Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association are considering several different plans designed to play as many games as possible if they can secure the necessary approvals from government and public health officials. One plan which was reported this past week would have games held at spring training stadiums in both Florida and Arizona, and at climate-controlled MLB stadiums like Chase Field in Phoenix, Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, and Marlins Park in Miami.
If it is determined that baseball can be played while still preserving the health and well being of the players, coaches, and other necessary support staff without impeding the health and interests of the general public, then we could be treated to what will undoubtedly be a season like no other in the history of the game. To that end, at least some of the details associated with staging such a season have emerged.
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For a moment, let’s set aside the many practical, logistical, and budgetary issues that could make the Arizona/Florida plan unworkable. Instead, let’s suspend disbelief and examine some of the rule changes under consideration as part of the plan, and how those changes could affect the performance and production of certain players and the fantasy game itself. Here are a few of the changes thought to be under consideration:
MLB would be realigned and divided into the Cactus League and Grapefruit League, each with 15 teams.
Each league would be further divided into three divisions of five teams, likely according to geography and convenience.
Teams would play two opponents per week and at least one doubleheader would be played by every team each week.
All games would be played with a designated hitter in place of the pitcher.
There would be at least some shortened games. For example, the weekly doubleheader might consist of two seven-inning games.
Rosters would be expanded to as many as 50 players to accommodate the condensed schedule, the intense heat of Arizona, and the travel issues due to the widespread locations in Florida.
Right now, it appears that a 100-game schedule would be the maximum, especially if an early June start is under consideration.
A robotic umpire may be used to call balls and strikes, allowing umpires and catchers to be distanced from each other.
Let’s begin with the realignment and the new divisions spawned as a result. Here’s one possible scenario as imagined by USA Today:
The realigned leagues are very likely to stick to a schedule format that emphasizes the number of division games played with a smaller number of games spread out among the other divisions. Since the divisions are organized according to the proximity of their spring training facilities, we end with some that are full of weak teams while others appear to be stacked.
For example, the Grapefruit North division looks like a two-team race at best. The Yankees should run away with it unless the Phillies get their act together. Of course, having five right-handed starting pitchers could be a problem against New York. The Yankees absolutely crushed right-handed starting pitchers last season. Their .343 wOBA versus RHP was third-best in baseball, with only the Dodgers (.344) and Astros (.351) doing better.
Among the 20 projected starting pitchers for the Yankees’ opponents from the North division, there are just three left-handers. That could lead to big seasons from Yankees hitters like Gio Urshela (.373 wOBA vs. RHP), Luke Voit (.368), Gleyber Torres (.362), and DJ LeMahieu (.349).
The teams of Northeast division of the Cactus League could adopt the Sonoran desert turtle as their official mascot. Four of the five teams finished under the league average (76) in stolen bases last year, with the Athletics (49), Giants (47), and Cubs (45) at the bottom of the list. Only the Twins (28) stole fewer bases than those three Northeast division teams. The Diamondbacks would be the speedsters of the division with their 88 thefts.
Potential Universal DH Impact
Adding the designated hitter for all teams would help some current National leaguers garner more playing time, and help some teams hide their defensive liabilities. For instance, the Reds have a crowded outfield situation after signing Shogo Akiyama and Nick Castellanos to join Jesse Winker, Nick Senzel, Aristides Aquino, Josh VanMeter, and Phillip Ervin in their talent pool.
Castellanos is a poor defender, whether at third base or in the outfield, so putting him in the designated hitter job would be a perfect use of his talents. With Castellanos at DH, the Reds can slot Akiyama in centerfield, where his speed would be most effective. To cover the corner outfield positions, the Reds can deploy Winker, Senzel, Aquino, VanMeter, and Ervin to cover the platoon advantage.
Ervin crushed left-handed pitchers last season, compiling a .428 wOBA with four home runs over 95 plate appearances. Senzel was almost as good against southpaws with a .374 wOBA with three home runs over 110 plate appearances. Meanwhile, Winker was the master against right-handers with a .371 wOBA in 334 plate appearances. Aquino handled both left-handers and right-handers with aplomb, though he faded big-time in September. Fantasy owners can also take advantage of these platoon splits, but it’s going to be difficult in an environment in which MLB clubs could carry as many as 50 players. While some fantasy games allow for that kind of roster churn, most do not, and it really isn’t practical. Still, there will be no shortage of players with favorable platoon splits out there.
The biggest problem for fantasy players will be with teams that have the deepest lineups. The Dodgers are about as deep as it gets with hitting. They have players on their bench in platoon roles who would be everyday players on another team. In addition, several of their players can play multiple positions. They can rotate Max Muncy, Matt Beaty, Enrique Hernandez, or Chris Taylor through the lineup and on the field to rest veterans like 34-year-old Justin Turner. The Dodgers can also use players like this to help with a double switch when they have to replace a pitcher.
Unfortunately, the ability to make moves like this can create big problems for fantasy players, especially if you’re counting on a veteran for a certain number of plate appearances or innings pitched. So, while there is an advantage to having multi-position eligible players on your roster, they can also be a headache unless they are everyday players with clearly defined roles on their team.
Other situations to watch include teams with aging sluggers, like the Mets with Yoenis Cespedes and the Phillies with Jay Bruce. Dominic Smith is blocked by Pete Alonso at first base for New York, but he’s an ideal option for the DH spot if Cespedes isn’t physically able to play whenever the season begins. Another situation to watch is with the Rockies, where Daniel Murphy could be used out of the DH spot, with Ryan McMahon playing first base and Garrett Hampson and Brendan Rodgers covering second base. Rodgers is coming off labrum surgery, but the layoff should only help him.
Ohtani Update; Other Injury Returns to Consider
One last group of players who may benefit from the potential schedule going forward is the starting pitchers returning from injury, especially major injuries. Specifically, there are several pitchers who are working their way back from reconstructive elbow surgery. Shohei Ohtani is the most prominent among them.
New Angels pitching coach Mickey Callaway provided an update on Ohtani this past week, most notably that the rehabbing right-hander could get back on a mound “soon.” He was still in the process of long-tossing at last check, though Callaway said he was “really letting it go.”
Ohtani still has plenty of work to do, first incorporating all of his pitches in bullpen sessions before facing live hitters and eventually getting into live games, but he now appears on track to contribute as a pitcher as soon as the season begins. He was previously expected for a mid-May debut on the mound, so those who took a late-flier in drafts prior to the shutdown could have a nice potential value on their hands.
Ohtani should be able to work a limited number of innings per outing and build up his arm strength while slowly regaining his control over the summer months. The Angels get the advantage of getting innings out of Ohtani without needing to pressure him to work beyond his capability. TJ patients need to regain their strength first. Once the strength returns, they can start building their command and control. For a pitcher like Ohtani, it’s all about a consistent delivery. Assuming a delayed start to the season, Ohtani should be able to contribute meaningful innings late into the season.
Other prominent pitchers returning this season from Tommy John surgery are Corey Knebel, Michael Fulmer, Lance McCullers, Chad Kuhl, Michael Kopech, Jordan Hicks, David Robertson, Carlos Rodon, and Kendall Graveman. There are also several position players returning from major procedures this season. Among them are Royals catcher Salvador Perez, who looked pretty good during spring training before play was suspended and Yankees center fielder Aaron Hicks should be about ready to return from his Tommy John procedure. The Pirates have already ruled out a potential return this year for Jameson Taillon, who underwent his procedure last August.