Everything is still tentative at this point, and if any sport knows the meaning of “It ain’t over till it’s over,” it’s baseball. An outbreak of coronavirus could alter these plans, or some new issue between the players and owners could crop up, but tentatively, Major League Baseball is back.
That means the reigning World Series champion Washington Nationals will defend their title in a season unlike any before it. Here’s what we know (and don’t know) about the MLB restart and how it all affects the Nationals:
When and where will the Nationals reconvene and start gearing back up for baseball?
Players will report to their teams July 1. MLB closed all spring training facilities over the weekend after several players across multiple teams tested positive for COVID-19 in the Tampa area and Arizona. It would seem very unlikely that the Nationals will go down to their facility in West Palm Beach, Florida, especially given the state’s current struggles with increasing coronavirus cases. So players likely will begin camp at Nationals Park.
How does the Nationals’ schedule shake out?
Though the schedule has not been finalized or released, MLB confirmed that every team will play 40 games against division opponents and the other 20 games against teams from the regionally corresponding division of the opposite league. The Athletic reported that teams will get six games against their “interleague rival.” In the Nationals’ case, that certainly means the Baltimore Orioles.
For the Nationals, it works out like this:
- 10 games vs. New York Mets
- 10 games vs. Philadelphia Phillies
- 10 games vs. Atlanta Braves
- 10 games vs. Miami Marlins
- 6 games vs. Baltimore Orioles
- 3-4 games vs. New York Yankees
- 3-4 games vs. Boston Red Sox
- 3-4 games vs. Toronto Blue Jays
- 3-4 games vs. Tampa Bay Rays
The team will never have to leave the Eastern time zone. Washington also benefits from a weakened AL East, with the Red Sox becoming a markedly weaker team after trading away Mookie Betts and David Price last winter.
The shortened schedule has its drawbacks. The Nationals won’t get their World Series rematch against the Houston Astros or the Anthony Rendon revenge games against the Los Angeles Angels. Other 2019 playoff rematches against the Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals are wiped away, too, although it might be a blessing in disguise for the Nationals to avoid playing the behemoth Dodgers during the regular season.
What will the Nationals do at designated hitter?
That’s right: As part of the agreement, the National League will use a designated hitter all season in 2020 for the first time. Previously, NL teams would only play a DH if visiting an AL team for a road interleague series.
All signs point to Howie Kendrick. In the four games of the 2019 World Series played under AL rules, Kendrick was the Nationals’ DH all four times. After a slow start to the series, he had a memorable Games 6 and 7 — including, obviously, the go-ahead home run off the foul pole in Game 7. The soon-to-be 37-year-old would benefit from a reduced workload that didn’t involve playing the field.
Washington’s infield depth will come into play here, and manager Dave Martinez may shuffle things around on a game-to-game basis. Remember, the Nationals brought in the power-hitting Eric Thames for a first base platoon with Ryan Zimmerman. He’s a lefty, too, so there could be some games against right-handed starters where Martinez plays Zimmerman at first and Thames at DH.
If Carter Kieboom has an ascendant rookie season and locks down the third base job, then second base becomes crowded with returning veteran Asdrúbal Cabrera, newcomer Starlin Castro and Kendrick all viable at the position. Cabrera can also play third if Kieboom struggles, but if that’s not needed, he might factor into a DH rotation.
What other new rules do we need to know?
The other significant one is what’s known as the “international tiebreaker” rule for extra-inning games. Teams will start each half-inning with a runner on second base, in the hopes that runs will be scored more quickly. During a jam-packed season where teams will play 60 games in a little more than two months, the sport doesn’t want to see games go into 15 or 16 innings and take all night.
The so-called designated runner would be the player who made the final out in the prior half-inning, but teams can choose to swap in a pinch-runner.
MLB was set to grow the 25-man roster limit to 26 players in 2020. With the abrupt way this season is starting and so many players unable to train properly for months, the league is allowing a 30-man roster for the first two weeks of the season, down to 28 men for the next two weeks and 26 the rest of the way.
And the injured list designations will be 10 and 45 days, respectively, rather than a 15-day IL for pitchers and the longer-term 60-day IL.
How about the playoff format?
The league offered an expanded postseason as part of some of its proposals, but that isn’t part of the final terms being enforced by Commissioner Rob Manfred. A normal 10-team postseason will follow the regular season “sprint.” The regular season will end Sept. 27, and the playoffs will begin two days later, leading to a postseason and World Series in October, like usual.
The unbalanced schedules this year might work in the Nationals’ favor, because they don’t have to go head to head against the likes of the Dodgers and they should get six games against the rebuilding Orioles. Even if they don’t win the NL East, we all know the Nationals qualified as a wild card team last year before going on to win the World Series.