Could MLB Play its Season Without All of its Players?

photo: Adam Wainwright (Jeff Curry/Imagn)

During the recording of our Wednesday podcast at, Dan McLaughlin introduced a topic I found so thought-provoking that I wrote the following article.

What happens if some MLB players do not want to return under the constraints of a player-only protective “bubble” this season? Would the game continue without them or would MLB take additional risk of a virus-related shutdown that could end the season by adding families?

Obviously, for the game to be cleared to resume in any way, there are some key assumptions of necessary advances to have occurred first.

Improved testing

Perhaps the most important requirement would be the availability of immediate, repeated and regular virus testing for at least 3,000 individuals. (That represents 100 people per MLB team, which covers necessary support personnel but does not include families, an estimate that came from a recent AP article.)

This on-demand testing would need to be universally available such that it would not create the perception that MLB is receiving entitlements ahead of the general population.

These are significant open needs and should not be assumed to be close to reality.

Still, for purposes of this article, we must assume our Nation’s testing challenges will be solved at some reasonable point on the baseball calendar. Otherwise, there is no reason to continue with what follows.

So, let’s move on to some thorny issues that are more under the direct control of those involved with the game.

Player concerns

Several MLB stars have come out publicly with strong reservations about returning to play this season. The primary rub looks to be the potential of a lengthy family separation, apparently inherent in the various plans reviewed with union members to date.

Mike Trout (Joe Camporeale/Imagn)

Those speaking up include none other than the game’s best player.

“What are you going to do with family members?” Mike Trout asked last week via video interview with NBC Sports. “My wife is pregnant. What am I going to do when she goes into labor? Am I going to have to quarantine for two weeks after I come back?

“Because obviously I can’t miss that birth of our first child. So there’s a lot of red flags, a lot of questions,” the Angels superstar outfielder said.

How about a three-time Cy Young Award winner? Like Trout, the competitiveness in Clayton Kershaw drives him to want to play, but not under the conditions as proposed.

“We all want to play baseball. I get that; I want to play baseball too,” Kershaw told the Los Angeles Times. “But there is something about being in the big leagues and you can’t compromise that.

“Playing in spring training stadiums and quarantining for months without your family and certain things like that, I don’t think that’s doable if you’re talking about doing it for four to five months,” the father of three said.

If leaders like Trout and Kershaw are saying it, how many others are thinking the same thing?

Yet, these players reside on the tip of the professional iceberg. Do they represent the views of the rank and file?

If most players are willing to return, would the game proceed without the ones who aren’t?

The union

Will the union, the MLB Players Association, become divided over this issue? Will they dig in their heels and insist that families be included in the bubble? Or will they instead go along with MLB, while suggesting that players can opt out of the 2020 season, if they choose to stay home?

Money is always a factor, but maybe it is less important than comfort and security for some players who have already earned millions and are confident they will still have a job waiting in 2021, either way.

On the other hand, the less-experienced player maybe lacks a wife and kids back home and is more focused on getting a chance to play in the majors any way possible.

If each team would have a handful of veterans sitting out, perhaps on an inactive list, it could create temporary opportunity for hungry non-roster players on the verge of making it.

Is there any way the union could ever achieve 100 percent agreement among hundreds of players? Does it matter? Or do some votes carry more weight than others? As long as at least 50.1 percent of the union members want to play, would that be enough for MLB?


Left to their own devices, ownership would likely gravitate to the plan that keeps the chance of player exposure to the virus as low as possible – because a breakout of COVID-19 could mean the end of the season that they worked so diligently to begin.

Including families inside the bubble would create a greater possibility of exposure simply because of the substantial increase in numbers of people – not to mention exponentially more complicated logistics for MLB to get them there and keep them safe.

Then there is the question of money – one that always comes up. Here, I am not even referring to the incremental expense of housing, feeding and testing families in addition to players.

It is the issue of salaries. Even that has multiple dimensions.

We already know that ownership is lobbying to pay the returning players less than a straight per-game proration of their full-season salaries because of the likelihood of games being held in empty ballparks, a stance against which the MLBPA is pushing back hard.

