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For Rays and MLB, plans for starting play are coming into focus

Pending how the reopening of the country goes, teams could be playing games by July, many in home stadiums.

No one can say yet what the 2020 Major League Baseball season will look like.

There is too much that even top officials don’t know and, more importantly, don’t control regarding public health and safety aspects of the coronavirus spread, and governmental decisions on reopening states and cities.

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They do know enough to be cautiously optimistic that there will be a season.

And — besides the absence of fans, at least at the start — it might not look as radically different as previously thought.

“I’m more optimistic today than I was 10 days ago,'' Rays manager Kevin Cash said Friday. "It sounds like there’s enough thought from so many different corners — players, owners, league officials — that the industry as a whole is really trying to put their heads together to make something come together for some sort of a season.''

The next few weeks are considered critical, as the medical and societal impact of reopening parts of the country will dictate the league’s timetable.

The preferred plan would be to start play in late June or early July with as many teams as possible playing in home parks, such as the Rays at Tropicana Field, while competing in their regular divisions with an abbreviated schedule of at least 80 games.

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The Arizona scenario, in which all players and staff would essentially live and play in a colonized bubble, is much less likely. So, too, is having all teams play at spring sites and compete in Cactus and Grapefruit leagues. Other reports about having teams assigned to “hub” sites in Arizona, Texas and Florida, or realigned into three geographical divisions, are being downplayed or dismissed.

Here are some of the issues that do need to be settled:

  • Schedule. The basic premise is to play as many games as possible no matter when they start, which could include scheduled doubleheaders, perhaps seven innings. There also is some desire to expand the postseason field, which would generate more national TV money. That has to be balanced with weather concerns of playing into November (unless the league opts for a neutral-site World Series) and into flu season as the potential of not finishing the playoffs is a concern. Are 80 games enough for the regular season? 100? Are the playoffs expanded from 10 teams to 14? Or 16? Would the league dare try an NCAA-style tournament?
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  • Logistics. With teams competing in their regular-season stadiums, players would live at home with their families. Visiting teams could travel as usual, on chartered planes and buses, and stay in hotels, asked to follow the local social-distancing protocols but not quarantined. Travel could be reduced, such as by limiting teams to playing in their own divisions and the corresponding geographical divisions, with the Rays mostly playing American League East opponents, plus the National League East teams.
  • Testing. MLB officials know for any plan to work they have to be able to regularly test players, staff, umpires and others allowed into stadiums. They also know they can’t appear to be cutting in line to get the tests ahead of hospitals or government agencies. Testing could be mandatory initially, then for cause, using more basic daily protocols, such as in Korea where players have their temperatures recorded multiple times, including on their way into the stadium.
  • Rosters. The general consensus is that players want to get going and could be ready after two to three weeks of a “spring” training, which would also be held in home cities for most teams. So maybe a mid-May announcement for players to start getting ready and an early June opening of camps? Rosters are certain to be expanded beyond the planned 26. Teams will need extra bodies, especially pitchers, given the abbreviated build-up period and condensed schedule. It is unlikely there will be a traditional minor-league season, so teams will want extra players available in case of injury or illness. There could be a taxi squad or a development program at spring sites. If so, does top prospect Wander Franco make the cut if the Rays carry 30 active players? 33? Or could he be among 10-20 players in a training program?
  • Finances. Players agreed in March to get paid their set salaries on a prorated basis based on games played. Owners say that deal was struck assuming fans would be in the stands, which accounts for roughly 40 percent of local revenues, and now want players to take a further cut. The simplest solution may be a revenue-sharing plan, first between the teams, then at a set percentage with the players.

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