If all goes according to plan — and these days that is a big if — all 30 MLB teams will play on Friday, Aug. 7, for the first time in 12 days after two COVID-19 outbreaks have led to several postponements over the last few weeks.
Every Friday, Extra Innings will get you caught up on the biggest storylines across the baseball world and provide analysis of what lies ahead. Let’s jump right into this week’s edition:
MLB and its players association aren’t messing around with recent changes to COVID-19 protocols.
Following COVID-19 outbreaks within the Marlins and Cardinals organizations, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred recently told ESPN’s Jesse Rogers that the league traced the spread of the virus among the teams back to lapses in the established health and safety protocols. “The key is vigilance,” Manfred said. “It’s vigilance on the part of the commissioner’s office, club officials, players and everyone involved in the game.” That was a notably better statement than Manfred made over this past weekend, when he told ESPN’s Karl Ravech in part, “The players need to be better, but I am not a quitter.”
Manfred also said he believes the majority of players have done a good job adhering to the protocols, adding that “relatively small deviations from the protocols can cause serious problems.”
One common criticism of the protocols has been the lack of enforcement. But on Wednesday, several media members, including Jared Diamond of The Wall Street Journal, reported that Major League Baseball and the MLBPA had agreed to several changes to the COVID-19 operations manual. Among the protocols now in effect:
- Players and staff must wear face coverings at all times in all places of stadiums except for players on the field.
- Home teams are required to provide outdoor, covered spaces for visitors to minimize time indoors.
- Both teams must have dedicated spaces where social distancing can be practiced during rain delays.
- Teams must reduce their traveling parties to only essential personnel.
- All staff and players must wear face coverings at all times in hotels on the road except when alone in their rooms.
- Players and staff on the road must notify their compliance officers if they intend to leave the hotel for any reason.
- Players and staff at home are prohibited from visiting lounges, malls, bars, or other places where large groups gather.
The league sent a memo to teams this week outlining the changes to the manual. Anyone found to be in violation of the protocols may face significant punishment, including a potential ban for the remainder of the 2020 season, Diamond noted. In the memo, MLB acknowledged the additional restrictions these changes will entail, but said that they are necessary to limit infections, per Rogers.
You could make the argument that these types of protocols should have been in place originally, it’s certainly a good thing that they are now. It’s also encouraging that the league has made it clear such measures are not strong suggestions, but requirements to play in 2020, and that players will be met with strong repercussions if they choose not to follow them. While the Cardinals and Marlins outbreaks fortunately did not appear to spread significantly to opponents, we’ve seen in the last few weeks just how easily COVID-19 can spread within a team. MLB is certainly hoping these changes will go a long way in limiting that moving forward.
The changes announced regarding active roster size for the rest of the season make sense given the circumstances.
Entering the 2020 season, active rosters were set to expand from 25 to 26 players. Given the unique nature of this shortened season, though, an agreement was reached to start with 30-man active rosters before reducing them to 28 players two weeks in and 26 players four weeks in. On Wednesday, MLB announced a change in that plan, with active rosters decreasing to 28 as planned but remaining there for the remainder of the season, including the postseason.
The change makes sense given the sheer volume of injuries that have popped up across the league in the first few weeks of the season and the recent COVID-19 outbreaks with the Marlins and Cardinals. Pitchers have been landing on the IL at an especially high rate, likely due at least in part to the abbreviated ramp up to the start of the regular season, so the ability of teams to have a few extra players could help relieve some stress on pitchers as well as position players.
Twins, Cubs become first teams in baseball to reach 10 wins.
After setting a new single season home run record in 2019, the Twins’ offense has picked up right where it left off this year. Minnesota is top five in baseball in both runs scored and home runs, with four players posting an OPS .800 or above to begin the season. 40-year-old Nelson Cruz is showing no signs of slowing down with a .373/.418/.608 batting line, including an unbelievable .750 (9-for-12) batting average with runners in scoring position, while Max Kepler leads the team with four longballs. And despite a poor start from Jose Berrios and just five innings to date from Rich Hill, the Twins are also fourth in MLB in team ERA at 2.97, thanks in large part to veteran Kenta Maeda (2.65 ERA) and 25-year-old Randy Dobnak (0.60 ERA).
The Cubs’ early season success has come despite one glaring problem: the bullpen. Craig Kimbrel’s second year with the team has been a disaster (7 ER and 5 BB in 2.2 IP), and seven other pitchers with multiple relief appearances have an ERA over 6.00. So how have the Cubs started 10-3? Starting pitching and a high-powered offense. The team’s 2.83 starters ERA is fourth-best in the NL, and seven different players have hit multiple home runs thus far. David Ross tallied 10 victories in his first 12 games as manager, the fewest decisions needed to reach 10 career wins of any Cubs manager since 1900.
Quick hits: Rescheduled games, Ohtani, Soto
MLB announced on Aug. 6 that all games postponed up to that point have now been rescheduled. The full list of rescheduled games involves 12 different teams. At least for now, the league still clearly intends for all teams to play 60 regular season games in 2020. Even if things go according to the new plan, it certainly won’t be easy for the most significantly impacted teams to make up all missed games. The Marlins, for example, are slated to conclude the regular season with 27 games over the final 23 days, a stretch which includes zero off days and four doubleheaders in a 10-day span.
The Angels’ Shohei Ohtani will not pitch again this year after being shut down due to a strained right forearm. The two-way star struggled in his first two outings of the season before being diagnosed with the injury. He did not pitch at all in 2019 after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and with his injury track record growing, some have said he should focus on one side of the game or the other. Ohtani, though, recently told reporters that while he would listen if asked to pick hitting or pitching, he still wants to remain a two-way player. While his recent arm troubles have been discouraging, Ohtani absolutely still deserves the chance to both pitch and hit. In 2018, he pitched to a 3.31 ERA in 10 starts while striking out 11 batters per nine innings. At the plate, he boasts a strong .873 OPS at the major league level.
Star Nationals outfielder Juan Soto returned to the team’s active roster and starting lineup this week after missing the beginning of the season following a positive COVID-19 test. Soto told reporters that he didn’t believe he ever had coronavirus and that he had a false positive. As the Washington Post’s Jesse Dougherty wrote, “Those close to Soto say he was frustrated by how the public could perceive his positive test result. He didn’t want to be seen as reckless or immature, contracting the virus at a bar or restaurant in the hours between games. He was hellbent on clearing his name, regardless of whether anyone was judging him.” As fans react to players testing positive for COVID-19, this is a really important point to remember. We’ve seen just how fast COVID-19 can spread amongst a team recently. It’s important to remember that a positive test doesn’t mean the player did anything wrong.
What’s on Deck?
Following a COVID-19 outbreak which involved seven players and six staff members, the Cardinals are set to return to action on Aug. 7 as they host the rival Cubs to begin a three-game weekend series. The Cubs (10-3) have twice as many wins as the Cardinals (2-3) have games played at this point. A few other weekend series of note: The Athletics (9-4) will host the Astros (6-6) in a battle of the top two teams in the AL West, the Yankees (9-3) will face the Rays (5-7) in Tampa, and the Braves (9-5) will square off against the Phillies (3-4) in Pennsylvania.
Photo by “PresidenciaRD” / Flickr