We’re somewhere between a quarter and halfway through MLB’s shortened 2020 season, with the end-of-the-month trade deadline rapidly approaching. In my years of covering baseball, I’ve never typed out something like the first part of the preceding sentence before and we’ll address that shortly, but, before we do, I think it’s important to note how absolutely strange this season feels. While I argued that we have to adjust our expectations and embrace the craziness, I was far from ready from the “blink and you’ll miss it” nature of how quickly this season is flying by. Let’s dig into some takeaways from this bizarro season before we wake up and it’s the postseason.
Best Laid Plans Gonna Go Awry
Returning to that prior comment about just how much of our shortened 2020 season remains to be played, it comes back to an extremely likely proposition before a single pitch was thrown: games being canceled due to players testing positive for COVID-19. This did, in fact, happen and has, unsurprisingly, had a serious effect on the number of games teams have played. Compare the Cardinals, who have only played 17 games, to the NL West, where all five teams have played between 28 and 30 games.
After ten players and eight staff members tested positive, St. Louis had to shut it down for 16 days, which is an eternity in this extremely short season. That put them in the precarious position of having to play 53 games in just 44 days, which means they're basically playing multiple double headers every week for the rest of the season and have only two days off. That, my friends, is an ungodly amount of baseball.
They’ve also had to rely on rookies in unprecedented numbers to make up for players that were placed on the COVID IL (not to mention regular old injuries). That, in turn, has created further logistical nightmares for St. Louis to navigate, because calling up those rookies has also caused roster issues. What happens if the Cards have to deal with another COVID outbreak? I have no idea, because they are already walking a tightrope here.
While the Cardinals are the most extreme example, they are far from alone. The Marlins have had multiple brushes with COVID, resulting in their only having played 22 games, and just this weekend, the Mets-Yankees series was postponed due to a positive test and the Astros had to close down their alternate training site. Anyone who said that these weren’t going to be tough waters to navigate was either lying to themselves or woefully ignorant. I, for one, would say that, with the ridiculous number of moving parts involved in putting together a baseball season in our current predicament, things have basically been going about as well as we could have hoped, but that doesn’t mean it’s been going well. And it’s likely to get even more complicated before we get to a World Series.
Unwritten Rules Still Exist (or Do They?)
In a time when the whole world was turned upside-down, we can take comfort in small, inane normalities that take us back to the before-times. I had one of those moments recently when baseball chatter turned from the war of attrition being waged by COVID and injuries to the good ol’ unwritten rules. To set the stage, the Padres’ Fernando Tatís Jr. came to bat in the 8th inning with the bases loaded against the Rangers with his team ahead 10-3. After taking three balls and apparently missing a take signal from the dugout, he proceeded to hit a home run with a seven-run lead late in a game, which is something one simply does not do. The Rangers’ next pitcher threw behind Manny Machado and the stage was set for yet another protracted argument about what constitutes “the right way to play.”
This author believes that all of this nonsensical talk is extremely outdated and, more often than not, disproportionately directed towards people of color. But even if you don’t want to wade into those waters, it’s a mite ridiculous to ask any baseball player of any skin color to take it easy on the other team at the expense of his own stats, which will most assuredly go on to affect his future livelihood. But that’s how things are traditionally done and I fully expected this to dominate the MLB media landscape for at least a bit. Both teams’ managers issued post-game admonishments to Tatís, Tatís apologized, and both sides were ready to party in the comments sections all over the internet.
But, the very next morning, the Padres’ rookie manager Jayce Tingler issued an apology of his own and shifted the narrative towards “let them play.” Tatís is an extremely exciting young player, one who looks like he could potentially be the future face of the sport. I guess all it took was a global pandemic to get people to reflect on what’s important and realize that at least this one particular unwritten rule might be dumb. I’d still rather live in a world where we could interact with actual people, but, since I’m looking for silver linings wherever I can find them these days, I’ll take it. While I’m sure there are still many folks writing extremely extended screeds about how Tatís is ruining the game, I’m happy that MLB’s establishment took the correct path here. Here’s to the seeming decline of one of baseball’s many unwritten rules, which are pretty much all spectacularly stupid.
