ROTISSERIE: MLB Network hosts open to radical changes in 2020

An extended offseason isn’t making things easy for the many writers and broadcasters who make their living discussing the national pastime.

“It should be baseball season right now. I want to talk about baseball,” says former major leaguer Mark DeRosa, one of the hosts of MLB Network’s morning program, MLB Central. With the sports world shut down by the coronavirus pandemic, DeRosa and co-hosts Lauren Shehadi and Robert Flores aren’t doing their usual three-hour show. Instead, they’re getting together for a much shorter digital-only version every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

“Sports fans are so starved for anything to serve as a distraction to what is some really grim news,” Flores tells USA TODAY Sports. “I think we’ve done a good job … to give people a distraction, an escape and just put a smile on their face, even if it’s for 10 minutes.”

The main questions fans want answered these days are when baseball will return and what it will look like when it does. From his experience, DeRosa says most position players will need 40 competitive at-bats – around two to three weeks – before they’re ready to play real games. But that’s where the similarity to past seasons will likely end.

“This is an opportunity within the game to take some chances,” he says. “If there are no fans, can we mike the players? Is there going to be an electronic strike zone? Some different innovations that they can take a look at moving forward when it does return to complete normalcy?”

Fantasy mirrors reality

We probably won’t see complete normalcy until 2021. But DeRosa does have a point. This could be a great opportunity for MLB to try things that might seem odd – ridiculous, even – in any other year.

If the regular season has to be trimmed, Shehadi is intrigued by the possibility of expanding the playoffs.

“I don’t know that there’s anything more exciting than a wild-card game. If there’s more of those or a best-of-three (series) where the manager’s every single move has to be calculated and every single move matters. ... That is so much fun to watch,” she says. “Watching a wild-card game is my favorite thing in sports, so any more of that is a beautiful thing in my opinion.”

Fantasy leagues should be open to radical changes as well.

For example, a shortened regular season will make it more difficult to determine a true champion, so why not expand the fantasy playoffs in head-to-head leagues? Give teams with better records a tiebreaker advantage. Let them pick their playoff opponents or re-seed the matchups after each round.

If a major expansion of the MLB playoffs renders the regular season meaningless, allow teams in the fantasy playoffs to draft players off the teams in the league that have been eliminated. Or … extend the fantasy season into the MLB playoffs and add a survivor element into the mix.

Rotisserie leagues could consider switching to a head-to-head or a points-based format for just this season. And keeper leagues could make whatever changes they want for 2020, but have all rosters revert this offseason to what they were at the end of 2019.

Almost everything about this season is going to be different, so don’t even try to make it look like previous ones. Embrace change, knowing you can always go back to the status quo next year.

Universal DH

As baseball’s shutdown continues, one thing seems crystal clear to me. There’s will be a designated hitter in every game that’s played in 2020.

There’s just no way to avoid it. Even with a second spring training, starting pitchers aren’t going to be able to pitch deep into games. They shouldn’t be asked to risk injury every time they come to the plate or run the bases.

Rosters will need to be expanded to accommodate additional relief pitchers, who would have to be taken out more often for pinch-hitters when their spot in the batting order comes around. And with a compressed schedule needed to play as many games as possible, everyday players will need an occasional day to a DH to give their bodies a break.

If a proposal to play games at spring training sites in Florida and Arizona comes to pass, American and National League teams will be jumbled together in both locations, making separate AL and NL rules almost impossible. An important fantasy effect will be that NL hitters become more valuable in mixed leagues, while the values of NL pitchers will drop.

One other takeaway: A shorter regular season will make individual player performances less predictable than they would be over the long haul since there’s more room for variance in smaller samples.

Some might believe star players will, in turn, become more valuable. To me, it’s the other way around. It’s less beneficial having those star players because they won’t give you as much of an advantage over everyone else when they’re playing fewer games. And if they should happen to get injured, it’s much harder to replace their stats with someone off the waiver wire.

Hope for the future

There’s still so much still up in the air that it’s hard to know just what to expect when baseball returns. We can only make our best guess with the information we have now.

“Traditionally, baseball has had a very important role in being there for the country in various times of despair,” Flores says. “We all want to see the game back.”

When it does, the game will be different. The fantasy landscape will be different. Perhaps television coverage will be different as well.

Before joining MLB Network, Flores served as the host for the extremely popular Fantasy Football Now show on ESPN. Traditionally, MLB Network hasn’t paid much attention to the fantasy aspect of the game, but Flores says he wouldn’t mind pushing the envelope a little.

“I would love to see more fantasy content on the network,” he says, noting that MLBN did have a weekly segment last season that was sponsored by a daily fantasy company, Draft Kings.

“I think we’re trending in that direction. I just hope we continue it. I love hosting fantasy sports. I loved hosting that fantasy show when I was at ESPN, so I would definitely like to see more of that.”

When baseball does return, that’s one change all fantasy owners would welcome.

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.