The ‘MLB Central’ Crew Takes Us Through The Biggest Questions Facing Baseball Culture On Opening Day

Baseball is back, offering a welcome distraction and a lot of questions about how, exactly, the brevity and uniqueness of this season will impact the on-field product. From new rules like the three batter minimum and the universal DH; to a schedule that leaves no room for a sluggish start; and the return to full health by Shohei Ohtani, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and others; the 2020 baseball season’s quirk may also be its salvation.

This quirkiness means that no one really knows how everything is going to play out. The best guesses, however, will come from experts who eat, drink, and sleep baseball, which is why we reached out to MLB Central (airing 10 a.m. EST weekdays on MLB Network) hosts Lauren Shehadi, Robert Flores, and Mark DeRosa.

The trio come together to deliver a morning shot of context for everything going on in the world of baseball. It’s an overall package that, according to Shehadi, stands out against a crowded field thanks in part to their level of prep and the uniqueness of their takes, with her adding, “you can get highlights and scores anywhere, but can you compare Clayton Kershaw to Bob Ross? On Central, you can. That’s what we do. And we do it with a smile.”

Naturally, we wanted to steal some of that for our own baseball preview, so on a group Zoom call earlier this week, we asked about the trio to weigh in on which teams are best prepared to make some noise in 2020, the impact of COVID and labor strife on the game, playing without fans, and whether baseball is ready to step up and speak out on social issues.

On which team is best prepared for this 60-game mad dash and which team could be a dark horse.

Lauren Shehadi: I immediately think of the Yankees. I think 103 wins, and then you add Gerrit Cole. We always say if Judge and Stanton can get going at the same time, it’ll just be a spectacle, because it has not happened yet. Especially with that entire Yankees lineup, it would just be crazy.

Mark DeRosa: The Dodgers come to my mind, just because they’re so interchangeable. They’re so deep. So many guys can do so many different things. You’ve got a guy like A.J. Pollock, who people don’t even know is on the roster but he was an All-Star a couple of years ago. They’re the team for me that just screams that they could win a sprint or a marathon.

Robert Flores: It’s like the Dodgers have two or three different teams that they can throw at you, and all those arms in the bullpen. I think the bullpen is always important, but I think now it’s going to be even more important. So, I think it’s the Dodgers and Yankees as clearcut favorites. But with the nature of the schedule, maybe it lends itself to us seeing a dark horse or a surprise team in the mix. The Rays… I don’t know how much of a dark horse they are. They’re a known commodity, but I think if outside of the Yankees and the Dodgers winning it as the two heavy favorites, I would put the Rays as a team that could win.

Shehadi: For me, it’s the Reds. I just feel like in the NL Central, there’s not just one clear cut dominant team. Nicholas Castellanos, the pitching staff, I feel like they could nickel and dime you for a couple of wins. And that’s all you need. You need to get off to a hot start. We talk about it all the time. It’s just such a different season and it’s such a different experience. So, if you can rattle off seven wins in the beginning, you’re gold.

DeRosa: Sixty games, 240 at-bats. I used to say, my season didn’t start until I had about 150 at-bats under my belt. Now it’s like, that’s not an option. So, Bryce Harper is the guy that comes to mind. He always gets off to big starts. If he puts the Phillies on his back for a couple of weeks, that could catapult them.

On the uniqueness of this season.

Shehadi: I always tell the guys this, my favorite game in all of baseball is the Wild Card game. That’s my favorite. There’s so much strategy. You never know what’s going to happen. The innings take forever, but it’s beautiful chaos. And this season, to me, resembles a Wild Card game. Like pitchers aren’t going to go eight. It’s not going to be the same. It’s so much strategy. You’re going to have to use your bullpen constantly. I believe that is so exciting to me. I get a Wild Card game, basically every game of the season. I couldn’t be more excited.

Flores: Sometimes there is a perception of a lack of urgency, at least in the early stages of the regular season. But that’s not going to be the case. If you lose, there’s a stretch where if you lose seven of 10, or something like that, it could knock you out depending on what the rest of your division looks like. So, I think it’s going to be very important that teams get off to a fast start. And as crazy as it sounds, whichever team manages the COVID virus and practicing social distancing and hygiene, whichever team’s going to avoid having their players get the virus, [that] might be the determining factor on who wins this thing, which is just amazing. It’s crazy. But here we are.

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On whether this year’s eventual World Series winner deserves to have an asterisk next to their name.

DeRosa: I don’t think you should put an asterisk next to it, because once you get into the postseason, you’ve got to get hot. Look what the Washington Nationals did. If we have eight teams get in that nobody thought were going to get in, okay, I get it. It got a little quirky, got a little away from us. But I guarantee you, outside of maybe one or two surprises, you’re going to see, yes, the Dodgers, essentially the Astros, Minnesota. You’re going to see who we normally think we’d see.