The Trade Deadline Will Almost Certainly Be a Bust
With the August 31 trade deadline coming at us as quickly as shoppers went at dried beans and toilet paper back in March, we have yet to really get a feel for what, if anything, is going to happen come the end of the month. There’s no roadmap for how teams are going to approach a 60-game season where over 50% of MLB’s teams will get a shot at a championship. That’s a double-edged sword when it comes to the trade market, because not only will more teams see a path to the postseason, but they all know it’s going to be more of a crapshoot once they get there. How on earth do you set the price for a trade in the current environment?
Boston and Philadelphia set the 2020 “gold standard” when they swung a deal that sent Red Sox relievers Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree (plus cash) to the Phillies in exchange for a couple of pitchers in Nick Pivetta and Connor Seabold. None of these players are particularly sexy, but it’s not hard to see how they figured it out. Philly relievers have been ridiculously awful this season. While ERA is normally a terrible stat by which to judge relievers, the Phillies’ bullpen has collectively posted an 8.29 ERA through writing this article. That is remarkably impressive in the worst of ways. And yet, they’re only 4.0 games out of a postseason spot, with (relatively speaking, I guess) plenty of season left. Boston, on the other hand, is 9.5 games out and clearly never intended to do anything but punt the season considering that they had an offseason that involved trading away one of the best players in the game in Mookie Betts. Philly needed relievers and Boston needed some potential pitchers. Seems like that’s how you make a deal in 2020.
But just because the Phillies and Red Sox were able to make something happen doesn’t mean that we’re going to see a gaggle of trades going down before the end of the month. Beyond the above issues about calculating a teams’ playoff odds and the returns a player merits in a shortened season, there’s also a breakdown of traditional information gathering. While we now live in a stat-centric world, baseball teams still employ scouts to actually check out prospects in person and bring film and thoughts back to the people who are going to work out the trade. The pandemic, as you might expect, is complicating that. Then there’s the whole financial insecurity thing that we’re all experiencing, and which is affecting baseball teams, too. 2021 is an enigma right now, so you can understand teams’ reluctance to go wild before the trade deadline.
As with the season as a whole, it’s best to temper our expectations regarding the trade deadline but that doesn’t mean we won’t get a sweet, sweet hit of roster move excitement. There are teams like the Mariners, with impending free agent RHP Taijuan Walker, and the Giants, with a similarly situated pitcher in Kevin Gausman, who are clearly out of the running this year, and there is no shortage of teams in need of pitching. But see above for all the other reasons that the next week is not going to change things so much that we see any marquee names on the move. That being said, in a league that features both A.J. Preller and Jerry Dipoto, I’m not ruling out the possibility that some minor craziness happens.
The Postseason Picture is Most Definitely a Gloriously Hot Mess
When I published a rather unconventional 2020 season prediction article, one lacking in the kind of normal “this team is going to win it all” predictions that I normally get into right before the season starts, it hit the presses right before the announcement that MLB was expanding its postseason to 16 teams. I’m quite happy I didn’t provide any actual predictions for individual teams, because that last minute change before the season kicked off dramatically changed the postseason landscape and would’ve driven me absolutely crazy when my future self looked back on it (even if it would’ve been totally out of my control).
Things are starting to look a little more ridiculous than they did a week or so ago, but they’re still pretty much not what most folks would have guessed. The Orioles have come back to earth a bit after a hot start, but they’re now 3.0 games out of a postseason appearance. Houston has been making up ground, but they’re still trailing the A’s. The Rays lead the AL East. Basically, I would have been right about the Twins leading the AL Central and the Dodgers leading the NL West.
I’m not sure when the appropriate time to do some power rankings in 2020 is, but I’m guessing it’s something like a week before the postseason, unless you want to regret putting your pen to paper. Beyond the fact that only a few teams are truly out of it at this point, there’s so many other weird factors. Winning the division doesn’t present the same advantage that it would during a normal season. Homefield advantage appears to have disappeared. Making sense of the standings right now is a fool’s errand, with so many teams still having a totally reasonable chance at a postseason appearance. Maybe the picture will be more clear in a week after the trade deadline, but probably not. Welcome to baseball in 2020, y’all.