After months of contentious discussions between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association, Rob Manfred announced that a 60-game season would begin on July 23rd or 24th. Following upon the heels of that good news, though came reports of spikes of Covid-19 cases, especially in the South and West, the location of multiple MLB teams. In San Diego, on Wednesday, public health officials announced that the county had reached a new record high cases, just three days after the previous high.
Team owners and players will undoubtedly be tracking cases and could make adjustments as the mini-season proceeds. Under the current configuration, the Padres would play 40 games against National League West rivals and 20 against the American League West. Fully prorated salaries, which had been one of the main hang-ups, will be paid to the players.
The designated hitter will be allowed for National as well as American league teams, and extra-inning games will start with a runner on second (one of Manfred’s favorite means of speeding up the pace of play). Dugout-clearing brawls will not be tolerated for apparent reasons. Fist bumps, high fives, and other mini celebrations have been prohibited, and lineup cards will be submitted electronically rather than exchanged physically. Lockers will be at least six feet apart. The league has advised players to avoid crowds and cautioned players not to use any ride-sharing services. And don’t even think about spitting or winding down at a bar after a game.
Before arriving at “spring” training on July 1, everyone involved must fill out a questionnaire about exposure to the virus. Once at the camp, everyone will receive temperature checks, saliva, or nasal swab tests, as well as blood samples for antibodies. Then each player must self-quarantine until test results come back. Anyone testing positive will not be allowed to take part until cleared. Temperature checks will take place at least twice a day, and swab tests every two days. MLB will also offer free testing to anyone living with players and the coaching and support staff.
In the meantime, the threat of the virus has become more real for everyone involved in the sport. Charlie Blackmon, the four-time All-Star for the Colorado Rockies, had the first reported positive test for the coronavirus. All in all, three Colorado players tested positive, with one showing symptoms. Seven players for the Philadelphia Phillies, as well as five staff members, also tested positive. As players return to their ballparks, these numbers will undoubtedly rise.
Aside from the health implications, the Padres will face several challenges but even some possible advantages in the shortened season (37 percent of the usual 162). If the team gets off to a hot start, it would have an advantage. The West may belong to the Dodgers, but the wild card is up for grabs.
By June 3 last year, the Padres had played 60 games and had 31-29 record, two games over .500. From then on, the win-loss numbers descended into the negative. After a loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks on the last day of the regular season, the Padres brought up the rear of the National League West with a 70-92 record.
Before Covid-19 reared its ugly head, 2020 season prognosticators certainly did not pick the Padres to win the National League West. Still, some at least predicted the team would finally reach or move ahead of the .500 threshold the team hasn’t achieved since 2010. Hopes had been higher than in years with the promise of a second year for Fernando Tatis Jr., Chris Paddack, and Manny Machado
Fans will only get to watch a bit of Tatis Jr.’s second year. In his rookie season, Tatis Jr. wowed crowds with his daring style of play and obvious talent, amassing 4.1 WAR in 84 games, batting .317/.379/.590/.969 with OPS+ 153, six triples, 22 home runs.
He made highlight-reel plays at short, but also made 18 errors and ranked second in that dubious category. This year he will at least have a chance to show that he can make the routine plays regularly. Plus, fewer games could protect him from injury. Last year, his season ended in mid-August, thanks to a stress reaction in his back.
In 2019 a swaggering young Texan burst on to the scene in the persona of Chris Paddack AKA “The Sheriff.” He began the season with three wins, and by May 20, he had won seven games and lost only two. Paddack had more mixed results from then on, but at the end of the season, his 9-7 record, 0.98 WHIP, and 3.33 ERA promised much more to come.
Paddack had definitely announced his presence with authority, and this year the Padres planned to take his training wheels off and let him loose. Unfortunately, he’ll be denied a complete season, as will Dinelson Lamet and Garret Richards, who both returned after Tommy John surgery last year.
Minor league camps will not reopen, however, which will definitely harm player development. And, players working out on their own, especially pitchers, could sustain injuries. Undoubtedly the Padres organization had detailed plans for each minor leaguer, but those will have to be scrapped.
With an already crowded 26-man roster and multiple questions in the infield and outfield, adding minor leaguers would further confuse the situation. However, MacKenzie Gore could be knocking on the door. Gore, the Padres highest ranked pitching prospect, earned a promotion from High-A to Double-A last year. Thanks to four pitches, a mid-90s fastball, and good command, Gore has the makings of an ace.
Since active rosters will be set at 30 the first two weeks, 28 the second two weeks, and 26 from then on, the question marks in both the infield and outfield could potentially be addressed. Aside from Machado, Tatis Jr., and Eric Hosmer, infielders include Jake Cronenworth, Ty France, Greg Garcia, Jurickson Profar, and Breyvic Valera. Wil Myers, Trent Grisham, Josh Naylor, Tommy Pham, and Franchy Cordero will all be vying for playing time in the outfield. The Padres could use the expanded rosters at the beginning of the shortened season to give players on the bubble playing time.
With three catchers on the roster, Padres’ rookie manager Jayce Tingler, will have to search for ways to give Austin Hedges, Francisco Mejia, and Luis Torrens opportunities behind the dish. However, the designated hitter could benefit Mejia, Naylor, and France in particular, as none would be considered defensive wizards. Players who battled injuries last year like Tatis Jr. and Pham might benefit from days at DH.
On the plus side, the Padres won’t have to play the Los Angeles Dodgers, and their rental Mookie Betts, as many times. For years the Dodgers have owned the Padres, last year to the tune of a 13-6 record. And Padres pitchers will not be subjected to a full slate of games at Coors Field in Colorado.
However, the configuration will subject them to some of the best players in the game including Betts, as well as Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Cody Bellinger, Anthony Rendon, Nolan Arenado, Alex Bregman, Matt Chapman, Walker Buehler, and Jose Altuve. How the Padres fare against the best of the best will reveal just how close the team is to competing next year.
The shortened season will undoubtedly give general manager A.J. Preller a reprieve. Padres executives, especially Ron Fowler, had hinted strongly that Preller’s job could be on the line beginning this year. He will get more breathing room and a huge opportunity to show how agile he can be in the strangest of circumstances.
For Preller’s pick to manage the team, the timing couldn’t be much worse. Jayce Tingler will face considerable challenges in his first stint as manager of a Major League team. With spring training suspended on March 12, Tingler had only a few weeks to get acclimated, forge relationships and make judgments about his players. Tingler also will have to juggle a different roster as the partial season gets underway. For a seasoned veteran manager, this bizarre season has plenty of potholes, but for a rookie, the challenge will be intensified.
Preller and his staff have just a month to put together a plan for each player and for the team as a whole under the weirdest of circumstances. The health of everyone involved will have to be the first priority. If the Padres can repeat their performance in last year’s first 60 games, a wild card might even be in reach.