The Cactus League task force has formally requested that MLB delay the start of spring training this year due to the high COVID-19 infection rate in Maricopa County. While this ruling doesn’t officially prohibit the teams who train in Arizona from doing so as scheduled, it’s obviously a bad sign for the season’s chances of starting on time.
The Phoenix area hosts exactly half of MLB’s teams for spring training: the Angels, Athletics, Brewers, Cubs, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Giants, Indians, Mariners, Padres, Rangers, Reds, Rockies, Royals and White Sox.
While there have been reports of owners wanting to wait to start spring training until players and coaches can be vaccinated en masse, MLB has publicly maintained that it’ll start the season as scheduled. One could argue that actions speak louder than words — there’s still been no clarification provided on the rules for the 2021 season, and countless free agents still remain unsigned about three weeks before camps are set to open — but this seems to be the most significant impediment to the league playing a 162-game season that we’ve seen so far.
The league perhaps could still play the regular season as scheduled if it simply shortens spring training, as it did last summer in advance of the truncated 60-game season, and as the NBA and NHL did this winter prior to beginning their own shortened seasons. This request from the Cactus League task force seemingly gives leverage to the owners, though, who would likely prefer to shorten the 2021 season as a means of reducing players’ salaries during a time of financial adversity and increasing the chances of some fans being in the stands when the season begins.
MLB could also explore the possibility of conducting spring training in home ballparks like it did last summer, with teams playing intrasquad games to get ready for the season. But that might not be practical or even feasible in cold-weather cities throughout the Midwest and Northeast, so the most realistic solution seems to be waiting a bit until things settle down.