Olney: When — and if — play resumes, MLB must be careful

When the Major League Baseball season is restarted in 2020 — that is to say, if it’s restarted, because it’s foolhardy to assume anything under the current circumstances — the run-up to the first games could be fast and furious, with everyone pushing to get back on the field and open the ballparks.

If the games resume in the next month or two, then what we’ll refer to as the second spring training probably won’t take that long — maybe two weeks. The Yankees and Padres are among the teams to vote to continue working out, but a lot of players around the sport have dispersed, returning home. If the teams get a go date of May 1, the players could probably regroup by April 15 and be ready to go.

The starting pitchers have been throwing for weeks, with multiple exhibition appearances, and have already pushed their pitch counts to something in the range of 60. The relievers are still building velocity but wouldn’t need much time. The position players are basically ready to go, as they are by the middle of March every year; as everybody in the sport knows, the last weeks of spring training are really for the starting pitchers and for the folks who own the sites in Florida and Arizona to pull in revenue.

If the go date is at the end of May — say, Memorial Day weekend — then the second spring training might require a little more time. If there is no baseball throughout April, some club officials say, then the starting pitchers will need the time to rebuild their pitch counts, just as they do when they come back from injuries. They can play catch on their own, find a catcher and have bullpen sessions, but they cannot replicate the intensity of game action — and they will need some of that before the regular season begins.

During the work stoppage of 1994 and ’95, major league players did not participate in spring training alongside minor leaguers and replacement players. After a major court decision went in favor of the players in late March, the two sides went back to the negotiating table and reached a deal on April 2, 1995. After a truncated spring training, the 144-game regular season began April 26, and the general consensus at the time was that the play was ragged and the players — not as devoted nor attuned to year-round physical training in the way the current generation is — were not ready.

In 1995, Mike Mussina was in the fifth year of what would turn out to be a Hall of Fame career, and he started the April 26 opener for the Orioles in Kansas City, throwing 49 pitches over five scoreless innings. Kevin Appier started for the Royals that day, and there was surprise in the Baltimore clubhouse that he threw as much as he did: 98 pitches over 6 2/3 no-hit innings.

Mussina threw four innings in his second outing, and with an extra day of rest between his second and third start, he nudged his pitch count to 89, then to 100, in an era in which teams didn’t monitor pitches nearly as closely as they do now.

If Major League Baseball doesn’t resume until the middle of the summer, some staffers believe something close to a month of second spring training will be required to get the pitchers up to speed.

“Everybody will be trying to get back on the field and motivated to play [regular-season] games,” one evaluator said, “but it wouldn’t be fair to the pitchers if you pushed them when they’re not physically ready to go.”

Some players and teams will have more at stake than others, with a lot riding on 2020. Mookie Betts could be in line for the most lucrative free-agent contract in pro sports history. Similarly, the Astros’ George Springer, the Phillies’ J.T. Realmuto and the Mets’ Marcus Stroman are in line to reach the open market in the fall. The Mets, a team currently for sale, are constructed to win this year, and the more successful the club is, the more leverage there will be for the Wilpon family as it finds a buyer. When and if there is a go date for the resumption of play, the players and Major League Baseball will want to jump-start the 2020 season.

But the longer the delay lasts, the longer it will take for the pitchers to reset, to rebuild, and as Major League Baseball and the players’ association consider the calendar, they’ll need to weigh the risks of pushing the players back into action too quickly against the possible rewards that will come with the resumption of action.

And of course, there must always be sobering concern over the impact of the coronavirus, which is why some teams didn’t formally issue baseball instructions to players for the days ahead. “Right now,” one staffer said, “it’s about doing everything we can to stay safe.”