Get ready for a summer of Major League Baseball unlike anything ever seen before.
MLB’s typical 162-game schedule is best described as a marathon, not a sprint. A six-month odyssey of streaks that come and go, where only the fittest survive. The sport that guarantees, more than any other, the best teams will be represented in the post-season.
Toss those preconceptions out the window. Ignore the talk of small sample sizes and excuses about it being early in the schedule. This MLB season won’t be a battle of endurance, it will be more comparable to a 100-metre dash. Or, perhaps more appropriately, the 4×100 metre relay where a minor hiccup could be the difference between finishing first or last. With just 60 games to play, anything can happen, especially after Thursday’s last-minute decision to expand the post-season from 10 teams to 16.
That might sound dramatic but it’s true. It’s the end of July, there are two months remaining and every team has a chance. Okay, probably not the Detroit Tigers or Baltimore Orioles, but you get the point. This will be a wacky, wild year of baseball where previous trends may not be able to accurately predict what we are about to witness. This summer, everything is on the table for as long as baseball can keep playing mid-pandemic.
Take the Blue Jays, for example. Toronto arrived in spring training earlier this year optimistic about its future but without the external pressure of needing to contend. There were a few people who picked the Jays to be the surprise team of the American League, but by and large consensus suggested they would need at least another year before meaningful baseball would be played.
It’s possible that will still be the case, but the reduced schedule evened the playing field. Nate Pearson’s arrival will be measured in days, not months. There won’t be any talk of an innings limit. Hyun-Jin Ryu and Matt Shoemaker, two starters with lengthy medical reports, will have fewer concerns about getting through a “full” year.
A lineup filled with streaky hitters doesn’t have to produce all year, it just needs to piece together a couple solid months. Last season, on July 24, the Blue Jays were 28 1/2 games back of first place in the AL East. This year they’re tied with the New York Yankees, Tampa Bay, Boston and, yes, even those Orioles, with almost the same number of games to play. Three AL teams added to the post-season only adds to the optimism.
This schedule feels more like a tournament than a regular season. All it might take for an organization to make the playoffs is getting hot for a few weeks followed by average baseball. With no time afforded for learning curves, teams who figure out their proper lineups, rotations and bullpens the quickest will have a noticeable leg up.
The Jays are doing their part in this World Baseball Classic-style race by taking on the role of nomads. The team without a home. As MLB opened play Thursday — the Yankees at Washington in one game, San Francisco at the Dodgers in the other — the Jays were calling their neighbours looking for a place to crash after being evicted by the landlord. The displaced team will either use this embarrassing scenario as a rallying cry, or as an anchor tied around their necks.
The last two years of Blue Jays baseball haven’t always been fun to watch but a lot of that can be tied to how the organization started each season. Veteran castoffs were used as placeholders. Top prospects were kept in the minors to gain experience, and for some, to manipulate service time. At the 60-game mark in 2019, the Blue Jays were 16 games under .500. The year before, they were eight. The seasons were over before the summers even began.
The only thing that salvaged those years was the in-season arrival of prospects, who offered promises of better days. First it was a group headlined by Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Danny Jansen. Then it was Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette. With four months of the schedule removed, the wait for Pearson will be much shorter. Toronto gains an extra year of control by keeping him off the roster for one start, but you can bet the house he will be there for week No. 2.
The coronavirus pandemic has created more problems for the Jays than any other team. Their request for a national interest exemption to allow cross-border travel was denied by the federal government. Their proposed relocation to Pittsburgh was similarly tossed out by state officials. The original backup plan, setting up shop at the club’s spring training complex in Dunedin, Fla., became untenable as the region was overrun by COVID-19.
There is a silver lining here, though. The abbreviated schedule has turned the season into a no-lose scenario for Toronto, at least in terms of the on-field product. If the Jays struggle early, the club can simply turn the page to next year, which has been the more realistic target date for contending all along. Instead of sitting through another six months of a rebuild, fans would be subjected to two.
Get more sports in your inbox
Never miss the latest on the Leafs, Jays, Raptors and more with the Star’s Sports Headlines email newsletter.
Then there’s the upside. The very real possibility, however small it is, that the young core gels earlier than expected. That Ryu, Pearson and Shoemaker form the backbone of a starting rotation that becomes a strength, not a weakness. And the chance the all-or-nothing approaches of players like Randal Grichuk, Teoscar Hernandez and Rowdy Tellez line up at just the right time to support the emerging prospects. It was difficult to imagine it all coming together over 162 games, but for 60? And with 16 post-season spots up for grabs? It’s no longer far fetched.
There is nothing normal about what we are about to witness. So sure, it might seem like a long shot the Blue Jays will pose much of a threat in the AL, but anything is possible in this bizarre year of baseball. If this team gets hot, if this season even gets completed, the future could become the present a lot quicker than previously anticipated.