TAYLOR COUNTY—Whatever you want to call Major League Baseball Spring Training now (since it’s the summer), the league began its new protocol on Wednesday by testing for the coronavirus. If teams’ players clear, workouts will begin on Friday across the country in their respective ballparks.
With recent COVID-19 outbreaks in the usual training destinations of Florida and Arizona, it made the decision to hold summer camps at the organizations’ home cities that much easier.
The actual workouts won’t look that much different from their normal Spring Training except there will be only one diamond to use. Whether that’s pitchers throwing in bullpens followed by batting practice or vice versa, some staggered practices will need to occur. Pitchers will throw to their own hitters at some point as both try to find their timing without playing a lot of exhibition games. And when the time comes, there will be “intrasquad” games to take place of those exhibition contests.
Teams can play up to three exhibition games at the conclusion of summer camp. That can be against a regional opponent or against the team they will face in their opening series of the season. But until then, it’s all intrasquad matchups and MLB umpires will call the games.
A team of three umpires will station themselves at each summer camp, work intrasquad games, and oversee live bullpen sessions. For the final couple of days of training, teams will play each other, utilizing six umpires during the final stages before the regular season begins. Three minor league umpires will also be on standby in case a regular umpire becomes sick or injured.
Players will get their temperatures checked daily and be tested for COVID-19 starting on their first day at camp and then continue that process every other day. Any player with a temperature above 100.4 will be sent home. They will also be required to take their own temperatures before coming to the stadium. Anyone with a fever will be directed to stay home.
With that said, significant rules changes will be instituted this season apart from the new coronavirus protocols (such as absolutely no spitting, or pitchers being allowed to carry a wet rag in their pocket to use for moisture instead of just licking their fingers).
Rule changes to be implemented (according to ESPN):
•All National League games will include the use of a designated hitter (DH).
•In extra innings, each team will begin with a runner on second base. The runner will be the player in the batting order immediately preceding that half-inning’s leadoff hitter (or a pinch runner).
•All relief pitchers must face a minimum of three batters (unless the inning ends).
•Opening Day rosters will feature 30 active players pulled from each team’s 60-man pool. The active roster will be trimmed to 28 players on the 15th day of the season and then to 26 players on the 29th day. There will be no limitations on the number of pitchers (as previously required in a new rule change). Teams will be permitted to carry three players from their “taxi” squads on road trips, one of whom must be a catcher.
•The trade deadline is August 31st, and September 15th is the postseason eligibility deadline.
•The standard injury lists will be 10 and 45 days and there will be a separate COVID-19 injury list for players who test positive, have a confirmed exposure to COVID-19, or exhibit symptoms requiring self-isolation.
•The schedule will be regionally based, with teams playing 40 games within the division and 20 interleague games against the corresponding geographical division.
Some things we might see regarding on-field strategies are:
•Due to the short summer camp training session, starters will likely pitch fewer innings the first two or three times through the rotation. You could see things like tandem starters, which could consist of two starters throwing three innings in the same game, as several teams have already announced they plan to go with a six-man rotation.
•With the expanded rosters for the first month, expect to see more bullpen usage (although the three batter rule will eliminate some of that). The short season and importance of every game means managers may rely more heavily on their best relievers as they won’t have to worry as much about having to keep them fresh for six months and then again for the playoffs. Look to see more four- and five-out saves from closers.
•The extra roster spots at the start of the season means MLB could see more pinch-running/defensive replacement types used as bench players, a class of player that has largely disappeared in the past couple of decades. The extra-inning baserunner rule would mean that having a speed player on the bench would be of great value.
•Sacrifice bunts from non-pitchers are rare these days and now pitchers won’t be batting, but the extra inning baserunner rule could lead to some sacrifice bunting.
As of Thursday, Ian Desmond of the Rockies and Mike Leake of the Diamondbacks, along with Ryan Zimmerman and Joe Ross of the Nationals, have all decided to opt out of the 2020 season without pay.
Look for more players to opt out as the start of the season draws near.