Major League Baseball will be back in 2020, but in what form?

MLB and the Players Association are discussing various options for starting the 2020 season, but no definite plan has been agreed to

A month and two days after the MLB season was supposed to begin, it’s becoming increasingly likely that there will be some semblance of a season in 2020. What it will look like, though, remains an open question.

Commissioner Rob Manfred and league officials have yet to release a detailed plan about the form an abbreviated year will take but remain optimistic baseball will be played this year. “While I fully anticipate that baseball will resume this season,” Manfred wrote in a letter to league employees last week, “it is very difficult to predict with any accuracy the timeline for the resumption of our season.”

ESPN’s Jeff Passon explored the various possibilities for starting the season, taking into account both the integrity of the game and the safety of the players and employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. The league first explored the option of hosting all 30 clubs in the Phoenix area, with players sequestered from the public. That plan appears dead. Instead, there will likely be at least three cities in which games can be played.

States like Arizona, Texas, and Florida are slated to lift stay-at-home orders by early May. Arizona governor Doug Ducey has even welcomed the idea of hosting clubs in the Phoenix area. A potential scenario is having clubs divided into three 10-team divisions centered in the metropolitan areas of Phoenix, Dallas, and Tampa Bay. The home ballparks of the Diamondbacks, Rangers, and Rays—each of whom has a domed stadium to protect against weather delays—would host regular doubleheaders.

There are still a number of questions about such a scenario. Will the league have enough COVID-19 tests to ensure the safety of everyone involved? Will players be willing to separate from their families for a prolonged period? There are already signs some of them might not be. Ryan Zimmerman of the Nationals, whose wife is expecting a baby, has expressed pessimism, even outright hostility, to the idea of leaving his family for months, and he’s not the only one.

The league and players have plenty of incentive to make sure a 2020 season goes off. If a season is played, players will be eligible to receive a prorated portion of their contract; if no games are played, they will only receive $170 million. The league will also likely have to reimburse television networks for the lost revenue with no games.

There is optimism elsewhere. The Korean Baseball League is starting their season on May 5, but with an Aaron Judge-sized caveat: if even one player or official tests positive for COVID-19, the entire league will shut down for at least three weeks. All games would take place in empty ballparks.

A similar future awaits MLB if they get a plan in place. One would need to be developed by the end of May at the latest, allowing players to gather in Spring Training sites by mid-June for a possible two-to-three week period. The season would then start in July (the Fourth of July would be an ideal date), with around 100 games played in July, August, September, and October. The postseason would then be in November at a neutral site.

Is this scenario ideal? Of course not. Rosters would be strained under the pressure of a compacted season. With no minor leagues, there would need to be expanded rosters to protect against injuries and fatigue. Pitching arms would be stretched to the limit of where clubs are willing to go. The impact of a walk-off home run wouldn’t be the same without fans there to cheer.

But both players and the league would benefit from doing it. And, most importantly, so would the fans who would finally have actual games to watch to relieve the stress of this uncertain time.

The 2020 season will be unlike any other, but at least there’s optimism there will be one. That’s all players and fans alike could’ve asked for.

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