PITTSBURGH — The coronavirus outbreak has affected everybody in one way or another. The baseball world is no exception, as Spring Training camps have been cleared out and the start of the regular season has been delayed.
For now, with the build-up to Opening Day suspended, all clubs can do is wait. And all we can do is wonder: How might this indefinite delay affect the National League Central?
The NL Central was expected to be perhaps the Majors’ most competitive division, with four teams legitimately optimistic about their chances to come out on top. Will this help some teams get healthy to avoid a slow start? Will the depth of other teams be tested right away? What are the other consequences of a potentially shortened season?
MLB.com’s NL Central beat writers weigh in on the subject.
The Brewers built their team around the concept of depth and believed they were heading into the season with the right mix of versatility — left-right, positional flexibility, multi-inning relievers, players with Minor League options — to withstand the rigors of a long season. It did not score David Stearns many public-relations points among fans, who expected him to make bigger bets on a smaller number of All-Star types to replace departures like Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas, but Stearns expressed confidence all along that his team would perform better than outsiders expected, in part because they were braced against the usual array of injuries and underperformance that confronts teams over a normal, six-month season.
Now, all of that planning is confronted by the uncertainty of what lies ahead. Will that depth still come in handy? Or will the Brewers wish they had more star power? — Adam McCalvy
The Cardinals were encouraged by what they saw from their offense and thrilled with their pitching during Spring Training, so there’s always a chance the hiatus will alter the improvements the club has seen. But depth will be important at the start of the season, and that’s one of the areas the Cardinals have the most confidence, especially in regards to pitching.
With six or seven starters who could be in the Major League rotation, as well as plenty of relievers, the Cardinals will have the arms to be prepared for any situation that might await them once the season does start. Plus, the delay will allow Miles Mikolas (right flexor tendon strain) and Andrew Miller (lack of feel this spring) to potentially be ready for Opening Day.
Offensively, several hitters were only a few at-bats away from being ready for the start of the season, including Kolten Wong, Paul DeJong and Matt Carpenter. But the delay now will allow hitters like Dexter Fowler and a number of the left-field candidates to work on their swings to be ready for the season. — Anne Rogers
On a macro level, Chicago is approaching a turning point in its franchise timeline. With a group of core players (Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber, among others) coming off the books after '21, the first four months of this season were going to be critical for the front office's decision-making leading up to the Trade Deadline. The disruption of the first half, combined with the current unknowns about the 2020 schedule, have complicated an already complex period of evaluation for the Cubs' leaders.
Taking a more micro view, the delayed start to the season will provide time for relievers Brad Wieck (heart procedure in late February) and Brandon Morrow (multiple injury setbacks) to keep recovering with the goal of pushing for the MLB roster. The sudden loss of the spring build-up routine, however, has the potential to create issues with some of the Cubs' veteran arms. One that jumps to mind is closer Craig Kimbrel. The Cubs were counting on normalcy to help Kimbrel get back on track after his '19 season featured a pile of hurdles. — Jordan Bastian
The greatest loss for the Pirates might be the time that new general manager Ben Cherington and manager Derek Shelton could have spent evaluating their organization. Cherington has made it clear that Pittsburgh, which wasn’t expected to contend this year, planned to build a future contender on the foundation of the club’s existing young talent. But how can the Pirates fully understand what they have in a potentially smaller-than-anticipated sample size, and how might that affect the way they shape their roster moving forward?
Of more immediate concern, the Bucs could be forced to make some interesting decisions if left-hander Steven Brault and right-handed reliever Clay Holmes get healthy before Opening Day; that would complicate their rotation and bullpen composition. And they will be particularly interested in the planning of a potential Trade Deadline, because they figured to be short-term sellers with intriguing arms like Chris Archer and Keone Kela presumably available.
Here’s something else to consider: If the season is shortened, there might be some outcomes you wouldn’t see over the course of a 162-game campaign. They were only 2 1/2 games out of first place after 89 games last season, for instance, and they were four games above .500 at the end of July in 2018. In a shortened season, small sample sizes would matter — and potentially change the course of postseason races. — Adam Berry
The Reds were preparing themselves to contend in 2020, but the delay to the season could still benefit them more than it might hurt. They have a deep starting rotation already. If rosters were expanded to accommodate added doubleheaders, for instance, they’d likely have enough starting and relief pitching to take on the unique workload. Two players in the starting lineup, third baseman Eugenio Suárez and center fielder Nick Senzel, were rehabbing from right shoulder surgeries. Their readiness for the original Opening Day wasn’t assured, but both should be fully ready to help the offense whenever the season does begin.
And as a matter of trivia, delayed seasons have somehow helped the Reds in the past. A lockout pushed the 1990 season back by a week and Cincinnati went on to a wire-to-wire win of the NL West Division on its way to winning the World Series. Following the 1994-95 strike, the Reds won the NL Central race in ’95 after an abbreviated 144-game schedule and went on to the NL Championship Series. — Mark Sheldon