Why Cubs, MLB might face 2020 season without key players and what it means

Gordon Wittenmyer
NBC Sports Chicago

No fans at the games? That's already the plan.

But what happens to the 2020 baseball season if it gets started in July without Angels superstar Mike Trout? Or without the defending champs' All-Star closer, Sean Doolittle?

Or without Cubs ace Yu Darvish?

Those questions are among realistic scenarios that are part of what's at stake as Major League Baseball and the players union negotiate the health and safety protocols required for an agreement to start the season during the COVID-19 pandemic - a process that began late this week after MLB offered a 67-page proposal earlier in the week.

RELATED: MLB's sweeping health-and-safety proposals would bring big change to baseball

Financial terms, which have yet to be discussed in detail since the sides reached agreement on an initial salary deal in March, have gotten most of the public attention in recent weeks (a new proposal by MLB reportedly is to be presented to the union Tuesday).

But nothing can happen on that until the testing and safety guidelines are worked out - which for many players could be a much bigger issue.

And that could remain an issue even after an agreement to start play is eventually reached.

While the sides had not reached that point in negotiations as of Friday, it's clear based on multiple conversations that the union considers an important part of any agreement be protections for an individual who may choose to opt out of playing during the pandemic.

And it may not even be an especially contentious issue. 

Commissioner Rob Manfred already told CNN last week "if there are players with either health conditions or just their own personal doubts, we would never try to force them to come back to work. They can wait until they feel they're ready to come."

It's not hard to imagine the potential competitive impact on an already altered season if even a few of the highest-profile players opt out.

Trout told ESPN his top concern during this "scary" time involves caring for his pregnant wife, who is due in August. MLB's initial safety guidelines would seem to make participating in her regular care difficult if he abides by the plan, and perhaps even impossible when the time comes to be at a hospital.

"I'll be there," he told ESPN. "I'm not missing the birth of my first child. I know that."

What would Trout's absence do to the big-spending Angels' plans to contend under new manager Joe Maddon?

And what about the Nationals' plans to defend their World Series title without their closer, Doolittle, who has publicly expressed concern about a pre-existing condition that puts his wife at greater risk if infected?

And what about a Cubs team that even before the pandemic appeared to be - as first baseman Anthony Rizzo put it - "a bad start away from this team being blown up by the [trade] deadline."

What happens to that calculus if the first player this spring to publicly show concern for the lethality of the virus chooses to skip the 2020 half-season out of an abundance of caution for himself and his family?

"I'm really worried about it," Darvish said the first week of March, before MLB's first memo to teams on the subject was distributed and more than a week before spring training was shut down.

Darvish, who on March 5 got tested when he experienced a cough rather than risk exposing teammates, had talked to team officials as soon as camp started about concerns dealing with a disproportionate number of media traveling from Asia. 

Darvish's agent declined to address the question when asked his client's thoughts on playing under MLB's proposal and in light of Manfred's comment. Darvish did not respond this week to multiple requests on the subject made directly to him.

The Cubs also have players with potentially higher-risk factors for COVID-19, including cancer survivors Rizzo and Jon Lester.

To be clear, no player is known to have publicly said he won't play at this point; none can even be certain yet what the final the details of any agreement on safety measures will be.

Meanwhile, almost every player who has spoken publicly - including Trout - has expressed a desire to play this year, a sentiment expressed to Cubs officials from players in internal communications.

MORE: Players association responds to MLB health proposal, negotiations continue

And agent Scott Boras, for example, has said he has received no pushback from his client base on returning to play since some of MLB's plans were leaked. His clients include Cubs centerfielder Albert Almora Jr. and third baseman Kris Bryant - the team's player rep for the union, who became a first-time father last month.

But a season already assured of looking unlike any other before might also be assured of at least a few recognizable players skipping the season altogether because of inherent risk, no matter what the final agreement looks like.

Players with the greatest financial security also have the greatest freedom to exercise that choice. Trout's the highest paid player in the game; Darvish is in the third year of a six-year, $126 million deal.

Such an impact could be as immediate as it is dramatic, competitively, for a team like the Cubs.

They already spent last winter fielding offers for players up and down the roster before essentially standing pat with a group that missed the playoffs last year - and without enough in the payroll budget left to significantly add.

It could mark an especially swift decline and selloff if any key player opts out of participating in a half-season attempt to win one more time with a core that won a title in 2016 - much less the majors' all-time leader in strikeout rate coming off a dominant second half in 2019.

"I think each player has to make an individual choice. Are they willing to assume the risk?" said Chicago-based infectious-disease specialist Dr. Robert Citronberg. "No matter what strategy is employed, there's going to be risk involved. It's just a question of how much risk tolerance you have."

RELATED: Why one medical expert remains skeptical of MLB's COVID-19 precautions

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.

Why Cubs, MLB might face 2020 season without key players and what it means originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

What to Read Next