Marlins’ Outbreak Produces a Full-Blown Crisis for MLB

Less than a week into the 2020 regular season, Major League Baseball has a full-blown crisis on its hands, as the Miami Marlins are in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak that threatens their ability to field a competitive team and calls into question the league’s entire return-to-play effort. On Sunday, the Marlins played the Phillies without three of their regulars or their scheduled starting pitcher, all of whom had tested positive for the coronavirus. On Monday morning, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that eight more players and two coaches had tested positive as well, and on Tuesday The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported four additional players testing positive, bringing the total number of cases over the last five days to 17. Monday and Tuesday’s games involving both the Marlins (who were to play their home opener against the Orioles) and Phillies (who were to host the Yankees) have been postponed, and more may follow.

Needless to say, this is not good.

Even before the Marlins’ outbreak came to light, MLB was unable to make it to the first official pitch of the regular season without a star player testing positive and being scratched from the Opening Day lineup amid questions about testing turnaround time and the protocol for handling exposed players. About five hours before the Yankees’ Aaron Hicks stepped in against Max Scherzer at Nationals Park last Thursday, Washington left fielder Juan Soto was pulled from the lineup due to a lab-confirmed positive test off a saliva sample taken on Sunday — four days earlier — igniting fears that other Nationals had been exposed in the time since he had provided the sample on Tuesday. That Soto had tested negative on three subsequent instant-result tests (both saliva and nasal) further muddied the waters.

The Nationals did not quarantine any additional players after contact tracing Soto’s infection, having determined that “no players or staff were deemed to have met the CDC definition of close contact” — staying within six feet for at least 15 minutes — with Soto. Thankfully, the 20-year-old slugger is reportedly asymptomatic and has received the first of two lab-confirmed negative tests necessary for his return; he will also have to go 72 hours without exhibiting symptoms. The rest of the Nationals reportedly tested negative as of Saturday, and at this writing, the team has reported no further infections.

As for the Marlins, though they hail from a state that has become the epicenter of the pandemic, the team had not experienced a disproportionate number of positive tests between the start of their summer camp and the approach of Opening Day, with only outfielders Lewis Brinson and Matt Joyce landing on the injured list due to undisclosed reasons as of July 16. On Friday, however, just before the their first game against the Phillies in Philadelphia, the Marlins placed catcher Jorge Alfaro on the injured list for undisclosed reasons. Then, about an hour before Sunday’s game, MLB Network’s Jon Heyman reported that scheduled starting pitcher José Ureña had been scratched due to a positive test. The game proceeded nonetheless, and Heyman soon followed up with a report that first baseman/designated hitter Garrett Cooper and right fielder Harold Ramirez — both of whom had started the team’s first two games — had tested positive as well, as had Alfaro.

That the Marlins and Phillies took the field despite so many positives is itself alarming; that the decision for Miami to play apparently ran through veteran shortstop Miguel Rojas, whom manager Don Mattingly described as “an unofficial team captain” all the more so. Nowhere in MLB’s 2020 Operations Manual does it say anything about player sentiment or the judgment of the team’s most respected veteran. Per the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Matt Breen, Mattingly said of Rojas, “He’s always texting the group and getting the feelings of the group. So when we’re dealing with situations or things, that’s usually who we’re working through.” Mattingly added that the team “never really considered not playing” on Sunday. Likewise, Rojas said that not playing “was never the mentality,” adding, “We knew that this would happen at some point. We came to the ballpark and we were ready to play. That was never our thought that we weren’t going to play.”

[UPDATE: Heyman reported that Rojas is among the players in Tuesday’s wave of positive tests, a further reminder that players are not qualified to serve as epidemiologists.]

While the difficulties of running a 30-team league during a pandemic owe plenty to matters beyond baseball — an administration that has politicized a public health crisis and provided scant leadership at the federal level, and shortages of tests and personal protective equipment, for starters — there are enough burning questions here to for MLB to feel the heat. Among them, why did the decision to play Sunday’s game remain in the hands of a team rather than the league? What is the threshold of infections to shut down a team, and for how long? Did all of this stem from a single infected player in the Marlins’ clubhouse, or did it come from outside the team — contracted from another opponent, or while traveling? If it came from a single Marlins player, then how can MLB believe that the protocols it has in place are enough to keep players safe and healthy, and to prevent other teams from experiencing similar outbreaks?

