TORONTO — With each passing day, the odds of baseball being played before July are dwindling.
Even Toronto Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro is offering a dose of reality, saying Sunday that he’s thinking not in “days, and likely not weeks, but closer to months.”
You’ve heard enough about the challenges facing every single professional sports league, not just MLB, so we’ll skip those details and stick to baseball.
It’s hard to be certain about anything these days, but there’s zero uncertainty about this fact: When (if?) baseball does return in 2020, it will not be a 162-game season.
That’s just simple, realistic math.
But that doesn’t mean Major League Baseball can’t pull off an entertaining, compelling and memorable-for-so-many-reasons season this summer with a little bit of luck and some strict social distancing.
A shortened schedule and the creativity that will have to be baked into the planning of it could create some interesting narratives and leave the Jays’ front office with a few tough decisions to make in the process.
Here are five ways a shorter season could impact the club:
1. Jays’ postseason odds increase
Less games mean less of a sample size, which, in baseball, we all know allows us to question if the player production we’re seeing is real – good or bad.
It’s the same for team production, and a shorter season could result in some squads finding unexpected success, aided by a truncated schedule.
Usually, the beauty of baseball is that it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and it gives ample time for the cream to rise to the top. That will change if we’re talking about 100-120 games, and even more so if MLB is forced to play less.
The numbers bear it out, too.
Over at FanGraphs, Dan Szymborski’s spring training ZIPS projections had the Blue Jays at 73 wins, good for a .450 winning percentage over the course of a 162-game season. His reliable projection model left the Jays 23 games back of the New York Yankees.
Re-running those projections after the cancellation of spring games, a 110-game regular season schedule via Szymborski’s projections saw the Jays run up a 50-60 record, or a .455 winning percentage, leaving them 15 games back of the Yanks.
It doesn’t make the Jays a better baseball team, but it decreases the favourites’ margin for error ahead of them and a significant winning streak could exponentially and quickly change postseason odds.
Speaking of those odds, Szymborski’s 162-game projection gave the Jays a minuscule 0.9 per cent chance at a playoff spot.
His 81-game season projection, however, bumps that all the way up to 16.7 per cent.
The shorter the season, the wilder things could get.
2. The reins could come off Nate Pearson
Even though I just said a shorter season doesn’t make the Jays a better baseball team, it technically could if they decide to make different, more aggressive personnel decisions.
Allowing Pearson to throw his allotment of 130-140 innings entirely in the big leagues would be one way to do that.
All winter, the realistic expectation for the Jays’ top prospect was that he would start the season in Triple-A as a way to ease him into the season, give him time to fine tune a still-developing changeup, as well as potentially earn the club an extra year of team control in 2026 if they held him down long enough.
While Pearson still isn’t a finished product, he’s clearly one of the best five starting pitchers the Blue Jays have in the organization and the front office will have to weigh the pros and cons of completely taking the reins off the 23-year-old right-hander once baseball returns.
Don’t expect an ace right away, but no one would be surprised if he’s their second-best starter right away behind Hyun-Jin Ryu.
3. Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s winter of conditioning will be put to test
Anyone who closely watched the approach the Blue Jays took with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. during his rookie season will immediately wonder how a shortened campaign could affect the 21-year-old sophomore third baseman.
Guerrero’s workload was monitored closely by the club and he was kept on a strict schedule for days off, highlighted by the Victoria Day dilemma where they sat their main attraction during the matinee holiday game against the World Series champion Boston Red Sox, and coming off a road trip to boot.
There’s also the fact Vladdy has dealt with a minor knee issue for two consecutive seasons and admitted he was tired at the end of a rookie season that saw him play 136 games across three levels –17 more than the 119 he played in 2017, his career high as a professional.
All of that led to Guerrero dedicating himself more than ever to getting his body ready this winter, and while it would be inaccurate to call it transformative, he did come into spring training a little bit slimmer and with some extra core strength that the coaching staff immediately took notice of.
You could argue a shortened schedule and less games would work in his favour.
But with MLB already on the record saying they want to play as many games as possible, it’s easy to envision a compacted and challenging schedule with fewer off days, lots of travel, and maybe even a smattering of double-headers.
This usually wouldn’t be an issue for a player so young, but the Blue Jays as an organization set a precedent that says everything you need to know about what they believe a heavy, everyday player workload will do to Vladdy Jr.’s production.
It’s clear they think a well-rested and carefully managed Vlad is the best Vlad.
4. Youth, depth could be key
The potential return of the old school twin-bill is a development every fan should love.
We’ll without a doubt see expanded rosters brought in to help mitigate what the double-headers and short ramp-up time will do to a pitching staff, but older position players will be faced with the dilemma of trying to stay fresh with a bit of rest here and there and the fact the games matter so much more with fewer of them.
This is where the Blue Jays’ youth — first baseman Travis Shaw is the only position player whose age will start with a three in 2020 — could be beneficial, even if the aforementioned Guerrero doesn’t exactly fit into this narrative.
Outside of their big third baseman, Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Teoscar Hernandez, and an athletic catching duo behind the plate in Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire form a pretty solid group of young position players who should be ready for the physical challenge of a sprint.
This is also a chance for the pitching depth that Jays GM Ross Atkins has continually talked up to now show up.
Elsewhere in the division, the perpetually banged up Yankees and Mookie Betts/Chris Sale-less Red Sox, despite extra time to get healthy on the front end, may be more worried about the effects a compacted schedule might have on their rosters.
Of course, while we’re on the topic, the massive amount of depth stockpiled by the Tampa Bay Rays gives them a leg up on the entire division, as they’ll be able to mix and match arms and position players and not skip a beat all season long.
5. Lost development time is not good
While there seems to be more pros than cons for the Blue Jays in a shortened season, it’s not all positive.
That youth you read about above is the reason why.
Let’s not forget, the Jays’ core is still developing in the big leagues, and losing most of spring training and, say, 200 or so plate appearances over the course of the regular season isn’t a good thing.
This team isn’t a finished product like the Yankees or the Astros, squads littered with proven players and all-stars that, arguably, can use the downtime to their benefit.
The young Jays need to be playing baseball and getting better. You can make the argument that Charlie Montoyo’s outfit was going to be a team that would get improve over the course of a long season as the kids get even more comfortable and adjustments are made, but the 2020 season won’t be the gruelling marathon we’re used to, potentially giving well-rested teams stocked with experienced veterans an advantage.
Then again, going back to No. 1 on this list, a shortened season changes the odds considerably and anything can happen.
Let’s just hope we get a chance to see this all play out.