When Opening Day finally rolled around and Major League Baseball reentered the fray on July 23, 2020, the league experienced the first of what will likely be many nightmare scenarios as a result of COVID-19.
Mere hours before the first pitch between the New York Yankees and Washington Nationals, it was announced that Nationals outfielder Juan Soto had tested positive for the coronavirus and would be sitting out of the team’s opening game.
The news may be the first time that a star player is forced to sit out of a non-exhibition game due to COVID-19, but it surely won’t be the last. And, it won’t be an issue specific to baseball, as there will be players in the NBA, NHL and NFL that wind up on an injury report as a result of the virus.
But, baseball’s situation is unique for another reason, considering the sport’s inherent focus on statistics and the unlikely heroes that already show up each season.
Whether it’s a case like Soto who tests positive, or players like Dodgers pitcher David Price or Giants catcher Buster Posey who decide to opt out for personal reasons, the COVID-19 pandemic will create opportunities for the underdog: players who may have been on the bubble (no pun intended) before the season and are looking for any chance to prove their worth.
Then, in such a shortened schedule, the league could see unfamiliar faces showing up in league leader positions for big-name statistics like hits, home runs, or RBIs, or a pitcher who rattles off a streak of wins with a low ERA.
For the Nationals, 26-year-old Andrew Stevenson, who had already been talked about as a player who would benefit from the expanded rosters for 2020, took Soto’s place in left field. And, he could earn himself more playing time or find a new home as a starter if he plays well amid the Nationals star’s absence.
For the Dodgers, pitcher Dustin May showed out when he became the franchise’s youngest Opening Day starter since 1983 against the Giants, and took advantage of an opportunity created by Price’s opt-out and Clayton Kershaw’s sudden back injury. While he’s already expected to have a major role in the team’s rotation, his first start could lead to an increase in his stock right off the bat.
Those teams aren’t alone with these circumstances. Diamondbacks reliever Mike Leake (the first to opt out), Rockies outfielder Ian Desmond, White Sox pitcher Michael Kopech, and Braves outfielder Nick Markakis are just a few of the names on the list of those who decided to opt out, leaving each of those four teams in similar spots as the Dodgers and Nationals. Could an unsung hero shine in the new spotlight as a result?
At the same time, teams who know they may not be able to contend, even in a shortened season, may be willing to give younger prospects or recently-signed rookies from the 2020 MLB Draft some playing time to give them live reps.
A player like Giants catcher Joey Bart, who has not made his major league debut and is currently navigating the minor league waters, could get called up at some point in the 2020 season as a result of Posey’s time away from the diamond.
Or, a newly-drafted rookie like Spencer Torkelson, the first overall pick by the Detroit Tigers in the 2020 MLB Draft, could be the team’s new experiment as a result of the 60-game schedule.
There are many factors to consider as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and there are just as many question marks that could shut the season down before it even hits its peak this summer. But, one thing is for certain: After a long wait, fans can officially enjoy baseball in 2020, the year of the underdog.