the length of the season allowed them plenty of time to make up ground they lost early. It allows for adjustments to be made and a team’s true identity to come through. 

There is a saying in baseball that you are never as good as you are when you play your best, or as bad as you are at your worst. Take the Colorado Rockies, for example. Last season, they had a 60-game stretch in which they went 37-23. Pretty darn good. That same team also had a 60-game stretch in which they went 16-44. Which team were they? Obviously, they were somewhere in between. They finished the season with a 71-91 record. But they had a 60-game stretch that was playoff worthy.    

I know the rebuilding plan didn’t call for 2020 to be a playoff season in Toronto, but the pandemic may open the door for a surprise or two. I think the Jays, Chicago White Sox, and San Diego Padres are young teams loaded with talent that could play at an elite level for a 60-game span and shock the world as playoff contenders.

The Jays will need monster seasons from the kids to make it happen, plus 10 great starts from Nate Pearson. It would be quite the accomplishment because with interleague play they have to face three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, two-time winner Jacob deGrom, World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg and Atlanta Braves starter/Canadian Mike Soroka. But it could happen.

The Jays are young enough and brash to not know that they really aren’t ready yet to compete with the New York Yankees, Houston Astros and Minnesota Twins.

Spitting Seeds

- Teams that make the playoffs in 2020 will certainly need talent, but they will also need to stay healthy. The talented teams that avoid a slew of players on the COVID-19 Injured List and 10-day Injured List will prevail. One of the questions for managers in "Summer Camp" is how to appropriately prepare the players for the season without overdoing it, which can lead to soft-tissue injuries. Hamstring strains or pulled quads can be catastrophic in a 60-game season. A player could miss a third of the season with a pulled muscle if they are not careful. This could turn into a war of attrition.

- The players in the 60-man pool will work out separately from the major league teams. The clubs that figure out how to best prepare their practice squads for major league action will have an advantage. Coaching staffs will have to be creative to simulate major league action without real game competition. They will likely play simulated games and create plenty of situational baseball drills as part of the preparation. 

- The mental aspect of the game is critical for performance. Each player will have to figure out how to motivate himself without fans in the stands to provide that adrenaline boost. The atmosphere will not be like anything they have experienced since rookie ball. Creating a sense of internal energy for concentration and intensity is not easy for everyone. Clubs are contemplating pumping crowd noise into stadiums to help create an atmosphere to aid the process.

- Young players can sometimes be intimidated by certain major league stadiums and fan bases. The history and tradition of Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park can overwhelm some young players. The fans in Philadelphia can make even a 10-year veteran want to hide under the bench with some of the things they say during games. This season every stadium is like every other stadium. Without fans, every stadium is just a building with a baseball field inside. The mystique will be gone. This should help a young team like the Jays realize they are no different than the club in the other dugout and it is just a baseball game. 

- The Jays signed first-round pick Austin Martin. Martin has position versatility as he has played shortstop, third base and outfield at Vanderbilt University. This is part of his overall value as he is just an old-fashioned baseball player. Tell him where to go and he will make plays. But a Jays source indicated to me that their vision is for Martin to be their centre fielder of the future.