The discourse surrounding the 2020 Major League Baseball season, especially when it comes to the San Francisco Giants, centers mostly around who won’t be present and what won’t be happening. No Buster Posey. No Madison Bumgarner. No Bruce Bochy. No fans in the stands.
So, for the next two-plus months, what will be there as fans watch this abbreviated season from afar?
Well, first off, it’s only fair to look at the new manager, Gabe Kapler. Having spent the last two years at the helm of the Philadelphia Phillies, leading them to 161 wins and 163 losses before his dismissal, the 44-year-old Kapler was hired by the Giants in November to become the 37th manager in franchise history. A 12-year Major League veteran who worked his way up the coaching ranks in the past decade, the initial headlines surrounding Kapler’s hiring were largely negative, focusing on assault allegations against Los Angeles Dodgers minor leaguers during his time as the team’s director of player development and his tactical moves that backfired while managing the Phillies. During Kapler’s first eight months with the Giants, though, feedback has largely been positive, with his decision to take a knee during the National Anthem before Monday’s exhibition game against the Oakland Athletics seen as representative of the positive rapport he has developed with his players.
As for those players, there are going to be a lot of unfamiliar faces taking the field this season. With Posey opting out of the season due to coronavirus concerns after adopting prematurely born twin girls and Bumgarner signing with the Arizona Diamondbacks, first baseman Brandon Belt is the longest-tenured player to have continuously stayed with the team. But even he won’t be taking the field for the season opener on Thursday night in Los Angeles; he’ll be on the injured list with a sore right heel.
Third baseman Evan Longoria will also miss the opener against the Dodgers, sidelined with a moderate oblique strain. That leaves Brandon Crawford and Pablo Sandoval as the most recognizable players expected to start the 7 p.m. game on Thursday, and even they might not be around for long. Crawford’s contract expires after 2021, and Sandoval’s minor league contract, one that’ll surely turn into a big-league deal with his swift recovery from elbow surgery, will last just one season. Opening Day starter Johnny Cueto, fellow right-handed hurler Jeff Samardzija and outfielder Hunter Pence, back in the fold after spending 2019 with the Texas Rangers, round out the list of names that the more casual fan will recognize.
A lack of household names isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. Last year’s patchwork outfield led to strong campaigns from both Alex Dickerson and Mike Yastrzemski, who went from scrap heap pickups to productive starters over the course of the season. With more positions looking like a revolving door over the course of 2020’s abbreviated 60-game schedule, there should be opportunities aplenty for similar stories. With bounceback candidates Tyler Anderson, Kevin Gausman and Drew Smyly in the starting rotation, versatile youngster Mauricio Dubon expected to get time at both second base and center field and all sorts of journeymen ranging from infielder Wilmer Flores to pitcher Andrew Triggs jostling for position, at least a handful of these hopefuls should be able to catch on and factor into the picture beyond this one strange season.
Don’t expect this ragtag band to put together a miracle run, though. Yes, a 60-game season does create more opportunities for an unexpected team to catch fire than a full 162-game campaign, but the Giants are still facing an uphill battle. The Dodgers have won seven straight National League West Division titles and have now added star outfielder Mookie Betts through a blockbuster deal with the Boston Red Sox. The Diamondbacks have quietly pieced together a strong roster, and the San Diego Padres boast a young, up-and-coming group led by the tremendously exciting Fernando Tatis Jr. and staff ace Chris Paddack.
The Giants will play 10 games apiece against each of those three aforementioned teams and the Colorado Rockies, with the remaining 20 to be played against the five teams from the American League West to minimize travel. That means six games against the Oakland Athletics, four against Mike Trout’s Los Angeles Angels and three against the defending AL champion Houston Astros.
All of those games will be played with a designated hitter, a provision being brought to the NL this year that could become a mainstay if received well by the clubs in the senior circuit. Another special rule brought in for the abbreviated season is a special tiebreaker rule for extra innings, where a runner will be placed on second base at the start of the 10th inning and any subsequent innings in all regular season games. The rule, which has been in use during the last two minor league seasons, will not apply in the playoffs.
Those two rules fit hand-in-hand with what 2020 and beyond may look like for the Giants. There are some strange wrinkles and provisions in place, and if they don’t go well, they’ll be quickly discarded. Should one of those things go over well, though? Maybe it’ll become a constant in the coming years, even as the world returns to normalcy.