After weeks of contentious negotiations over the economics of baseball returning from its lengthy shutdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, a shortened season is on the way.
Players are expected to report July 1 for a spring training-like camp, with Opening Day set for July 23 or 24 to begin a 60-game regular season that will start without fans in stadiums.
The arrangement, which was finalized Tuesday night with the players’ approval of health and safety protocols as COVID-19 cases spike in parts of the country, includes 60 games in 66 days after the two sides couldn’t agree to financial terms on a longer season.
But it means that in a week’s time, there will be baseball again. Large spikes in COVID-19 cases in Florida forced teams that were planning on having training camp at their traditional spring complexes to change course, but it’s likely that the Orioles will use Baltimore as their home base.
While players have been remaining ready throughout the pandemic by training at home, the preparation period will be a rushed one, and there will likely be expanded rosters to start the season to keep players safe (active rosters will be 30 during the first two weeks of the season, 28 during the second two weeks and 26 after that). Other reported aspects of the return-to-play protocols include the designated hitter being installed in the National League, placing a runner on second base in extra innings to increase the chances of games ending faster, and possibly a local satellite camp to keep players who are not on the active roster ready, similar to a Triple-A club.
All of those details for the players, as well as some for fans, are still being ironed out. The Orioles’ ticket policy on their website, which offers credit for future games or a refund, only applied to games impacted by COVID-19 through July 1.
The effect of a shortened season on the Orioles as a baseball entity will be widespread. Here are the biggest takeaways from MLB’s 60-game plan.
For a rebuilding major league team, this season will be hard to judge.
Before the pandemic, the Orioles were likely going to trade their best and most expensive players in the name of a long-term rebuild. (The trade deadline will be Aug. 31, and teams can resume making trades Friday, when rosters will no longer be frozen.) It might not be a full tear-down operation this year because the season is so short, but no matter what happens in these 60 games, it won’t paint a clear picture of where the current edition of the team is going.
Though Trey Mancini won’t be playing this year as he continues his battle with colon cancer, his 2019 season contained a pair of very different 60-game stretches that show just how small sample sizes can be misleading.
In the first 60 games of the season, he hit .304 with 13 home runs and a .905 OPS, and in 60 games from July 1 to Sept. 11, he hit .245 with 13 home runs and an .811 OPS. The former was much more in line with his full-season production in what was considered a breakout year. The second chunk wouldn’t have been representative of his potential.
Likewise, once John Means joined the rotation full-time in April, his next 12 starts were tremendous: a 2.69 ERA in 62 innings with a 1.06 WHIP. That was good enough to make him an All-Star. His next 12 starts after the All-Star break, as he battled a sore shoulder at times, weren’t anywhere near that level, as Means had a 4.61 ERA in 67⅓ innings with a 1.19 WHIP.
It will make for an interesting task for the coaches, front office staff and outside observers alike to determine whose performance in such a shortened season is legitimate. That’s not the most productive use of a season for a team looking to see if any of their major league pieces can be part of a playoff team in years to come.
Relative to regular salaries, many of the Orioles won’t be playing for much this year.
For veterans like Chris Davis and Alex Cobb, the amount of pay they’ll be losing from their seven-figure salaries during this shortened season is drastic. But that hit will be felt even more significantly on the lower end of the team’s salary spectrum, as most of the 40-man roster was making at or near the minimum major league salary for 2020.
The team’s salary baseline for its lowest-paid players this year was $560,000, according to information on Cots Baseball Contracts. Prorated down to a 60-game season, that’s $209,259. The players also got salary advances for the first two months of the season that won’t be forgiven, so many Orioles will make far less than that during the 60-game schedule.
Considering that this season was meant to be a make-or-break year for many players — including some pitchers trying to solidify themselves as major leaguers and hitters like Anthony Santander or Renato Núñez trying to secure big arbitration raises — that’s a relatively small sum for their profession to be taking on the risk of playing for a losing team amid a pandemic.
It’s a good thing expanded playoffs didn’t create any kind of false hope.
As the victors of the first win-or-go-home American League wild-card game in 2012, the Orioles know how valuable an extra playoff spot can be to a young team with growing aspirations.
But this year’s proposal from the league for a money-spinning expanded playoff schedule didn’t make it into this agreement, keeping the postseason at 10 teams, so the Orioles won’t be chasing any false hope. A few scoreless spring training outings for relievers might count as improvement for some, but this team probably will have even more modest ambitions competing against more desperate clubs.
Instead, these Orioles will either sprint or slog through 60 games, depending on perspective, with 40 games against their American League East rivals and 20 against their geographical interleague counterpart, the National League East. Unless they wildly overachieve, there won’t be even the glint of playoff baseball in their eyes by the end of September.
The Orioles’ taxi squad roster will probably say a lot about the team’s priorities.
Many reports from earlier negotiations had teams carrying essentially a full other team as a taxi squad, with players staying ready at a nearby stadium to cover for the major league team in case a player got sick.
It stands to reason that many of those taxi squad camps could be similar to Triple-A teams, where veterans who could help a contender stay ready for late-season cameos and up-and-down relievers stay ready to go, well, up and down. According to the agreement, with no minor leagues, teams would be allowed to retain 60 players each, including a taxi squad. Up to three players from the taxi squad can travel with a team to a game, and one of the three must be a catcher.
The Orioles could save a good number of those spots for prospects who they want to get working in a controlled environment and maybe learn from more experienced major league players. They probably would be stashed on the roster without a chance to be called up, but as long as there aren’t service-time implications for having a player on the taxi squad, it might be wise for the Orioles to have top prospects like catcher Adley Rutschman and pitchers Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall at those camps to get their work in on the team’s watch.
Even if it leaves manager Brandon Hyde and the major league team a little short at times, it might be worth it if there’s no alternative to get some of the priority prospects into minor league games. In the end, the most important part of the 2020 season for these Orioles might be getting their top prospects some playing experience so it’s not a lost year for the club’s future stars.