The perpetual delay of the 2020 MLB season has left the entire league in limbo, with a shortened spring training leaving teams with plenty of big questions to answer.
Two less weeks of audition time deprives players on the fringe from getting a full shot at earning a spot on rosters, and the blank space on the calendar where opening day will eventually happen remains a mystery for an unknown and possibly distant future.
For the Toronto Blue Jays, there were still plenty of questions left to answer in the remaining games of spring training. Additionally, the specifics of how a pushed back or abbreviated season could change their roster may possibly have a massive impact on the construction of the team going forward.
There are obvious major questions that are league wide and have to be answered first, like “When will the season start?” and “How many games will they play?”, but the focus here will be on how things shape what the 2020 season will be for the Blue Jays.
Delayed arrival from Pearson
The story of this spring in Dunedin was the overpowering performance of top pitching prospect Nate Pearson.
He was as good as advertised in four appearances, leading the team with 11 strikeouts in seven innings while allowing two hits and one run. His triple-digit fastball looked overpowering against all levels of hitter, while his off-speed and breaking pitches kept hitters off balance and out of sorts.
It was fairly unlikely that the 23-year-old would break camp with the team and be on the roster opening day, as the organization would first like to see him go deeper into games and continue to scorch Triple-A before letting him loose against a major league lineup. With a reasonable estimated arrival of May on the league’s new timeline, those months of build up will have to wait until MLB games actually begin.
Depending on how long it takes for things in the baseball world to get going, it could be until well into summer before Jays fans see their shiniest new toy on the mound in the majors, if at all this season.
Service time situations
In 2019 the Blue Jays exercised plenty of restraint. They waited patiently for Vladimir Guerrero to quadruple down on his dominance of minor league pitching, a thinly disguised effort to prolong his MLB debut long enough to snag an extra year of service time on the back end of his rookie deal.
If the MLB manages to return this year with a truncated schedule — or cancels the season all together — the question of how service days will be assigned becomes paramount to how long and how easily the team will be able to keep their core of young players.
Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported that service time has been the most contentious issue in talks between the players association and the league when discussing alternate scenarios for the coming year.
Could the MLB actually skip the draft this year?
This seems like it would be incredibly unlikely as there are few things MLB front offices prize more than inexpensive assets that they can control for the better part of a decade, but it has reportedly been considered.
The Blue Jays hold the 5th overall pick in the 2020 draft, their highest selection since 1997 when they selected Vernon Wells in that same spot.
Supplementing the wave of talent that has just graduated to the major leagues with a new crop of high-end prospects will be the key to building a sustainable winner in Toronto. The team’s first top-5 pick in 23 years is a major must-hit slot for the team be building from. The possible cancellation or delay of the draft could really be a big missed opportunity for this team’s competitive window.
Rosters already expanded from 25 to 26 men this season to allow teams a little more flexibility with construction. The cancellation of spring training along with the extended time off before the presumed resuming of the season makes a strong argument that the rosters should expand beyond that, even if only temporary.
There is precedent for this choice, as well. In 1995, the strike shortened the season to 144 games, and the cutting short of spring training meant teams could carry 28 players as opposed to the original 25 to begin the year. It is not a stretch that the new limit of 26 could expand to 28 or 30 to accommodate for the extra time off.
Pitchers will need to ramp up once more to game speed to avoid injury and hitters will likely be more out of sorts than they normally would be coming out of winter. Moreover for the Jays, the extra slots would push back some hard decisions on the fringes of the roster. Anthony Alford and Derek Fisher, for example, are two players out of minor league options that didn’t get a full spring to prove themselves. An extra month of time in the major leagues against top competition could be the difference between making the team and hitting the waiver wire.
Embrace the chaos
Whatever result comes from this extended layoff and great unknown, a shortened season means one thing for sure, and that’s less time for regression. The 162-game grind of the MLB schedule is designed to truly reward the strongest teams and serves as a safeguard for one big run of wins or losses altering a season.
If this year is cut in half — or even shaved down two months — that’s opportunity for this current Blue Jays team to potentially over-perform and not have the requisite time to come back down to earth. The possibilities of what the 2020 season could be are virtually endless and things like expanded playoffs are not off the table either.
The Red Sox appear to be punting on the year, the Yankees have dealt with an incredible amount of injuries, and the wild card spots in a shortened year would be anyone’s guess. With a young team full of players looking to take the next step in their careers and a strong veteran but injury-prone pitching staff with less total games to have to stay healthy for, there’s a recipe for a better season than projected that gets less out of reach as more time is chopped off.
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