COVID-19 Update: NCAA Approves Extra Year of Eligibility

This is the latest installment of a daily series in which the FanGraphs staff rounds up the latest developments regarding the COVID-19 virus’ effect on baseball.

Hello everyone, and thank you for continuing to read these daily updates. This is the final day of March (or so I’m told!), the month in which everything plunged from its typical state of unrest into a total global nightmare, and we aren’t yet close to a point when these updates can relay good news. The total number of COVID-19 cases worldwide will eclipse 800,000 today, with the United States housing more than 160,000; more than 3,000 Americans are now dead from the virus. Virginia, Maryland, and Washington D.C. all issued stay-at-home orders on Monday, with some of those expected to last into at least June.

As has been the case for weeks, there remain many more questions than answers with regards to what the coming months will look like, and they are very, very tough questions. We’ll get into a couple of those below, as well as a major news development from the NCAA. But first, if you’re able to and haven’t yet, please consider supporting FanGraphs with a membership today.

NCAA Grants Extra Year of Eligibility to Division I Spring Athletes

On Monday, the NCAA’s Division I Council granted an extra year of eligibility to spring athletes whose seasons were lost due to COVID-19 cancellations. Divisions II and III, as well as NAIA, had already taken similar steps, but because of the financial implications of such an action for Division I, it was previously unclear if this measure would be adopted at the highest level.

This ruling is significant for every class of athlete, but is particularly meaningful for 2020 seniors who, until now, were left wondering if this outbreak was going to end their college sports careers once and for all. According to a story in Baseball America, that uncertainty may still exist in a smaller way. In the case of 2020 seniors, the NCAA will allowing each school to make its own decisions on whether to continue offering scholarship aid, and how much they want to offer, on a case-by-case basis. That means players who don’t have the financial stability to continue without scholarship aid are still waiting on reassurance that they will still have the means to play next year. Additionally, schools may choose to offer underclassmen less in aid than they did in 2020, but are not allowed to increase aid for anyone.

That being said, this is still a victory for thousands of baseball players who are likely to be hurt by a dramatically shortened draft this year. Seniors are less likely to be taken in the first five rounds of the draft than juniors and high school players, so their routes to professional baseball mainly exist in the middle and lower rounds. Thanks to this ruling, those seniors could get another opportunity to enter into a typically full draft, though they’ll still be hurt by age and what will be a much deeper class than normal.

MLB Still Unprepared For Player To Test Positive for COVID-19 During Season

The biggest question when it comes to baseball is when the season can finally begin. A return to baseball, of course, would mean that everything is back to normal, that the pandemic is in the past, or mostly so, and that the future of the sport is once again secure.

But that’s unlikely to be the case, which is why it’s important to consider the question Andy McCullough posed for The Athletic yesterday: What happens if a player contracts the coronavirus after games have begun again? It’s a timely question, given that three Japanese players tested positive for COVID-19 last week, forcing their team to go into quarantine for two weeks and threatening the NPB’s intended season-opener date of April 24. It’s also an immensely troubling question, and one that Major League Baseball doesn’t seem to have much of an answer for at this stage. From McCullough’s:

“Leaders from both MLB and the MLBPA, according to people familiar with the situation, have maintained a dialogue with infectious disease experts, public health officials, medical advisors and government officials on how to establish protocols to protect the health of players and staffers should games resume.

Those discussions are still in their early stages, as the commissioner’s office and the union were both consumed by solving the problems directly in front of them. Even a preliminary analysis of those necessary safeguards reveals a slew of potential risks. MLB would likely require an abundance of testing kits and the emergence of a treatment plan besides quarantine — neither of which is currently available. It is part of the reason why some in the industry — from scouts to analysts to player-development staffers — have expressed pessimism to The Athletic about the likelihood of seeing any baseball in 2020.”

If and when a 2020 season is played, it will be done on a densely-packed schedule that will not be able to weather any delays. There would not be an opening for the league to take two or three weeks off to self-quarantine, and there would be no way for the league to quarantine a specific team and continue playing without them. And because of how many non-players are necessary to conduct a game, the risk of exposure to the disease is always going to be high, regardless of whether fans are allowed in the park. As the number of cases and deaths continue to skyrocket, it seems that the only way the next baseball season actually signals a return to normal is if that season begins a long, long time from now.

Should Tommy John Surgery Be Conducted During a Pandemic?