Shehadi: If there are 15 kids playing baseball in the yard, down the street, and one team wins and they get all excited, do they say it’s not valid? No, it’s perfectly real for that situation. They won that game. You win this season. This is a season, and you win it. And there’s no asterisk next to it.

Flores: I think that when we look back on whoever wins, of course, we’re going to put it in the context of, “man, 2020 was so crazy and so weird.” Just basically a trash year. “Oh, hey, team X won, and that was weird.” But hey, everyone had to play under the same conditions and rules, and they just happened to be the last team standing.

Shehadi: Through all the hardship and all the adversity of this year, it might be even sweeter.

On whether this abbreviated season demands that teams rush prospects like Joey Bart and Gavin Lux.

Shehadi: It’s funny, I heard [Angels manager] Joe Maddon talking about Jo Adell the other day and he was like, “We’re not going to rush him. We need to take our time with him.” And I’m like, “Why? Let’s go. Let’s go.” Right? He could come out, get hot right away for you.

DeRosa: You look at a team like San Diego. They’ve got a guy like MacKenzie Gore, who’s not going to break camp with them. But if they’re rolling and you bring him up and throw him in the middle of it, yeah. We’ve seen that so many times a young guy comes up; Buster Posey comes to mind. Bryce Harper. These kinds of superstars come into the game and change your entire reflection.

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On the psychological burden of playing in an empty stadium, the effect of artificial crowd noise and cardboard cutouts, and the prospect of putting a mic on players like Pete Alonso.

DeRosa: Sixty games with no fans. How, psychologically, are guys going to react to that? Who’s going to do well with it, and who really uses the crowd to their advantage? Case in point, is it the young guys because it’s a sprint? Are they more equipped? Or does it give the old guys a chance, “Hey, I only need to be great for 60. I don’t need to get to 162.”

Flores: I would have to constantly remind myself that these games count. Yankee Stadium in the playoffs, the crowd is a factor. It just is. And who knows what the world is going to look like, what conditions we’ll be living under or guidelines we’ll be following come October or the fall. I think that’s going to be very interesting to see what difference the lack of fans make.

DeRosa: I don’t think it [artificial crowd noise] is going to make a huge impact, but I definitely think it will get the players pumped and take their minds off the fact that the stadium’s going to be empty. If it was just dead quiet, then I don’t think guys would truly be themselves, because there’s a lot of screaming from the dugouts that goes on that no one really hears. So now, guys are going to be less aggressive and bug out in that form or fashion. So, I do think it gives you some sense of the idea of people watching.

Flores: When they [mic up players] in spring training, it’s cool, and I love it. And as a fan, I would love if they were miked up all the time. But the game is just so freaking hard. It would be hard if you’re playing shortstop and someone in the booth is trying to ask you questions. There’s just stuff that I wouldn’t think you could say. I just don’t see how they could get it to work. There are just so many negative ramifications.

Shehadi: I want all of it. I want DeRosa and Derek Jeter at second base. I want that conversation.

DeRosa: I don’t want you to hear what we’re saying.

Shehadi: I want to hear it.

On whether labor strife did long term damage to the game.

Shehadi: We’ll get the sport back, it will all fade away the second someone comes to the plate and baseball’s back. If you’re a fan, you’re a fan for life, in my opinion.

DeRosa: I’m going to speak from the heart. If you love the game, you’re going to love the game. Bottom line. Could they have won some more fans over? Yes, if they got back on the field a little early. That didn’t happen. I’m moving forward with it. The thing that hurt my soul and what I’m dealing with now, is the youth, what happened with the draft.

Flores: I think if you want to attract or grow the game or grow the fan base, then it starts at the grassroots level, you have to make sure that in communities across this country and around the world, there are kids that are getting exposed to the game at the earliest ages. And that has nothing to do with any labor strife or anything. That’s a whole cultural thing. And that’s something that has to be refined and definitely formulated going forward.

On whether baseball is turning a corner when it comes to speaking out on social justice issues such as #BLM.

Shehadi: I was reading an article the other day and Bruce Maxwell (who, in 2017, was the first baseball player to kneel during the anthem) said, “Now everyone’s more open.” I do think that baseball is seeing a change and reacting as such. I think there are more people who are planning on educating themselves and others in baseball moving forward, for sure.

DeRosa: I think for me, I got to know every one of my teammates. I tried to get to know them as closely as I could, and I’m sure the same thing’s going on. And if it’s coming from a great place, I would have my teammate’s back, if I knew his heart was in it. So yeah, I think you will see players kneel and express their feelings toward the Black Lives Matter movement. I do. And I think they should.