Sports of all types are obviously on the back burner during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Major League Baseball and its players’ union are discussing a couple of ways to salvage a season that once appeared likely to be lost altogether.
The Arizona Proposal
Last week, Jeff Passan of ESPN caused a stir with a column that detailed what was being called the “Arizona Proposal.”
Passan wrote that MLB and the MLBPA were “increasingly focused” on a plan to start the 2020 season as early as May in the midst of this global pandemic. The plan, which was written up in great detail, reportedly has the support of multiple high-ranking federal public health officials. The deal would see all 30 major league clubs moving to Arizona and playing games with no fans in attendance.
The state of Arizona possesses 10 spring training facilities, Chase Field (the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks) and other nearby ballparks. Players, coaching staffs and other essential personnel would be sequestered at local hotels in relative isolation during off-hours. Federal officials at the CDC have been supportive of the idea and its requirement of strict social distancing.
The Arizona Proposal presents many logistical issues, and there are some apparent hurdles that need clearance before baseball can become the first professional sport to return in America. Major League Baseball referenced the discussions but pushed back against any said plan being in motion.
MLB released a statement on the reported plan to hold games in Arizona: pic.twitter.com/ESYzJrTu6H
— Mark Feinsand (@Feinsand) April 7, 2020
Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic weighed in on the proposed topic as well and described the plan as “still in the concept stage” after speaking with sources. While May was initially floated as a return possibility, June seems more realistic. Both Passan and Rosenthal referenced the possibility of significant increases in coronavirus testing capabilities (providing almost immediate results) being something on the horizon.
Many players will be understandably skeptical of separating from their families for an extended period of time. Summer heat in Arizona is also brutal, and will be another obstacle for all involved. The players’ union has stated emphatically that while the athletes would like to play baseball games, the protection of the players is the highest current priority.
Rosenthal noted that one potential bargaining chip for the players would be the expansion of big league rosters. Expanded rosters up to as many as 50 players is an option. While this plan seems like a logistical nightmare to many in and outside the industry, something that has been made clear is that the majority of players would prefer to play in some fashion.
Baseball players could never be described as risk-averse and while the plan doesn’t appear to be set in stone, it’s one option for young athletes to return to some semblance of normalcy in the near future. A plan similar to this one may ultimately be the clearest path to a return for America’s Pastime and the resumption of games on television in some fashion is the only path toward revenue production.
On Friday morning, Bob Nightengale of USA Today noted that MLB is “assessing myriad proposals” but weighing a plan that would completely shift the alignment of the sport for 2020. The proposed plan would eliminate the traditional National and American Leagues with the goal of realigning the six divisions for an abbreviated season.
The proposal would call for all 30 teams returning to their spring training facilities in Arizona and Florida to play regular season games. Putting 15 teams in each state would theoretically reduce travel and minimize risk as much as possible. Divisions would be realigned based on the geography of club’s spring training homes and would mix teams from the National and American Leagues.
In Nightengale’s article, he proposed one realignment structure. This hasn’t been agreed upon, and it’s just one idea, but it’s a feasible snapshot.
- NORTH: New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Toronto Blue Jays, Detroit Tigers, Pittsburgh Pirates
- SOUTH: Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins, Atlanta Braves, Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore Orioles
- EAST: Washington Nationals, Houston Astros, New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals, Miami Marlins
- NORTHEAST: Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies, Oakland A’s
- WEST: Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Angels
- NORTHWEST: Milwaukee Brewers, San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, Kansas City Royals
While the “Arizona Proposal” seems a bit farfetched and unlikely to get off the cutting-room floor, this dual-state plan appears much more plausible. The plan would allow for 26 ballparks to be put in play as possible game sites. Of those 26 ballparks, Chase Field in Arizona and Marlins Park and Tropicana Field in Florida all have structures that can be closed. The plan would likely call for frequent doubleheaders, with an uneven number of teams in each league.
One idea would be for teams to play 108 games. Under this proposal, clubs would play teams in their newly-formed divisions 12 times while playing 60 games total (six vs. each interdivisional team) against the rest of the league. It would also potentially give the league a trial run at some rule implementations that are likely coming to the sport at some point.
An automated strike zone could be put into practice on a trial basis for this abbreviated 2020 season. It’s also very likely that the rosters will expand and all 30 clubs will be afforded the use of a designated hitter.
Playoff expansion is also something that fans should be preparing themselves for. Five teams from each league currently make the postseason. The shortened season could provide the opportunity for the sport to increase to seven playoff teams in each league and experiment with its practicality.
Traditionalists will hate the movement of the designated hitter into both leagues, but the pragmatist in me is shocked that it hasn’t happened already. The move opens up 15 more spots for players to be inserted on rosters and it’s something that the union would likely welcome. Pitchers are also terrible at hitting, and have enough to worry about anyway. Playoff expansion would be a boon for television and one way for owners to recoup revenue lost from the season delay. Never let a good crisis go to waste.
White Sox implications
While there is no solid plan in place and the plans discussed were just that, either of these models have implications for the Chicago White Sox, both positive and negative. In the plan that Nightengale brought to light, the division alignment was based on geography. Geography should be a positive for the White Sox in normal AL Central circumstances, as they reside in a division with four smaller markets and should theoretically have spending resources that distinguish them from the others.
In the latest proposal, the White Sox would play 48 games against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels, Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds — easily the toughest division in the Cactus League. The path to a division title would be arduous, but with 60 games against the rest of the league, playoff expansion still could allow for the White Sox to make the postseason for the first time since 2008.
The White Sox have a young core that wouldn’t be perturbed by the makeshift nature of an abbreviated season. They are exactly the type of club that could thrive in a smaller sample size. With the addition of southpaws Dallas Keuchel and Gio González, the pitching staff is improved. It still wasn’t seen as ideal though and there are some question marks in the bullpen as well. Pitching reinforcements were going to be necessary during a long season, but the organization has amassed a quality group to fill in.
With the late start to the 2020 season, Carlos Rodón and Michael Kopech could have big-league roles that matter for a more significant portion of the season. Pitching prospects like Dane Dunning and Jimmy Lambert could theoretically help the major league team as well. The White Sox should have health on their side for the first time in awhile if the sport does reignite in the not-too-distant future.
Nobody knows when baseball will start and what the sport will look like once it does. It’s refreshing that the league and its players are thinking about outside-the-box ideas to bring some semblance of normalcy back to the country. Whenever baseball does return, the nation will be ready to consume the product. And the White Sox should factor prominently into the festivities whenever they ultimately begin.