The focus can now turn to baseball.
Well, at least the version of Major League Baseball that will be played in a global pandemic — without fans, with frequent COVID-19 testing, without typical traditions such as spitting and sunflower seeds, and with enhanced safety protocols — for 60 regular-season games from July 23-24 to Sept. 27.
Following Tuesday’s “agreement” between the MLB and the MLB Players Association to start the season with players reporting to their organization’s home city by July 1, the hopeful plans and preparations made by teams and players when baseball was shut down due to the spread of the novel coronavirus and during the past two months of bitter negotiations can be put into action.
“We are going through the final preparations for a report day of July 1 and planning for July 3 to be our first actual workout day on the field,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said via a Zoom call Wednesday. “It’s all moving quite quickly, and we still don’t quite have all the answers in place. But for the most part the excitement of having the players back and getting the game moving again is certainly creating a new energy, and we’re looking forward to it.”
One question is when they can get clearance to work out at T-Mobile Park. The Mariners have been working with officials in Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, King County and Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office to submit a plan to open Spring Training 2.0 (there needs to be a better name) at T-Mobile Park on July 1.
“We still need approvals, and some of that we’re confident we’re going to get,” Dipoto said. “I know that’s for smarter people than me to deal with, but right now we have no reason to believe that will slow us down next week.”
Dipoto has been in contact with 25 to 30 players on the 40-man roster. They are expected to start arriving in Seattle as early as Saturday to undergo COVID-19 testing at T-Mobile and into self-quarantine until results come back. If they are negative, they could work out at T-Mobile in the days leading up to that first official workout.
“I think the earliest you’d see players at T-Mobile, provided we are approved to open the facility and get them in there, is sometime next Monday or Tuesday,” Dipoto said. “But we won’t have workouts on the field any earlier than next Wednesday. And we won’t have a group workout of any kind of size until next Friday.”
Dipoto confirmed that more than one player in the organization has tested positive for COVID-19.
“A lot of that is obviously protected information,” he said. “We’re not yet sure with the testing coming this weekend how much of that will affect our 40-man roster. But with the cases popping up, especially in some of the hot spots around the country, we’ve had a few players test positive. Right now, they’re asymptomatic, and they feel great.
“We are aware that they’re positive, and, obviously, they will not be in the environment when we open up until we’ve determined either: A, they are part of the roster group; or B, they’re healthy enough to be a part of that.”
Under modified MLB rules, the Mariners can invite 60 players to spring training — the 40-man roster and 20 additional players.
Based on the approved operating manual given to teams, the season will start with an active game roster of 30 players and the remainder being on a “taxi squad.” The 30-man active roster will last for 14 days and then be pared to 28 for 14 days. After those 28 days, active rosters will be set at 26 players.
The deadline to announce that group is noon Sunday. A previous freeze on transactions and roster moves will be lifted Friday to allow teams to make changes to their 40-man rosters.
“I’m gonna make those phone calls today and effectively invite our players back to spring training,” Dipoto said. “Many of them are not going to be players who were in our major-league camp Version No. 1, or certainly were not in the camp, when we disbanded at the end of March. We will have a group of developmental players that will be a part of our taxi squad.”
That group of developmental players will include top position-player prospects Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez and top pitching prospects Logan Gilbert and George Kirby. There is an outside chance that recent first-round draft pick Emerson Hancock, a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher, could get an invite, which team chairman John Stanton mentioned in an interview with ESPN 710.
“We will commit to a handful of players and making sure that we recover as much of their developmental season as we can,” Dipoto said.
But Dipoto shrugged off the idea of Kelenic and Rodriguez playing MLB games in the outfield in 2020 or Gilbert immediately starting the truncated season in the rotation.
Any player that is put on an active roster must also be added to the 40-man roster, meaning not only would their MLB service-time clock start, but also their minor league option clock. Even in a weird shortened season, it would be highly unlikely for the Mariners to rush these players.
Under normal circumstances, the goal was for Gilbert to make his MLB debut in late June or early July with a dozen starts under his belt and innings built up. Sending him out to pitch at the MLB level without that buildup would be irresponsible.
“The intent was he would’ve pitched a half of season at the Double A/Triple A level to prepare himself,” Dipoto said.
Plans have changed.
“It has to,” he said. “With the exception of the short-relief guys like (Sam) Delaplane and (Joey) Gerber and (Aaron) Fletcher, the rest of the group didn’t get the development time that they would’ve on the front end of this season. We still have to be cognizant of the fact that Jared Kelenic still hasn’t had 100 plate appearances above A-ball. The idea of taking players who haven’t had those experiences or been built up appropriately, and just throwing them into the deep end of the pool, at a time when the threat of injury if not handled appropriately is higher, we have to manage that properly, and we will. We’ll do the right thing.”
It is important to note that the 60-player list is far from malleable. Teams cannot freely swap out players on the taxi squad.
“There are a lot of regulations,” he said. “We don’t have the full operations manual. We can’t just move a player on or off. If a player on the taxi squad is injured, they are injured. In order to create an extra spot, we would have to either outright or release a player to add a new player. The league has rightfully put restrictions in place to govern teams from being a little bit loose, particularly in how many players are moving in and out of the environment. Because I think this is far less about competitive advantages and far more about making sure that our players are in the type of environment which is as centered on their health and well-being as we can possibly make it.”
The first official workouts, which will all be held at T-Mobile, will be different than typical spring-training workouts. Given the limitation of just one field, you won’t see all 60 players at once. They will come in smaller groups and try to take advantage of every ounce of space in the stadium, including both dugouts, clubhouses, training and weight rooms, the concourses (for other conditioning) and the stands for meetings.
“Our intent is to break down into groups of eight, 10 and 12 for the purposes of workouts,” Dipoto said. “And where we can break into smaller groups than that we will, for instance, pitchers who might need to throw side sessions and get gym work. We might work in a group of four with them. We’re going to individualize it as much as we can.”
When the season begins, players on the taxi squad will head to Cheney Stadium in Tacoma to handle the daily workouts and play intrasquad games.
“When we separate after the three-week spring training, we will create as much distance within the space as we can,” Dipoto said. “We’re very confident that we’re going to be able to break the group up into two operational to sizes that makes sense, and at least adhere to all of the social distancing norms that we’ve become accustomed to.”
Other things of note:
- Of the 60 games on a team’s schedule — 40 will be division and 20 will come against the geographic equal in the other league. AL West vs. NL West, AL Central vs. NL Central, AL East vs. NL East
- The designated hitter will be used in all games played in the AL and NL
- The playoffs will have the usual 10 teams — six division winner and two wild-card teams per league. But there are still some ongoing discussions for expansion.
- In tie games after nine innings, each inning will begin with a runner on second base in an effort to reach a quicker result. The runner will be the final out of the previous inning or a pinch runner.
- The MLB trade deadline has been pushed back to Aug. 31
- Three taxi-squad players, minimum of one catcher, can travel with teams on road trips.
- The injured list will remain at a 10-day minimum. The 60-day injured list has been lowered to 45 days. A player testing positive for COVID-19 will be placed on a different injured list, which has no maximum or minimum.
- All non-playing personnel, including umpires, must wear masks.
- MLB reserves the right to relocate a team during the season if a serious COVID-19 outbreak occurs.
- Players, coaches and staff will be tested every other day during spring training, the regular season and postseason. They will receive temperature and symptom checks twice a day and antibody testing once a month.
- Players or staff not participating must sit in the stands under social distancing rules.
- High-fives and celebrations, spitting of sunflower seeds and tobacco are also prohibited.