We were supposed to be at 35th/Shields in a few days. It was supposed to be the beginning of the new era for White Sox baseball. Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened, because as Sox fans, things can never go according to plan (#ThatsSoWhiteSox). It goes without saying that there are greater issues happening in the lives of people right now than a delay to the start of the baseball season, but the pent up excitement of the fanbase is now placed on the back burner until who knows when.
I have no inside information to base this next statement on so take it as another one of my vague opinions, but I don't think we are seeing baseball until July. That will sting for a number of reasons, but I fear this is the eventuality we are going to have to come to grips with, sadly. From a pure baseball standpoint, is it possible that a shortened season could actually help the White Sox in 2020?
We all know the Sox have several notable pieces that are coming back from significant injuries and service time manipulation in 2020. A shortened season SHOULD allow for these key figures (Michael Kopech, Carlos Rodon, and Nick Madrigal) to head directly to Chicago whenever baseball returns. Members of the national media have floated the idea of an abbreviated 81-game schedule being played, and if that is the case every game will have a sense of urgency unlike no season in our lifetime. Given that possibility, it will be imperative that White Sox send their best 26 players to Chicago immediately with no consideration for service time.
A 162-game season is a marathon. When your season is a marathon, teams with depth have an advantage in that their depth allows them to make up for mistakes should they struggle out the gate. If that schedule is cut in half, teams that don't necessarily have the depth to match superior teams can make up for this by having high-upside, top-heavy rosters. That is what we have with the 2020 White Sox. I think we can all agree they don't have the depth to match the Twins or the Indians as we head into 2020, but the explosive upside of their young talent could cancel that out if there are fewer days on the calendar to worry about.
This fact is why it will be so important for the Sox to break camp with the likes of Kopech, Rodon, and Madrigal on the Major League roster. With a fully loaded 26-man roster, the Sox have the talent to give the two division contenders a scare and perhaps more. Breaking camp with their best possible roster will give the Sox plenty of options and flexibility to manage the returns of Kopech and Rodon from Tommy John while controlling the innings of youngsters like Dylan Cease and possibly Dane Dunning. You could see the team use the likes of Kopech, Rodon, Cease, Lopez, and Gonzalez in some type of piggyback arrangement to limit innings but also to mitigate risk from a largely unproven corps of relievers.
As Dan Szymborski recently wrote for Fangraphs, a season cut in half nearly doubles the Sox playoff odds from 18.7% to 35%. Only two teams had greater percentage increases in their playoff odds (Rangers, Angels) than the Sox should the season be drastically shortened. Simulations like ZiPS illustrate how vital it will be for teams like the Sox to take advantage of a condensed season.
Simply put, there will be no time to waste. There will be no justification for service time manipulation. The Sox will have to come out of the gate ready to go with their best squad. How many times have we seen teams come out of the gates hot and ride that to being in contention at the trade deadline only to falter in August and September because they didn't have the depth to last 162 games? Sadly, we saw this in 2012, which was the last time our Sox had a winning season. If more talented, deeper teams don't have the extra days on the calendar to make up an early deficit, it could be the deciding factor in pushing a team like the Sox to the postseason (whenever that would be played).
As a nation, we are faced with an uncertainty that none of us have ever dealt with in our lives. We all face more significant issues than what will come of the 2020 Major League Baseball season. But with each day that passes, the probability of playing a full 162-game season decreases. This can be an advantage for the White Sox and with each game that gets removed from the schedule (potentially), the Sox odds of ending a 12-year postseason drought increase.
Should we not play a full season here in 2020, this team must take drastic measures and not operate as they typically do. They must not give consideration to service time. If players are healthy and can help them win games in Chicago, they must prioritize that. There is a real opportunity to kick open the contention window and it must be taken. We still won't know for several weeks when baseball will come back into our lives, so we have to just cinch it up and hunker down until then. But when it does come back, it has to be all systems go from the outset.