Nearly four months after they were originally scheduled to do so, the Orioles will begin their 2020 season Friday.
Before the coronavirus pandemic canceled the rest of spring training and delayed the regular season, the Orioles were set to open the campaign at a sold-out Camden Yards, hosting the New York Yankees on March 26. Instead, their first of 60 games — rather than the traditional 162 — will come Friday against the Boston Red Sox in an empty Fenway Park, with the virus preventing fans from attending games, at least initially.
The shorter schedule will prevent the Orioles from stacking up losses the way they did in the previous two years, but even with the playoffs reportedly expanding from 10 entrants to 16, their odds are long. Here’s what you need to know about the Orioles’ 2020 season.
How is the season formatted?
In an attempt to limit cross-country travel, each team’s 60-game schedule is limited to the four teams in its division and the five in its intraleague counterpart. For the Orioles, that means 10 games each against their standard American League East foes in the Red Sox, Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays, as well as a combined 20 games against the National League East’s Washington Nationals, Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets and Miami Marlins.
Every team has a player pool that can include up to 60 players to pull from during the season, with those not on the active roster staying ready at an alternate training site. In the Orioles’ case, their excess players will be in Bowie. Teams will open the season with 30-man rosters. After two weeks, that will drop to 28, then down to 26 two weeks after that, with that roster size carrying through the end of the regular season in late September.
Teams are able to carry as many position players or pitchers as they desire within that 30, with most teams electing to have more of the latter to provide innings coverage as pitchers continue to build up following the four-month shutdown. In another effort to keep the teams from burning through their pitching staffs, every extra inning will start with a runner on second base.
Another intriguing rule added in the strange season is the use of the universal designated hitter, which means pitchers won’t hit this season, even in NL parks. The trade deadline is Aug. 31, and Sept. 15 is the postseason eligibility deadline. In addition to the standard injured lists of 10 and 45 days, there will be a separate COVID-19 injured list.
To help prevent the spread of the virus, the league instituted guidelines in its 113-page operations manual. Some of the most notable include:
- Spitting (including smokeless tobacco or sunflower seeds) is prohibited.
- Pitchers will be allowed to carry a wet rag in their back pocket to use for moisture instead of licking their fingers.
- Non-players must wear masks in the dugout and bullpen, and inactive players must sit six feet apart in the stands.
- Any ball in play or touched by multiple players will be replaced.
- Players and managers could face discipline for coming within six feet of each other or umpires to argue.
What’s the impact of the virus?
Beyond the shortened season, the most noticeable impact will be the lack of fans. Teams will stream in fake crowd noise during games, trying to create a semblance of atmosphere rather than have players and coaches deal with eerie silence. Some teams, like the Los Angeles Dodgers, are allowing fans to purchase cardboard cutouts with pictures of themselves that will appear in the stands and on TV. Fox Sports will feature virtual crowds during its broadcasts. MASN, the Orioles’ majority-owned network that broadcasts their games, has made no such announcement.
That’s not to say there won’t be on-field changes. More than a dozen players across the league have elected to sit out the season. Several others have already tested positive for COVID-19, with Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman and Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman among those with symptomatic cases. Hours before their season opener Thursday, the reigning World Series champion Nationals announced that star outfielder Juan Soto tested positive but was asymptomatic. Any player who tests positive must isolate and test negative for the virus on two consecutive tests that come at least 24 hours apart.
Players, coaches and other key staff are tested every other day. Soto’s test that came back positive was performed Tuesday morning. The night before and night after, Soto played in the Nationals’ exhibition games against the Orioles.
To this point, the issues the virus has presented to the Orioles’ major league roster have been minimal. Outfielders Anthony Santander and Dwight Smith Jr. tested positive during intake testing and missed the first couple of weeks of camp, but both made the club’s Opening Day roster.
The greater impact might be the cancellation of the minor league season, preventing the rebuilding Orioles from continuing the development of many of their prospects.
What’s the Orioles’ outlook?
After losing 115 games in 2018 and 108 in 2019, members of the 2020 Orioles have spent training camp preaching that anything can happen in the shorter season. An expanded playoff format, with 16 teams making the cut for a system featuring a best-of-three first round, best-of-five second round, best-of-seven league championship series and the World Series, can further boost that hope.
But neither of the past two iterations of the Orioles posted a winning record over any 60-game stretch. Baltimore will also be without its two most productive position players from 2019, having traded infielder Jonathan Villar to the Marlins and lost first baseman/outfielder Trey Mancini for the season as he gets treatment for stage 3 colon cancer.
The club’s rotation is more experienced, and it would be difficult for the bullpen to collectively struggle more than it did a year ago. But two of the pitching staff’s most exciting members — All-Star John Means and hard-throwing relief prospect Hunter Harvey — will open the year on the injured list. Neither is expected to be out long, but each game missed carries greater weight in a season about a third the size of a normal one.
Even in a shorter season, the 2020 Orioles should feature further integration of the team’s top prospects. Outfielder Austin Hays seems set to be the first player in the batter’s box Friday, and players such as Ryan Mountcastle, Yusniel Díaz, Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer are in line for call-ups as the year goes on. That should add excitement in a 60-game season, but adding wins is likely another story.