Why Cubs, MLB might face 2020 season without key players and what it means

Why Cubs, MLB might face 2020 season without key players and what it means

No fans at the games? That’s already the plan.

But what happens to the 2020 baseball season if it gets started in July without Angels superstar Mike Trout? Or without the defending champs’ All-Star closer, Sean Doolittle?

Or without Cubs ace Yu Darvish?

Those questions are among realistic scenarios that are part of what’s at stake as Major League Baseball and the players union negotiate the health and safety protocols required for an agreement to start the season during the COVID-19 pandemic — a process that began late this week after MLB offered a 67-page proposal earlier in the week.

RELATED: MLB's sweeping health-and-safety proposals would bring big change to baseball

Financial terms, which have yet to be discussed in detail since the sides reached agreement on an initial salary deal in March, have gotten most of the public attention in recent weeks (a new proposal by MLB reportedly is to be presented to the union Tuesday).

But nothing can happen on that until the testing and safety guidelines are worked out — which for many players could be a much bigger issue.

And that could remain an issue even after an agreement to start play is eventually reached.

While the sides had not reached that point in negotiations as of Friday, it’s clear based on multiple conversations that the union considers an important part of any agreement be protections for an individual who may choose to opt out of playing during the pandemic.

And it may not even be an especially contentious issue. 

Commissioner Rob Manfred already told CNN last week “if there are players with either health conditions or just their own personal doubts, we would never try to force them to come back to work. They can wait until they feel they’re ready to come.”

It’s not hard to imagine the potential competitive impact on an already altered season if even a few of the highest-profile players opt out.

Trout told ESPN his top concern during this "scary" time involves caring for his pregnant wife, who is due in August. MLB’s initial safety guidelines would seem to make participating in her regular care difficult if he abides by the plan, and perhaps even impossible when the time comes to be at a hospital.

“I’ll be there,” he told ESPN. “I’m not missing the birth of my first child. I know that.”

What would Trout’s absence do to the big-spending Angels’ plans to contend under new manager Joe Maddon?

And what about the Nationals’ plans to defend their World Series title without their closer, Doolittle, who has publicly expressed concern about a pre-existing condition that puts his wife at greater risk if infected?

And what about a Cubs team that even before the pandemic appeared to be — as first baseman Anthony Rizzo put it — “a bad start away from this team being blown up by the [trade] deadline.”

What happens to that calculus if the first player this spring to publicly show concern for the lethality of the virus chooses to skip the 2020 half-season out of an abundance of caution for himself and his family?

“I’m really worried about it,” Darvish said the first week of March, before MLB’s first memo to teams on the subject was distributed and more than a week before spring training was shut down.

Darvish, who on March 5 got tested when he experienced a cough rather than risk exposing teammates, had talked to team officials as soon as camp started about concerns dealing with a disproportionate number of media traveling from Asia. 

Darvish’s agent declined to address the question when asked his client’s thoughts on playing under MLB’s proposal and in light of Manfred’s comment. Darvish did not respond this week to multiple requests on the subject made directly to him.

The Cubs also have players with potentially higher-risk factors for COVID-19, including cancer survivors Rizzo and Jon Lester.

To be clear, no player is known to have publicly said he won’t play at this point; none can even be certain yet what the final the details of any agreement on safety measures will be.

Meanwhile, almost every player who has spoken publicly — including Trout — has expressed a desire to play this year, a sentiment expressed to Cubs officials from players in internal communications.

MORE: Players association responds to MLB health proposal, negotiations continue

And agent Scott Boras, for example, has said he has received no pushback from his client base on returning to play since some of MLB’s plans were leaked. His clients include Cubs centerfielder Albert Almora Jr. and third baseman Kris Bryant — the team’s player rep for the union, who became a first-time father last month.

But a season already assured of looking unlike any other before might also be assured of at least a few recognizable players skipping the season altogether because of inherent risk, no matter what the final agreement looks like.

Players with the greatest financial security also have the greatest freedom to exercise that choice. Trout’s the highest paid player in the game; Darvish is in the third year of a six-year, $126 million deal.

Such an impact could be as immediate as it is dramatic, competitively, for a team like the Cubs.

They already spent last winter fielding offers for players up and down the roster before essentially standing pat with a group that missed the playoffs last year — and without enough in the payroll budget left to significantly add.

It could mark an especially swift decline and selloff if any key player opts out of participating in a half-season attempt to win one more time with a core that won a title in 2016 — much less the majors’ all-time leader in strikeout rate coming off a dominant second half in 2019.

“I think each player has to make an individual choice. Are they willing to assume the risk?” said Chicago-based infectious-disease specialist Dr. Robert Citronberg. “No matter what strategy is employed, there’s going to be risk involved. It’s just a question of how much risk tolerance you have.”

RELATED: Why one medical expert remains skeptical of MLB's COVID-19 precautions

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Former Cubs pitcher Dan Straily, now in KBO, details games without fans

Former Cubs pitcher Dan Straily, now in KBO, details games without fans

Cubs fans may remember Dan Straily. The right-hander pitched for the club in 2014, making seven appearances (one start) before getting dealt to the Houston Astros the ensuing offseason in the Dexter Fowler trade.

