It looks like baseball is officially back!
While the MLB and MLBPA failed to come to an agreement to start a shortened 2020 season, Rob Manfred moved quickly to mandate a 60 game season with Opening Day set sometime between July 24-26th. Much of the framework for this shortened season has been known for a while now (under the March 26th agreement), but the final details of any commissioner-implemented season were never fully understood. Here are the reported parameters:
Arguably the most important result of this ugly negotiation process finally coming to an end is that the league and MLBPA are freed up to set universal safety protocol for any return-to-play activities, as opposed to having clubs/players continue to operate on a team-by-team or individual basis. Last week we saw a small breakout of Covid-19 cases across MLB camps, with a handful of Phillies testing positive for the virus in lieu of legitimate oversight from the MLB. This agreement allows for all parties involved to shift their focus toward developing/implementing the proper safety regulations that will get all 30 clubs on a track preventing the virus from spreading through facilities—Covid, not the Commisioner, was always the bigger threat to baseball.
Nonetheless, there are some key parameters being set for the shortened season that have significantly shifted the Phillies outlook/approach to 2020. Here’s a couple ways the team benefits from the 2020 framework, and one way they’re hurt:
1. Universal DH
We all have our opinions on the universal-DH, and while I’m not a fan at all, it’s been a long time coming and I’ve made my peace with it. If anything, this next half year provides the league a small window to test the major rule change before potentially making it permanent when the current CBA expires.
While there’s a hot debate over the merits of the rule change, I don’t think there’s much doubt that it helps the Phillies more than most NL clubs—how many of those teams have a Jay Bruce just sitting on the bench and ready to slot in the middle of the order? He may not hit for average but he still slugs over .500, notching 26 HRs in just 310 ABs last season, and two seasons removed from launching 36 HRs, 29 doubles, and 101 RBIs with the Mets and Indians. Having the option to put a left handed bat like Bruce in the lineup without having to hide his glove in the field is an advantage that can’t be understated.
Another big reason the DH helps the Phillies has to do with the health of Andrew McCutchen. Everyone is well aware of the value Cutch has to this ball club, and the void in the lineup and clubhouse that was created by last season’s injury was too much to overcome for the Phils. At his age it’s smart to monitor his innings in the field—the club was likely already planning to give him an off day once a week—and I’d have to imagine they’ll jump to put him at DH every chance they can.
2. Short season is a plus for both Wheeler and Arrieta
Look, obviously every team has a starting arm or two who benefits from the shortened-season, but it’s hard to find a combo of arms similar to Wheeler and Arrieta.
While Wheeler doesn’t have the injury-tag that plagued him early in his career—Tommy Johns surgery knocked out all of 2015, most of 2016, and continued arm strains marred a short 2017—his long-term health absolutely needs to be monitored. I know he’s been healthy enough to log 60 starts over the past two seasons, but “shoulder fatigue” had been a recurring problem over those otherwise strong seasons, and shouldn’t be ignored.
It’s also worth noting that Wheeler was the best pitcher in baseball in the second half of 2018 (9-1, 1.68 ERA, 0.81 WHIP), and had a dominant second half in 2019 as well (5-2, 2.83 ERA, 1.23 WHIP). Anyone who follows Wheeler understands just how dominant this guy can be, and over the past two years he’s proven capable of delivering his best performances down the stretch of the season—fortunately for him the entire 2020 season will essentially be “down the stretch.”
The Arrieta case is more obvious. Fans are quick to forget that when he was healthy in 2018 he actually ranked in the top half of starting pitchers in the National League. Given all the extra rest and less than half of a season to endure you could make the argument that Arrieta is a big winner here. I know fans will knock the guy every chance they get, but he still has decent stuff and he’s an accomplished postseason arm. The short season increases the likelihood that he’s healthy in September/October, and that’s why he was brought here in the first place.
1. Raised uncertainty with Spencer Howard and Alec Bohm
Had 2020 gone as planned then both Alec Bohm and Spencer Howard would’ve been key contributors down the stretch for the Phillies. Without the time/opportunity to assure that their both ready to contribute at the pro-level there’s really no telling how Klentak and Girardi plan to deploy them.
I think this applies more so to Howard than Bohm, but the inability to get Howard work in the low-stakes environment of the minors really clouds the team’s plan. He obviously wasn’t going to be thrown in the rotation right away for 2020—it’s understood that the team really needed to see him dominate a few starts in Lehigh Valley before calling him up—but I always felt Howard was going to be up sooner (May/June) than later (July/August). Given the team’s caution around their prized arm it’s hard to get a read on how he’ll be used in this shortened season, but any scenario where they decide to shelf him until ‘21 is a real loss for the Phils.
Bohm on the other hand is a little more projectable. Of the two prospects he was certainly closer to “major league ready” and shouldn’t have too much trouble getting revved up for the 2020 campaign. The main question surrounding him had more to do with his ability to play the field more so than his ability at the plate, and with universal-DH being implemented that becomes less of a concern. Regardless, it’s hard to argue that a few months of major league reps for Bohm wouldn’t have better prepared him for a run in the second half.
At the end of the day I’m glad we’ll have baseball in 2020—though I don’t think that was every truly in doubt. The labor fight was uglier than anticipated, and while Manfred will be remembered for playing hardball, the players will certainly go down as fools for their “when and where” BS coming back to bite them, and for not understanding the basic essence of negotiation. A lot of groveling will be done over who in fact won this battle, and while the sport as a whole is a clear loser, it’s hard to see the MLBPA’s recent behavior playing well in a grievance case… Buckle up for Spring 2022 because a work stoppage is almost guaranteed when the current CBA expires.