Like everyone, I’m attempting to survive in the midst of the pandemic created by COVID-19. Out of work until at least April, cozying up at home and attempting to make sense of my (hopefully short-term) new reality, I can’t help but return my mind to baseball. Re-watching Ken Burns’ ‘Baseball’ and watching a variety of MLB’s greatest games for each team helps, for sure, as does reading I Was Right on Time, the autobiography of the legendary Buck O’Neil. Still, the 2020 season remains an obsession, the promise of baseball signaling the hope our lives and society can somehow be rediscovered.
A quick aside: During this fearful time please make sure to practice social distancing and the general advice of the scientific community. And, if like me, you are currently out of work and live in Illinois, do not hesitate to apply for emergency unemployment. There are also several vital services — grocery stores and delivery companies — that are hiring in the interim.
The 2020 Cubs Remain Mysterious
Before COVID-19 was a household name, the baseball offseason represented both despair and frustration for Cubs fans. With a fabricated budget, the team spent very little by way of guaranteed major league contracts. The rollout of Marquee Sports Network continues on as a convoluted mess — a deal with Comcast Xfinity remaining uncertain. These realities persist while the front office spent the offseason peddling the following: that newly minted manager David Ross will create a significant culture change resulting in more wins, that the established core will return the offense to National League prominence, and that breakout candidates (e.g. Ian Happ) will help carry this team to the postseason once again.
None of these assertions are unrealistic, but taken together they create a rather tenuous reality should the Cubs find themselves in the playoff hunt. Certainly, the wide-open nature of the NL Central helps, and the shortened season — whenever it starts and however long it is — only adds to the intrigue. For all of the talent and ability on this roster, however, questions linger, and a shortened season with perhaps an amended trade deadline and altered (or canceled) All Star Break only bakes more uncertainty into a team already filled with it.
We also have no idea how MLB will go about altering the schedule, either, but the most likely scenario would be to simply lob off whatever games were to be played in the earliest months, up until when a revised Opening Day is scheduled. Per Tom Verducci, this would likely hurt the Cubs, as they were set to play 43 percent of their April and May schedule against last place teams from 2019. In the midst of a crisis ‘fair’ is not a relevant term when it comes to professional sports, however, and we can all assume the players won’t cry foul.
We all simply want baseball; what happens with whatever amount of season we’re granted remains entirely in control of the players. And while revised predictions and probabilities might provide interesting fodder, they’re relatively benign, only helping to pass the time before the real season begins.
Will a Shortened Season Foster Creativity?
For David Ross, the stakes are especially high whenever the season commences. Already tasked with an impossible gig — following the legend of Joe Maddon, attempting to win-now without the roster being supplemented appropriately, transitioning from teammate to boss — Ross will now be staring at one of the oddest seasons in MLB history in his first attempt at managing. While this could be a daunting scenario, perhaps Rossy is as well equipped as anyone given the circumstances: he’s determined, his baseball IQ is well documented, and being a rookie manager could prove advantageous during uncharted territory.
We’ve already seen Ross’s creativity at work, implementing Kris Bryant in the leadoff spot, followed by Anthony Rizzo. This tactic could be just the spark plug the Cubs have sorely lacked since folk hero Dexter Fowler departed for St. Louis. KB’s career .385 OBP and .516 slugging percentage will make any starter a bit more cautious to open the game, hopefully fostering a higher pitch count right out the gate. There’s also the reality that KB is one of the best baserunners in the game, allowing further credence to such a bold move. Sacrificing his RBI situations while increasing those opportunities for Rizzo, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, and Willson Contreras is therefore a risk well worth making.
We also could see Ross deploy the pitcher in the eight hole, particularly in games where the starter (Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks in particular) would be expected to pitch deep into the game. Nico Hoerner might profile well batting ninth in his full rookie campaign, both as a means to guarantee him quality pitches (hitting in front of KB) as well as granting Bryant more opportunities to hit with runners on base.
On the pitching front, it struck me as curious as to whether Ross would tinker with a truncated rotation, but that thought exercise was quickly shot down for myriad reasons. Darvish was dominant in the second half last year, but shortening his rest time given his injury history would be foolish, and counting on the veteran lefty duo of Jon Lester and Jose Quintana to provide quality innings with limited rest also strikes me as irresponsible.
What might happen, however, is a willingness to let starters work later into games should they show the ability to do so. Maddon was infamous for misusing his bullpen, and with a unit that faces several question marks heading into the season, Ross should grant his veteran rotation a rather lengthy leash. We’ve seen Hendricks throw complete games in under 100 pitches, we’ve seen a dominant Darvish carry the team late into ball games, and we know Lester still has something in the tank. An 81, 100, or 110 game season should allow the green manager an opportunity to stretch his starters as he assesses the strengths and weaknesses of his patchwork ‘pen.
Baseball Can’t Come Soon Enough
We’re in the midst of a pandemic with more questions than answers, with no end in sight. Yet there is hope, however slight, that our future may have optimism yet. South Korea, a country that aggressively fought COVID-19 from the beginning, will be resuming professional basketball operations at the end of the month. Sports in the States remain canceled or postponed, but if there’s a kernel of hope out there, I’m willing to believe in it.
It’s clear that life is bigger than sports, bigger than baseball, bigger than fandom. We are living through a crisis we don’t fully understand. Many of us are out of work, businesses remain shutdown, and mass confinement creates stress (financially, emotionally, socially) likely viewed as unimaginable even a few months ago.
Let’s all take a deep breath, do our part to responsibly avoid the spread of COVID-19, and rediscover a kindness and faith in our shared humanity. Nothing could be more important.
And maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to enjoy the beauty of baseball in 2020.
Follow Austin Bloomberg on Twitter for the latest Cubs news, rumors, and opinion.