Everyone likes an unpredictable baseball season, but this one has been crazy without any games being played.
Spring training started as usual, but then COVID-19 sent everyone to the clubhouse. The feasibility of playing games looked bleak.
Three months later, when it looked like plans could be made to start the season up, an unseemly financial feud threatened to spoil the season and potentially turn everyone against baseball forever. As if those involved in MLB didn’t realize that everyone else was financially strapped and psychologically bruised from the pandemic, they decided it was a good time for millionaires to squabble publicly.
But at least for now, COVID-19 and corporate bickering haven’t derailed the season entirely. Teams are training with games slated to start in less than two weeks.
A short season creates a host of interesting dynamics that will make 2020 unlike any baseball season in history. And no team has as many storylines to make it interesting as the Kansas City Royals.
New Owner: While it’s difficult to feel sorry for a billionaire, you can’t help but feel a bit for John Sherman. The brand new owner has lost millions on his investment in the Royals before the team even played a game. But the pandemic will eventually relent and Sherman will begin to put his stamp on the franchise. Will he be willing to spend more freely on player salaries? Will he stick with Dayton Moore as his general manager? Those are probably the two biggest unknowns about Sherman. Answers won’t come in this short season, but the new owner bears watching.
New Manager: Love him or hate him, Ned Yost was a fixture in Kansas City for a decade. He is now the winningest manager in club history. He’s gone, replaced by Mike Matheny, who guided the St. Louis Cardinals for seven seasons and was fired in the middle of the 2018 campaign. How Matheny will differ from Yost, how he will handle losing and how he will guide talented prospects will be things to watch with the new skipper.
Short Season: The truncated season will create interesting storylines for every ball club. With just 60 games to play, a bad week can doom an otherwise quality team. And the opposite is true, as well. For the Royals, it’s at least conceivable that the short sprint plays in their favor. While they don’t have talent equal to the best teams, they might just catch lightning in a bottle. Remember 2003, when a hot start kept an underwhelming Royals team atop their division for the first 41 games of that season. They couldn’t carry it out for 162 games, but they made the first quarter of the season exciting.
Consider in such a short season what impact injury or a slump can have. It’s not rare for a really good player to start poorly. And it’s also common for a minor injury to hamper a player for a couple of weeks. Those are things a team can withstand in a 162 game season. But they could be deadly to a contending team over a short haul. Misfortune may very well strike the Royals, but it could just as easily give them an unexpected shot at contention.
Schedule: To minimize travel, teams will only play opponents within their division or the regional equivalent from the opposite league. This doesn’t exactly make things easy for the Royals, but it probably helps some. MLB power rankings rate the AL Central’s Minnesota Twins fourth and Cleveland Indians 11th. But the Royals will get to play 10 games against the worst ranked team in baseball, the Detroit Tigers. In the NL Central, the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs are forecast to be top 10 teams. But playing a schedule packed with games against so few teams, injuries and slumps could really flip the standings on their head.
Roster: The number 60 isn’t significant only for the number of games to be played. There is a strange element at play in 2020, the 60-man roster. With no minor league action this year, MLB has created a 60-man roster that allowed teams to work out 60 players during the training portion of the summer, and permits them to continue to practice with those not on the major league roster throughout the summer.
Most teams will use this extended training opportunity to work with some of their top prospects who aren’t ready for the big leagues. For the Royals this is especially important because, well, let’s face it, their focus isn’t really on winning in 2020 anyway. Getting prospects ready for the future is paramount, and allowing them to sit idle for an entire year would be devastating. That’s why guys with no shot at playing in 2020, guys like Bobby Witt Jr., MJ Melendez, Nick Pratto and Seuly Matias, will all be training with the big club.
The 60-man roster does open the door for some prospects to get a shot at playing time. Without a doubt Brady Singer and Jackson Kower will be considered for the pitching staff. But the Royals might just give lower-rated mound prospects some big league experience, as well, particularly Daniel Lynch, Kris Bubic and Daniel Tillo. Injuries to front-line pitchers could definitely open the door for rookies.
Players in Question: The short season inhibits the Royals’ chance to evaluate some current big leaguers. The 2020 season was supposed to be a make-or-break year for guys like Brett Phillips, Bubba Starling and Jorge Lopez. Maikel Franco was signed to a one-year contract, so 2020 is an audition for him, as well. And similarly, the Royals hoped to sort out their first-base situation by auditioning Ryan McBoom and Ryan O’Hearn. The short season will probably produce inconclusive results in the case of each of these players. The good news for these guys is that, with rosters expanded to 30 to open the season, each should be on the roster and vying for playing time.
This season was also expected to a swan song for Alex Gordon. Is the future Royals Hall of Famer being denied his full farewell tour, or will he return in 2021?
No Minors: The fact that there will be no minor leagues this season is a really big deal to the Royals franchise. The rebuilding process involves acquiring a big crop of prospects and letting them develop over several years, at several levels of the minors. The Royals are investing their future in that process. To see it just cut off in the middle may prolong the bad baseball at the major league level for another year or more. Plus, for Royals junkies, monitoring the play of the prospects is an enjoyable diversion and keeps hope for a brighter day alive.
New TV Deal: It was reported a few months ago that the Royals had reached a "handshake deal" with Fox Sports Kansas City that would increase the team’s annual revenue from about $20 million a year to about $50 million. The pandemic has slowed the final negotiations. Is the absence of baseball, and the uncertainty of the economic future, going to cost the Royals at the bargaining table? Rumor has it the deal will get done, and soon.
With no opportunity for the foreseeable future to watch the Royals in person, the TV deal means the Royals will soon bring baseball into our COVID-19 lives. It can’t come too soon.