Theo Epstein was hired recently by Major League Baseball as a consultant to work with MLB’s competition committee and analytics experts. Matt York/Associated Press

Major League Baseball has a lot of work to do. And not much time to do it.

Last week, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred held a conference call with teams, telling them spring training will begin as scheduled. This came as a surprise to many who expected the start of the season – and the preseason before it – to be pushed back because of the ongoing pandemic.

Instead, teams have been instructed to get ready to go. Which means they have approximately four weeks to finalize rosters and plans for 2021.

As teams scramble to sign players – with more than two-thirds of free-agent players still unsigned – the sport itself has plenty to sort out.

Start with the National League’s designated hitter. Or lack thereof. We don’t know if the NL will have a DH this summer after playing with one on a provisional basis in 2020. Reports over the weekend said the MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association were still negotiating the matter. It seems both sides want it, but MLB wants an expanded playoff field in exchange for the DH. The players aren’t sure they want the expanded field.

Meantime, it seems we will have seven-inning doubleheaders and a man on second base to start extra innings. The former will be vital when games are postponed because of COVID-19 protocols, which will undoubtedly stay in place for the start of the season. The latter was a jolt of strategy and excitement when games dragged on in extras.

As we wait for final word on these short-term decisions, there are longer-term issues hovering over the game. The collective bargaining agreement between MLB and the players association expires after this coming season. As we were reminded in the early days of the pandemic last year there is more mistrust between the two sides now than there has been in decades. Not the ideal environment to work out an agreement that will get the sport back on its feet and beyond these uncertain times.

Much of that mistrust is based on finances. No surprise there. Yet there are major issues plaguing the game that are about the sport itself. The game has become plagued by the “three true outcomes” of each at bat. Hitters slug homers, strike out and walk at unprecedented rates. And through all three, other than the ball clearing the fence on a home run, there is very little excitement for fans. Balls aren’t put into play, defenses don’t do much, and we all wait for something to happen.

Toward that end, Manfred added former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein to his staff last week. Epstein will serve as a consultant and work with MLB’s competition committee and analytics experts, with an eye toward potential rule changes that could bring more excitement back to the game.

Epstein helped revolutionize the game as part of a generation of GMs who found new ways to succeed based on analytics. That approach has led to this new age of baseball.

“The executives, like me, who have spent a lot of time using analytics and other measures to try to optimize individual and team performance have unwittingly had a negative impact on the aesthetic value of the game and the entertainment value of the game in some respects,” Epstein said in a statement announcing his hire. He said his new role was to make the game “as entertaining and action-packed as possible for the fans.”

That would be great news for all of us. As we daydream of the day we can sit at a ballpark with a hot dog and a beer we also daydream about the game we will be watching. Changes in baseball are cyclical, so there’s no reason the sport can’t pull itself back from the brink.

Before that, it needs to get itself back on the field. And if teams really are expected to report for duty next month, Manfred had better finalize the ground rules teams will play by this year. Then he needs to work out a deal to keep the players playing for years.

Maybe then he could listen to Epstein on how to return the sport to its former glory.

Tom Caron is a studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on NESN. His column runs on Tuesdays in the Portland Press Herald.


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