Straily now pitches for the Lotte Giants in the KBO, South Korea's highest level of pro ball. The league kicked its season off earlier this month without fans in attendance, a model MLB will likely follow for most (if not all) of its potential 2020 season.

Jon Frankel, a correspondent for HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel," recently interviewed current and former KBO players about the league's return during the coronavirus pandemic. In an excerpt made available via press release, Frankel asked Straily if he misses playing in front of a crowd.

MORE: Why one medical expert remains skeptical of MLB's COVID-19 precautions

"Of course. Like, even if you're on the road, and people are just telling you how much you suck — you thrive off it," Straily said. "You feed off that energy.”

Crowd noise obviously plays a big part in an athlete's adrenaline. Not having that factor will be an adjustment for MLB in 2020, and Straily took things a step further regarding the circumstances players face without fans in attendance.

“My shortstop dove for a ball. And he missed it by, like, an inch," he said. "Like, it was an incredible effort. When he hit the ground, I heard the air leave his lungs. And we've talked about that in the dugout. Because I've never once in my life heard that.”

Not having crowds to drown out on-field noise could make for a unique viewing experience for fans at home. UFC returned on May 9, and many punches and kicks were audible on ESPN's TV broadcast.

MLB teams could play proxy crowd noise in games, but nevertheless, fans may pickup noises on their TVs previously unavailable from home.

The full episode will air Tuesday at 9 p.m. CT on HBO.

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How lessons from the KBO and Javy Báez can fix MLB's aging fan base problem

How lessons from the KBO and Javy Báez can fix MLB's aging fan base problem

The cheer master’s whistle echoed through the ballpark, and dinosaur mascots wearing giant face masks danced on top of the dugout.

With fans absent due to the coronavirus pandemic, Sunday’s scene didn’t quite do the Korean Baseball Organization experience justice. But it was still the league that taught Ryan Sadowski how to let loose on the field.

"I found that as a player I didn't allow myself to enjoy my success the way I should have because it's the game of baseball,” Sadowski told ESPN in 2016. “You're not supposed to show that you enjoy your success. I think it's something I learned here (in Korea), that I would take to younger kids in the States."

Major League Baseball is well aware that its status in the United States will continue to slip if it can’t figure out how to reach a younger audience. This summer presents an opportunity. If the players and owners can agree to a deal that makes the league’s early July target date a reality, for weeks it will be the only major sport on television.

Sports fans are clamoring for action after a months-long drought. What better time to draw in new fans? In that regard, the KBO could have something to teach MLB.

Sadowski is in a unique position to compare the KBO and MLB. He played in both leagues before becoming a KBO scout. Sadowski’s support for on-the-field expression is one Cubs shortstop Javier Báez would likely get behind.

Báez had a message similar to Sadowski's on MLB’s YouTube channel recently. In a show taped during Spring Training, Báez chatted with Puerto Rican recording artist Residente while running the Grammy Award-winner through baseball drills.

“In my personal opinion, I would like to teach young people growing up to enjoy [the game],” Báez said in Spanish. “And if they fail, fail having fun. And keep doing what is right. Let the kids play.”

Báez has been criticized for his playing style, most famously in 2018 when he bat-flipped after a popup. Afterward, former Pirates manager Clint Hurdle questioned Báez's “respect for the game.”

But Báez's huck wouldn’t have been out of place in Sunday’s KBO game between the NC Dinos and Hanwhu Eagles. The broadcast didn’t feature the kind of ostentatious bat flips that have become so popular on social media. But still, in consecutive innings, players on both teams tossed their bats several feet up the baseline to punctuate base hits. No uproar ensued.

The rate at which KBO bat flips have spread through Twitter speaks to a hunger for showboating among young baseball fans. Why not embrace it?   

“It’s not that it is not the correct way of doing it,” Báez told Residente of his playing style. “It’s just not the way many coaches teach it.”

In the United States, the NBA is the poster child for attracting millennial fans. In 2017-18, young adults led the league’s growth in ratings, according to Forbes. TV viewership among 18- to 34-year-olds was up 14 percent.

The NBA does an especially good job marketing its stars. Admittedly, the game lends itself to that strategy in a way that baseball does not. LeBron James can take over any game down the stretch, but Mike Trout isn’t going to get an at-bat every time the winning run is in scoring position.

But there are other ways NBA stars capture the fascination of young fans. Kids across the country grew up shrugging like Michael Jordan or pumping their arms and pounding their chests like LeBron James.  They take deep dives into YouTube, watching the most devastating dunks of all time – the more embarrassing for the defender, the better. None of that disrespects the game. The NBA and KBO have that in common.

MLB doesn’t have to adopt the KBO’s use of specific chants for each batter and embrace bat flipping for everything from home runs to ground outs – even though, by all accounts, those elements create a delightfully raucous atmosphere.

MLB doesn’t have to abolish baseball’s unwritten rules in one day. But an amendment is in order.

What if demonstrative zeal was instead embraced as a sign of respect for the game? After all, it might be MLB’s best hope of connecting to the next generation.