When and where? Major league players got their answer on the first part earlier this week with MLB imposing a schedule that opens a second round of spring training July 1 and a 60-game season about three weeks later.
The “where” is still being finalized, but almost every club will be based in its home city with a second, nearby site for training and then a taxi squad during the season.
And that’s “where” the Cubs could find a position of strength among their big-league peers in both quality of facilities and potential containment of any coronavirus outbreaks.
While the Cubs haven’t made the announcement yet, it’s expected to happen this week with their Midwest League affiliate in South Bend opening its state-of-the-art facilities to roughly half of the players the Cubs will activate for the season.
“We are prepared, and we feel optimistic,” said Andrew Berlin, owner of the South Bend Cubs and an investor in the big-league Cubs.
The award-winning South Bend complex, about 95 miles from Chicago, includes a ballpark with similar dimensions to Wrigley Field, a 17,000-square-foot covered area for fielding and other skills work, six state-of-the-art indoor hitting tunnels as well as two indoor pitching mounds in addition to the mounds on the field and in the bullpens.
The biggest advantage when it comes to limiting the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and navigating three months of baseball without a significant outbreak might come in Berlin’s four recently built apartment buildings that ring the ballpark.
Because the pandemic followed December’s grand opening so closely, Berlin said enough vacancies remain that players can be more safely clustered in their own part of a building, making use of the one- and two-bedroom apartments.
“Our loss is the Cubs’ gain,” Berlin said.
As Spring Training 2.0 camps open next week, each team may activate 60 players, with at least 20 expected to work at the alternate sites as minor league depth. Eventually, the number would grow to as many 30 or more as teams narrow their “spring” rosters to the requisite 30 to open the season, then reduce to 28 in mid-August and eventually 26 by September.
In addition to depth for the big-league teams, clubs also are expected to include some of their top minor-league prospects on the taxi squads with no intent of using them at the big-league level, to make use of development opportunities during a year with no minor-league season.
Whether that means Cubs first-round draft pick Ed Howard of Mount Carmel will be part of that group, Berlin said he hasn’t heard names of any players who might be included on the taxi squad.
Either way, he and his top staff are staying in touch with Indiana state officials — as the Cubs and White Sox are doing in Illinois — for the possibility of including fans at the stadium.
“We’ve asked the same question, because we do have a baseball-starved public that would buy tickets just watch these guys work out,” Berlin said.
But whatever opportunity the second-site status might provide for Berlin and his South Bend Cubs to recoup a fraction of the losses associated with the lost season of games, that’s not what’s on his mind, he said.
“What’s more important than the income right now is just to be a good team player,” he said. “We’re dedicated to the strength and success of the major league team. That’s what a good minor-league partner ought to be.
“We’ll be delighted and happy to take one small part in helping these guys train and get ready.”