Now add on top of that the potential that some of the game’s best players might decide to sit out of the 2020 season entirely.

Would the Lords of Baseball be quietly pleased that some of their most expensive employees would not be drawing salaries in 2020, lowering their team payrolls this season only?

Or would owners balk over a game that may not be as competitive on the field as it would have been with rosters at full strength? And if so, would they use the less-than-full strength rosters to drive an even harder compensation bargain with the union?

Perhaps put more clearly, is there a risk of lower TV ratings in Los Angeles if there is no Kershaw in Dodger Blue and Trout in an Angels uniform? Lower ratings would mean even less revenue to the game in an already disastrous season financially.

And how about this? Even if MLB agrees to let some players sit out, would they allow any of them to return later in the season, or for the playoffs? What if the overall environment improves enough that such a player becomes willing to come in? Would he be allowed back in 2020 after initially opting out?

Still, when push comes to shove, if player compensation is the only remaining matter standing in the way of the season, one could assume it will be worked out. How painful it might be to get to that point remains to be seen, however.

Bringing families inside the bubble

On the surface, it seems that the best way to address the player family separation issue is to allow them all inside MLB’s protective bubble.

That seems reasonable at face value, but becomes less so when one starts to consider the quantity of additional people to sequester in hotels, keep safe and test regularly.

One can honestly question how families with children, whether infants or school-aged, would deal with being locked up for the remainder of the summer and through the fall in an environment that is guaranteed to be far less comfortable than their homes.

But if that is what is needed to get most of the players to buy in, will MLB be willing to take the chance?

An in-season positive test

As much as many might prefer to avoid thinking about it, the simple reality is that the more people in the bubble, the more likely someone inside is going to test positive. Then what?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the COVID-19 virus’ incubation period is 2-14 days. This is why quarantines are 14 days in duration.

This is not only for the person who tested positive, but those who were exposed but have not developed the illness or its symptoms. This is necessary to prevent the spread of the virus by carriers who still test negative.

Simply testing everyone in the bubble one day after a positive isn’t going to be good enough. Unless things change, those who had been in contact with the positive subject will also need to be isolated, until it is proven they are not infected as well, or are passing it on to others under the bubble.

If the positive test is from a player, how many other teams’ personnel did he come into contact with? Just yesterday? What about the day before? Last week? 14 days ago?

What to do with scheduled games?

Would the other teams continue playing with one or more teams quarantined? How would the schedule be adjusted on the fly as a result? At what point would the competitive integrity of an already compromised and shortened season be lost?

It feels like the game could grind to a halt for two weeks if any one individual in a bubble which would include multiple thousands of people gets sick.

And if so, would a two-week stoppage spell the death of the 2020 MLB season?

Adam Wainwright has strong feelings in this area, shared with MLB Network Radio earlier in the week.

“My biggest concern is that we get things going before we have an incredible plan, before we have a great system – and we would have to re-shut it down again,” the St. Louis Cardinals pitcher said – with a warning following.

“If you have to shut it down again, you might as well just play for next year – because it wouldn’t work. If you had to shut it down again, the world would go into panic and man, it would just be a horrible thing.”

Adam Wainwright and Family (St. Louis Cardinals)

While the 38-year old is pleased that his union and MLB are taking the time to try to figure this out, he made it clear what he does NOT want to see. In doing so, he echoed Trout and Kershaw.

“The best plan, from my point of view, is to not take me away from my family for four months and have me quarantined away from them – I can tell you that,” Wainwright said.

“You are going to have a lot of uninterested players when they hear that their families are not to be involved.”

The pitcher does not see a major issue with bringing player families inside the bubble and suggests that would be a palatable solution for him.

“We are all quarantined now,” Wainwright said. “What is the difference if we are all quarantined there or are quarantined there with our families? It is not like we are going to go out shopping at the mall and shaking everybody’s hand, you know? I think there is a way to have families involved and do it.”

Questions in conclusion

Will the MLBPA and MLB listen to these leaders and expand the bubble? Or will MLB strive to limit the size of the bubble by excluding families to keep the odds of a virus-driven stoppage lowest – even if it means some players would stay home as a result?

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