The 2020 Major League Baseball season promises to be unlike any that we’ve ever seen. With changes such as *gasp* the National League using an actual hitter in their lineup instead of giving away outs and baseball going the path of fastpitch softball to decide extra-inning games, things will look different. But the ongoing pandemic promises that unforeseen circumstances can and almost certainly will develop for individual players and teams.
We’ve seen this hit close to home already with two White Sox players testing positive for COVID-19. We have a pretty good idea of who those players are at this point, although they haven’t been officially announced. All around the league, we’ve seen the reports of positive tests and there simply is no way to know how individuals will respond to the virus once they are cleared to return to action. Household names such as Freddie Freeman, Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen (who recently was cleared to return to the Dodgers), and Miguel Sano are just a few of the players that have tested positive in the sport’s brief attempt to return.
It isn’t just players testing positive that will impact the fortunes of all 30 teams this year, it’s also the players that are choosing to opt-out of the season given the concerns for the well-being of themselves and those close to them. We’ve already seen some big names decide there was too much uncertainty for them to be comfortable going forward with the league’s restart plan. Players such as Buster Posey, David Price, Nick Markakis, and Ryan Zimmerman have all decided the risk didn’t outweigh the reward in 2020. Again, close to home, White Sox pitching prospect Michael Kopech officially opted out of the season late Friday afternoon.
Kopech’s decision to opt-out unleashed a chain reaction of responses that you would expect on social media. From a purely baseball standpoint, not having Kopech hurts the White Sox chances in 2020. The Sox will have to overcome this situation, much the same way all 29 other teams will need to at some point in this strange season.
So between players testing positive for the virus and not knowing how they will respond when they return to players opting out of the season (of which there will still be more, almost certainly), rosters will be significantly impacted. The fact is we haven’t seen this much potential roster volatility to a Major League season since World War II.
During the U.S. involvement in the second World War, more than 500 players stepped away from the game. Whether they were drafted or chose to voluntarily enlist like greats Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Bob Feller, the rosters of the 16 teams looked vastly different from 1942-1945.
We could be entering a season that is somewhat similar to the wartime years. The virus, sadly, isn’t going away so there is just no way to know how it will impact the league, as a whole. It’s not far fetched to think that this volatility could lead to an unexpected outcome from individual teams this season.
It wouldn’t shock me to see a team come from out of nowhere to make the postseason this year, similar to the 1944 St. Louis Browns. It was during this infamous season that the Browns won their only pennant before departing for Baltimore after the 1953 season. As AL rosters were decimated to help defeat the Axis Powers, the Browns did the unthinkable and would represent the junior circuit against their cross-town rival Cardinals in the Fall Classic.
During the three-season stretch from 1943-1945, the Browns had their best run of success winning their aforementioned only AL pennant, and finishing with the third-most wins in the American League during that time frame. This was a tremendous change in fortune for a franchise that was a perpetual bottom-dweller in the American League standings throughout the course of its existence.
Coming back to the future, will 2020 lead to a similarly unexpected result for some team? I’m not ruling it out, to be honest. The unpredictably of COVID-19 has the potential to wreak havoc on this upcoming abbreviated season. We’ve seen this virus hit people all across our nation and world without warning, and the next 60 days promise to be no different, sadly.
There is simply an element of luck that will factor into team performance this year that can’t be quantified. Having organizational depth will prove to be of critical importance this year, even more so than years past. Teams like the Dodgers, Yankees, and Rays will be more insulated than others due to their strong organizational depth, although they certainly will not be immune to the effects of losing key contributors.
So could unforeseen circumstances lead to the White Sox busting open their contention window in 2020? I wouldn’t have been surprised to see it happen this year, in a normal season, but it certainly could happen given the randomness of what we are about to encounter. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections system, found at FanGraphs.com, believes the White Sox will benefit the most of any team in the league from a season that is a sprint rather than a marathon. Back in February, the system projected the White Sox would have a 17.9% chance to make the postseason. Those odds have now increased to 36.2%, a very significant jump to say the least.
Of course this could all come crashing down if the White Sox have additional players test positive for COVID-19, or if the pandemic continues to accelerate to the point where the league itself has to abandon its plan for a season. We are a little less than two weeks out from baseball returning to 35th and Shields, and the stakes will be elevated in every game this season due to the atypical scarcity of games. Anything can happen in a season, especially in one with even more uncontrollable variables than normal. Could that just lead to the White Sox or some other unexpected team reaching October? I’m not betting against that, in fact, I think we’ll get at least one surprise team in the postseason this year. I just hope that team resides at 333 W 35th Street in Chicago.