This is another difficult-to-answer question posed by Sports Illustrated’s Emma Baccellieri, who spoke with medical ethicists for a story that ran Monday. At least three major league pitchers — Chris Sale, Noah Syndergaard, and Tyler Beede — have made the decision to undergo Tommy John surgery in the weeks since the U.S. Surgeon General issued a recommendation that all non-essential surgeries be placed on hold for the foreseeable future, so that as many resources as possible can be devoted toward addressing the novel coronavirus.

As the story states, there is no legal threat to these players. A recommendation from the Surgeon General is not the same thing as a law, which means that whether or not these players underwent surgery was and still is up to them and their physicians. But the question of whether it is ethically responsible to do so is a different matter, and it is a sensitive topic for some people. Shortly after Baccellieri shared the story on Twitter, New York Mets first baseman Pete Alonso quickly responded defending those players, including his teammate whose picture accompanied the story.

A lot of people might agree with Alonso’s stance here. Tommy John surgery isn’t something players just do for fun; they only get it when it is essential to the survival of their careers. In that sense, it is an essential, life-changing surgery for them, and as Alonso says, the doctors responsible for performing it are not going to be among the first responders to COVID-19 cases.

The problem with Alonso’s position, however, is that it’s a rather surface-level interpretation of the problem. It’s true that Tommy John surgery and coronavirus care fall into very different medical categories, but there is more overlap here than you think, from the need for masks, to the various medical personnel necessary for care, to the facilities in which players recover. And even if players schedule their surgeries in areas that seem to be minimally affected by the outbreak, there is no telling how quickly that can change. We have seen hospitals turned upside down seemingly overnight in some parts of the country, and that’s only likely to get worse.

No one is trivializing the need for Tommy John surgery among athletes. But as important as it is to their careers, it is still not a life-saving surgery. As the chair of medical ethics at Baylor is quoted saying in the story, “You can’t be in the system and out of the system. Medicine is all of our responsibilities.”

Nationals Shut Down Facility to Be Used for Testing Site

The Florida National Guard overtook the Washington Nationals’ spring training complex in West Palm Beach to use as a testing site for coronavirus, according to Jesse Dougherty of the Washington Post. According to Dougherty, only a portion of the facility is being used for testing, and the Nationals were allowed to continue using other areas of the complex for normal operations. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, however, felt the most responsible decision was to remove his organization from the facility altogether.

While no games have been going on for weeks, the Nationals were still using their spring training facilities for some player housing as well as ongoing injury treatment. The team has now isolated those players elsewhere, and is searching for a new space in which to conduct medical duties.

MLB Announces Extended Aid To Minor Leaguers

Finally, Major League Baseball announced that it would extend financial support, including medical benefits, to minor league players through May 31 or the beginning of the minor league season, whichever comes first. The previous announcement had guaranteed financial support to minor leaguers through April 8. Jeff Passan has reported they will receive $400 a week.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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Max Power
3 years ago

If Syndergaard had to wait 3-4 months to get surgery, that means he’d not be available for the 2021 season. Meaning the Mets would cut him and pay him only severance for 1/4 of this year’s salary (he’d lose 3/4 * $9.7M = $7.3M), non-tender him for 2021 (lose another $9.7M), and his free agent market after 2021 would be severely reduced by not pitching in 2021 rather than pitching a partial 2021.

If he didn’t pitch at all in 2021, he’d be looking at a slightly better of Garrett Richards’ last contract ($15.5M/2). If he pitched a partial season in 2021, he’d almost assuredly top Eovaldi’s last contract ($67.5M/4), likely by a large margin.

Would I like Syndergaard to donate money to the public health system covering the cost of 3-5 masks/gowns/pairs of protective gloves? Absolutely. Should he feel any guilt or face any criticism for doing so? Absolutely not.

3 years ago
Reply to  Max Power

I’m pretty sure you can’t cut injured players and recoup salary (and no cuts at all can occur now anyway). It could affect him getting tendered for 2021, so you have a point though it isn’t as bad as you say. Hell, even if he has the surgery now the Mets may not view tendering him for 2021 as worthwhile.

3 years ago
Reply to  Max Power

Wait, even if he were 100% certain to miss the entire 2021 season and the Mets non-tender him, you think no other team will sign him to a contract that covers 2021 and beyond? That’s nonsense.

Max Power
3 years ago
Reply to  cs3

No, I said if he were to miss the entire 2021 season and was non-tendered, a team would sign him to a 2-year deal where he’d miss 2021 but pitch in 2022, similar to the SD Garrett Richards contract, but Thor would get a cut above since he’s a better pitcher than Richards.