What to watch for in MLB’s 60-game season: The top storylines of 2020

Face mask: What the catcher wears to protect his face. What all those who are not involved in the action will need to be wearing while on the field or in dugouts.

Distance: 60 feet, 6 inches. 90 feet. At least 6 feet whenever possible.

Spitting: Prohibited; except into a receptacle for testing purposes.

Take everything you know about baseball — the language, the rules, the customs — and don’t throw them away. For what you will see will be baseball. But not. The season will have been shortened and the rosters lengthened. Fighting and, at least for now, fans are prohibited. And all mentions of the season must come with the “if it is played” proviso.

So using the proviso — if it is played — here are the 10 big questions:

1. Will the ball fly again?

There were 671 more homers hit last year than in any other season. Even MLB conceded something was up with the ball while declaring it was not by design. But if you were a conspiracy theorist, wouldn’t you expect the helium ball to be in play this year as a way to get eyes on games with long-ball pyrotechnics? If homers are hit at the same rate this year as last year, it would produce 2,511 of them if each team played its 60 games — or more than in the 1960 season; the last year with 16 teams and 154 games.

2. Will games be faster or slower?

Games lasted a record-tying average of 3 hours, 5 minutes last year. If you think it will be longer, it will be because there will be 30-man rosters to begin, whittling to 28 then 26, and expect at least half of the rosters will be pitchers, especially early on when traditional starters might not be stretched out fully after a quickie spring training 2.0. Expect more use of the opener, and will any team try to use a pitcher an inning for nine innings? In addition, will the inclusion of the DH in the NL lead to even more offense and longer half innings?

Conversely, the rule that every reliever must face at least three batters unless there is an injury or an inning ends could add some pace. Also, do even minor items forbidden this year such as throwing the ball around the infield save seconds here and there? Also lost will be the long extra-inning game with extra innings now beginning with a runner on second base. Lastly, will not having fans speed up matters at all with fewer announcements and less mugging to an audience?

It was only one game, but the crowdless game at Camden Yards in April 2015 between the White Sox and Orioles was played in 2:03.

3. What does Mookie Betts mean for the Dodgers?

Obviously the more Mookie the better, and 162 games provides the full view of his offense and defense. Still, he makes the NL’s strongest team even more so, just not in the way Los Angeles envisioned when it acquired Betts from Boston for what it thought would be his full walk year. Ah yes, the walk season. We then will learn in the offseason what impact a shortened schedule without much if any attendance has on the free agent expected to draw the largest contract — and then what is the trickle down to others such as J.T. Realmuto, George Springer, Trevor Bauer, James Paxton and Marcus Stroman.

4. Do we get the full Shohei Ohtani experience?

Ohtani hit, but did not pitch last year following Tommy John surgery. If there had been a full season in 2020, the plan was to do both, but limit innings. But in a 60-game season in which the Angels want to try to make a playoff run, how many restrictions do they put on such a dynamic player? Can he start as a pitcher 12 times? With the DH in the NL park this year, he can play even more regularly. Do you have him DH on the days he starts because with extra bench players, they can be used to hit once he is out of the game and the DH slot is lost? Ohtani is the game’s most interesting man.

5. There is a trade deadline, but is there a trade deadline?

The deadline is Aug. 31. It means teams have roughly five weeks to decide if they are buyers or sellers. You can imagine motivated sellers trying to get out of money when revenues are down this year. But will teams be willing to take dough on? Also, without a minor league season, how would you judge prospects for trades? In addition, is there something too cold/indifferent to making a player change locales amid a pandemic? The biggest name to watch is what Cleveland does with Francisco Lindor, a team always in a payroll-managing mode with a star who can be a free agent after next season.

6. Can the Nationals become the first team since the 1998-2000 threepeat Yankees to win consecutive titles?

Part of the answer is that predictions are harder than ever when the samples become smaller. The Nats were just 27-33 after 60 games last year. They have lost Anthony Rendon to free agency, and first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, No. 5 starter Joe Ross and backup catcher Welington Castillo decided not to play this year. Washington still has a rotation front four of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez. But the Nats also play in a division that the Braves, Mets and Phillies each think they can win.

7. What will accomplishment mean this year?

This is the asterisk question that will touch everything in a shortened season. What if a player hits .400? What does it mean to win a major award such as a Cy Young or an MVP? For example, would a third straight NL Cy Young for Jacob deGrom feel like three straight or 2 ½? The legitimacy of this season is under assault even before the first pitch.

8. Are the Astros even a story any longer?

Remember when how Houston would deal with this season after being outed as sign-stealing cheats was the biggest plotline of 2020 — by a lot? Ah, the quaint old days of February. But now the Astros do not have to deal with fans on the road (at least to start). Plus, in amended rules for this season, MLB said it would mete out large punishments for incidents that provoke on-field confrontations and also for those on-field confrontations. So do pitchers who feel aggrieved by what the Astros did at least in 2017 still go after Houston hitters? When a suspension of any length would be a huge portion of a 60-game season?

9. Will Mike Trout’s reign as the majors’ best player continue?

Again, strange stuff can happen in smaller samples, but no matter how small the sample, it would be shocking if Trout were not great. That said, Milwaukee’s Christian Yelich did a pretty strong Trout impression the last two years. Betts is a brilliant all-around player, as is Dodger teammate Cody Bellinger. And Washington’s Juan Soto and Atlanta’s Ronald Acuna Jr. are creeping more and more into this conversation.

10. Weren’t the Rockies quarreling with their biggest star, Nolan Arenado, when last we saw them?

Yep. Before Year 2 of his eight-year, $260 million pact had begun, Arenado had expressed his displeasure with the lack of business Colorado had done to try to get better. He is worried about playing a Hall of Fame-level career in a place that cannot consistently win. Arenado can opt out after next season, which gave him some leverage to force a trade. But with a downturn in revenues, could the Rockies play it out believing that the star third baseman isn’t going to walk away from five years at $167 million after the 2021 season and entering his age-31 campaign?

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