When Major League Baseball reached an agreement with its players union in late-March, it marked a significant victory for the MLBPA: All players would receive at least the same service time in 2020 that they earned the previous year, even if the season is cancelled as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Although paramount for star players such as Mookie Betts, J.T. Realmuto and Marcus Stroman, who are set to hit free agency for the first time after the 2020 season, it puts players still early in their careers in a precarious position.
In recent weeks, league officials have expressed optimism that some form of truncated MLB season will be played in 2020. The latest scenario reportedly being considered would separate the teams into three divisions with each club playing around 100 games before an expanded postseason tournament is held at neutral sites. According to USA TODAY, the target start date for the season under that plan is July 2.
If a season is played out, every win will mean more for contending teams that it ever has. When the Nationals stumbled to a 19-31 start to the 2019 campaign, they still had 112 regular-season games left to turn their season around. A team that gets off to a similar start to a 100-game schedule would already be halfway through its season.
As such, teams may be less inclined to give unproven rookies a shot at a starting job.
Before the coronavirus pandemic suspended spring training, one of the biggest storylines surrounding the Nationals was Carter Kieboom’s audition at third base. The natural shortstop played just 11 games in the big leagues last season but was expected to take over for the departed Anthony Rendon if he showed he was ready.
Kieboom’s spring debut was less-than-stellar. He picked up several errors in the field and went just 7-for-30 (.233) at the plate with no home runs and nine strikeouts. While spring training numbers are almost never the driving factor behind a managerial decision, Kieboom didn’t do much to change his narrative after struggling mightily during his short stint in the majors last year.
With Kieboom looking more like a wild card than a safe bet to perform, the Nationals may be inclined to keep him off the active roster to start the season. The margin for error is much smaller than it usually is, and the Nationals have a World Series title to defend. Luckily for them, they spent much of the offseason building up their infield depth, giving them plenty of options at third (highlighted by Howie Kendrick and Asdrúbal Cabrera) if Kieboom isn’t ready.
But even outside of Washington, many teams will face the decision of what to do with their rookies.
As players who spent 2019 in the minor leagues, top prospects would be subject to another year of team control if left off the active roster this season. If front offices consider a 100-game season to be an inhibitor of fluky streaks that could influence the playoff picture, they may not be inclined to bring those rookies up until they can play a full season in 2021.
Of course, there are some rookies who are expected to play an integral role on contending teams this year. Jesús Luzardo, the Oakland Athletics’ top pitching prospect, will take over one of the top spots in their rotation. Gavin Lux is slated to start at second base for the Los Angeles Dodgers after performing well last October.
But what about Los Angeles Angels outfielder Jo Adell? He’s shown all he can in the minors (.834 OPS across three levels last season) but is technically behind Brian Goodwin on the depth chart. Goodwin is slightly above league average at the plate, will that be enough to justify starting him over Adell all year?
There are cases like Kieboom’s and Adell’s across the league. But a lot of the answers to those questions depends on where those players would go if they are in fact left off the roster.
It hasn’t yet been determined whether there will be a minor-league season this year, as the small local teams make most of their revenue on ticket sales and gameday concessions. While MLB may be able to stay afloat by playing games without fans, there are no broadcast deals that would help supplant the lost income for minor-league teams.
So if a rookie is left off a team’s roster, he may not have anywhere to play other than something like his team’s spring training in order to further his development. Without the benefit of facing live competition in games, that may be a factor that could entice teams to call up those prospects. Still, the fate of the 2020 MiLB season is something to keep an eye on as that July 2 target date draws closer.
Kieboom may still be the Nationals’ long-term solution at third base. Even if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, the young infielder would only be an injury or two away from receiving an opportunity to earn an everyday job. But as the Nationals prepare for a season in which they hope to defend their first World Series title in franchise history, every win matters.
19-31 likely won’t cut it this time.
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