9 burning questions for the 2020 season

July 16th, 2020

Possibilities, we have ’em in this crazy baseball season. Too many to count. Unknowns? We’ve got those, too -- enough to short circuit the brain. Because this season is so unique, we’ve never been less certain about how things will play out on the field.

Raise your hand if you think you’ve got a good handle on the eventual World Series winner.

But here’s the good news: We’re going to have real, live regular-season baseball next week.

It’ll have a different look and feel, but we’ll adjust. With tuneup exhibition games lined up and starting pitchers putting the finishing touch on their preparation, let’s attempt to answer nine burning questions about Major League Baseball in 2020:

1) What will starting-pitcher usage look like?
Braves manager Brian Snitker has discussed using two starters per game to ease his guys into the season. Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson said everything is on the table. The Yankees are interesting. They have five traditional starters, but they also have enough good young arms to use in the opener role while also limiting pitchers' workloads. As for the big dogs, nothing much is going to change. If you’ve got Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner -- to name three -- you’re going to hand them the baseball and watch them work.

Bottom line: Teams with a track record of creative pitcher usage (hello, Rays!) should have an edge.

2) Doesn’t a 60-game season even the playing field for some teams?
Sort of. The A’s don’t have to be so concerned about their young starters’ workload. The Padres and Braves have enough depth to rotate starters through the roster to keep everyone fresh. On the other hand, let’s not oversell this stuff: While the scramble for the 10 playoff berths could be wilder than ever before, MLB’s best teams -- Dodgers, Yankees, Rays, etc. -- should still be the best teams whether the season is 60 games or 162.

Remember this: After 60 games in 2019, the standings were pretty much what you would expect. The teams with the most wins were the Dodgers, Astros, Twins and Yankees. The teams with the fewest wins were the Orioles, Royals, Blue Jays and Tigers.

3) How will players handle not having fans in the stands?
We might see some fans in some cities at some point, but not out of the gate. It’ll also be fascinating to see what teams come up with to create a more normal atmosphere with cardboard cutouts of fans, pumped-up crowd sounds and who knows what else. All that’s certain is that everything we’re accustomed to seeing and feeling on television will be different. Americans playing in similar circumstances in Korea this season say they’ve been struck by how the sound of the ball off the bat is so loud as to be disconcerting. Also, as outfielder Preston Tucker of the Kia Tigers told ESPN: "If there's a big situation, you almost don't realize it, it's so quiet.”

4) More specifically, how much would the Astros benefit from having no fans in the stands?
We use phrases like “mental toughness” in discussing athletes, and the Astros were going to have theirs tested in 2020 in wake of the 2017 sign-stealing scandal that was revealed last winter. So, yes, having no fans or fewer fans is a break for them on the road.

The Astros were originally scheduled to play their first road games in Oakland and Anaheim, which was going to be a preview of how the season would go. Now the booing may have been postponed until 2021. All things considered, an advantage, right? Perhaps not. The Astros said they’d never trade the thrill of a packed ballpark -- even a packed ballpark of booing fans -- for the empty ones they’re likely to have for at least a while in 2020.

5) Can the Rays overtake the Yankees in the AL East?
These are the AL’s two best teams and should give us a nice heavyweight fight for the division championship. Tampa Bay has baseball’s best pitching staff, and while the Rays may not be MLB’s highest-scoring team, it's going to score enough runs to win. The Yankees are good, too, and they should be in the postseason again. Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and James Paxton used the shutdown to get healthy, and this team is again deep enough to withstand some absences.

6) Is this finally the Dodgers’ year?
Most teams wouldn’t be able to overcome a player of David Price’s caliber electing not to play, but the Dodgers have depth, depth and more depth. It has been Andrew Friedman’s mantra since he took over the Dodgers' baseball operations in 2014. That’s why they’re in a nice spot to replace Price. 

One option is a 22-year-old rookie with flaming red hair and a 98-mph fastball. Right-hander Dustin May has passed every test in four Minor League seasons and slots nicely at the back of the rotation. Or veteran swingman Ross Stripling is more than ready to step back into a starter’s role. Regardless of how it plays out, the Dodgers are seeking their eighth straight NL West title. But given that this might be the only season they get from Mookie Betts before he hits free agency, it’s title or bust.

7) Will Shohei Ohtani still be a two-way player?
Joe Maddon filling out the lineup card, you have to think the answer is a resounding “yes.” He’s going to love this challenge. Also, there’s the talent thing. Before injuring his pitching elbow, Ohtani showed that he had the talent to do both. He’s healthy, and it’s a matter of juggling when he pitches and when he hits to take advantage of his gifts.

8) Will Harper take the Phillies to a new level in Year 2?
Bryce Harper's first year was underwhelming as the Phils went from 80-82 in the year before he arrived all the way to 81-81 in 2019. That said, the Phillies could be better than a lot of people expect.

Philly fans have every right to be excited about a team with few weaknesses and a proven manager in Joe Girardi. Harper is set to do Harper things in his second Philly season, Jake Arrieta is healthier than he has been in a couple of years and top pitching prospect Spencer Howard will make his debut at some point this summer. What’s not to like?

9) Is David Ross the right man to manage a Cubs team in a win-now mode?
Ross checks every box for what teams are seeking in a manager in 2020. His former teammates respect him for his toughness and smarts as well as the people skills that allowed him to connect with pretty much anyone during a 15-year playing career. If lefty Jon Lester has another productive season in him, the Cubs are plenty good enough to return to the playoffs and win another World Series.