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MLB still fighting uphill battle to play 2020 season in COVID-19 epidemic

Sure, make plans for your team’s roster. Just realize who’s actually in charge of the 2020 season.

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Detroit Tigers Summer Workouts Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Nothing about this attempt at a Major League Baseball season is going to be normal. That’s perfectly fitting, as normal doesn’t exist anymore. Yet, players have shown up for a second go-around at training camps, a schedule is being finalized, the league is running a lot of testing, and teams are trying to work out their safety protocols to keep players healthy and on the field.

The question is how to try and cover baseball the way we normally would. Assuming we were at an equivalent place in March, with no pandemic, and the season starting in three weeks, we would obviously be speculating on the roster, who might break out, who is on their last legs with the organization, how to set up the rotation and the bullpen, and debating when the Tigers top prospects might make their debut.

Yes, the Tigers are making plans for their initial 30-man active roster. They will announce their starting lineup and rotation, and an expanded bullpen to help support arms that aren’t going to be fully stretched out when play begins. There will be a little extra help on the bench in terms of position players as well. Then they will have their additional 30 backup players and prospects working on the taxi squad initially. But whatever their plans, teams may quickly find that much of the decision-making is out of their hands.

Even under normal circumstances, baseball has a way of foiling the best laid plans. With the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic included, forget about making predictions.

Initial reports aren’t great

MLB released initial reports on testing of players and staff on Tuesday, June 30, showing a positive rate of just 1.2 percent. A total of 38 people, 31 players and seven team employees tested positive, from a group of 3,185 samples. That seemed like a decent place to start as the league, the teams, and the players attempt to find a relatively safe path back to baseball.

However, as noted in a fine piece by Dr. Meredith Wills for The Athletic, reporting on that initial batch of tests was still far from complete when those first reports emerged. Now the question of why the league released early results with misleading numbers is part of the story. In at least one case, the Oakland A’s, delays in test turnaround time are already impacting an already tight schedule to establish sound procedures and get ready for a season that is only three weeks from getting underway.

Teams have continued to announce positive tests in the days since, and Washington Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle, among others, has been vocal about some of the initial problems with safety protocols and equipment. The Nationals too have had to postpone the arrival of some players in camp due to the inability to get tests for them and turnaround the results quickly.

Here, too, are the Astros cancelling practice on Monday for similar reasons.

By and large the players want to play, but there are a lot of concerns that things need to tighten up if they are going to manage to play out a full 60-game schedule and postseason. Some, like David Price, Felix Hernandez, and Ryan Zimmerman, have already opted out. Players as notable as the one and only Mike Trout have stated they are still taking a wait and see attitude. The league had three months to prepare for this, and as difficult as the task is, they have left themselves no margin for error here. Another week of confusion and cancelled practices and the planned season could end up scrubbed before most guys have gotten any real work in.

Best laid plans

Take the Tigers starting rotation as an example of how theory could meet reality. It’s reasonable to think they could go with six starters to start with, knowing that they aren’t going to want them throwing more than 75 pitches per outing initially. Manager Ron Gardenhire has typically favored keeping things simple, so we’ll assume a five-man rotation for now.

The Tigers have 11 pitchers they could theoretically call on to start games, without dipping into their prospect pool. Beyond Matt Boyd, Ivan Nova, Daniel Norris, Jordan Zimmermann and Spencer Turnbull, they have long relief-spot start options in Zack Godley, Tyler Alexander, Dario Agrazal, and Nick Ramirez. Hector Santiago is getting a look. Michael Fulmer is the wild card right now, but presumably the Tigers will work him back into a starting role as he settles in.

Part of the point of that depth, is to allow them to take their time and not rush the likes of Casey Mize, Matt Manning, or Tarik Skubal to the major leagues.

However it’s easy to imagine how those plans could quickly go up in smoke. There is always attrition as pitchers prepare for a season under normal circumstances. The spring culling of arms is the sad ritual of preseason baseball. And, other than Boyd, most of the Tigers’ initial rotation already consists of guys with, at best, modest claims to a starting role at the major league level at this point. Were the Tigers to get most of those guys healthy and throwing reasonably well by late July it would be a minor miracle. Now add the likelihood that a few guys will test positive along the way, requiring a quarantine stint (at best), and you realize how quickly this could unravel.

The Tigers clearly don’t really want to use their top prospects this season, but had no real choice but to add them to the taxi squad to help continue their development. Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson aren’t going to see the show under any circumstances, but the likes of Manning, Mize, Skubal, and Alex Faedo are all in the finishing school stages of their development. If attrition calls for a starter, or someone who can throw multiple innings of support, the prospects may ultimately get the call whether the Tigers like it or not.

One the better arguments for simply cancelling the season just comes down to the fact that, beyond potential extra risk to players, coaches and support staff, the results may be decided by the virus rather than anything to do with team building, roster deployment, or even individual player performance.

Over the coming days and weeks, we will be rolling out plenty of preseason coverage. But the perspective can’t help but be divided. The impact of the virus is impossible to predict and likely to be outsized compared to any team decisions. The whole season could be scuttled before it begins. On the other, we’re going to write about baseball, and can only take the situation as it comes and try to cover it with some semblance of normalcy.

In every case, whether we are discussing a roster battle, bullpen usage, or who takes the role of the 30th man on the active roster, COVID-19 and teams’ ability to combat it’s spread is going to be the determining factor. So take this as a general disclaimer. Results may vary. Wildly.

Of course, the same is true for all 30 teams, but clearly some will be more focused on winning games than others. Many will simply be trying to field a major league roster and get through this. The point is that all of these plans, goals, and hopes may well be in vain.

The season itself, if they manage to complete it, is going to be a crapshoot the likes of which no one has ever seen in major league baseball. For most clubs, simply getting the season in without permanently debilitating illness, or even death, to anyone in their organization is really the only goal that matters. In the end, everyone, no matter who they play, root, or work for, is fighting against the same opponent.