As to the first question, via Breen:

The opinion shared in the group chat was the same as the opinion of the Marlins organization, as both parties thought the team took enough precaution to play Sunday’s game. Those opinions were then provided to the joint committee of Major League Baseball and the players’ union, which is tasked with the day-to-day oversight of the monitoring and testing plan.

Those precautions apparently included informing the Phillies, who per manager Joe Girardi believed that the Marlins had followed the proper protocols. Phillies players were urged to take precautions; Bryce Harper wore a mask while running the bases, while Rhys Hoskins wore one while playing first base. Didi Gregorius, who’s considered a high-risk player due to a kidney condition, has been wearing masks at all times while playing the field. Here it’s worth noting that as critical as masks may be for reducing the spread of the coronavirus in general, they are more effective as source control — in preventing the wearer from infecting others, rather than in shielding the wearer from infection.

Per The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and Jayson Stark, sources familiar with MLB protocols “said that the league had done full contact tracing following the first positive test, tested all remaining Marlins players and based the decision not to intervene in part on the fact that no other players tested positive or reported symptoms.” That reasoning alarmed the two infectious disease experts The Athletic consulted, both of whom expected that the threshold for postponing Sunday’s game would have been met, and cautioning that it would take longer than a day to determine the extent of the outbreak. Dr. John Swartzburg, a clinical professor emeritus at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, Division of Infectious Disease, suggested that if 10% of the traveling group has tested positive, there exists a high probability of further positives among the group, as players who had not tested positive may be incubating the virus. In this case, they may have exposed players on the Phillies, and possibly the Braves, whom the Marlins faced in an exhibition in Atlanta last Wednesday; here we should note that Georgia is itself a coronavirus hotbed, and that Braves catchers Travis d’Arnaud and Tyler Flowers were both placed on the COVID-19 injured list after they showed symptoms of illness, though they tested negative for the virus.

In MLB’s 2020 Operations Manual, players or coaches testing positive on the road are required to remain in that city and self-quarantine for 14 days, and must test negative twice at least 24 hours apart to return to the roster. The entire Marlins team remained in Philadelphia on Sunday, self-quarantining rather than traveling home. On Monday, team CEO Derek Jeter said in a statement that the Marlins would remain in Philadelphia pending the results of another round of testing. Meanwhile, Phillies players and staff underwent saliva testing at the drive-through facility at Citizens Bank Park; their results are still pending as of this writing.

As for where MLB goes from here, that so many Marlins personnel tested positive has not affected the league’s resolve to continue the season. The 30 owners had their weekly conference call with commissioner Rob Manfred on Monday afternoon, during which there was no talk of cancellation, according to Joel Sherman. In his column in the New York Post, Sherman added, “[T]he decision was made to continue to play with the belief that 60-player pools per team were created in anticipation of an outbreak, hope that the contagion in Philadelphia was limited to just the Marlins and belief that this will help reinforce safety and health protocols moving forward.” In other words, the Marlins are supposed to next-man-up this situation just as the Nationals did when they lost Soto, but with perhaps more than a dozen players from their alternate training site, many as green as the outfield grass. On Monday, Heyman reported the team was out “looking for extra MLB quality players.” Yikes.

All of that sounds wildly optimistic, to say the least, as does Manfred’s hope that after postponing Tuesday’s game against the Orioles in Miami, the Marlins will be able to resume play on Wednesday and Thursday in Baltimore “if the testing results are acceptable,” as he told MLB Network’s Tom Verducci in a nine-minute interview on Monday. Oxford College of Emory University epidemiologist Zachary Binney — the other expert consulted by The Athletic, incidentally — called the plan for the Marlins to continue while being augmented by additional players from the taxi squad (which he conflated with those from the alternate training site) “absolutely insane” and “the literal stupidest possible plan.” Binney explained his reasoning in an additional series of tweets:

In the interview, Verducci asked Manfred what it would take to consider shutting down a team or a portion of the league’s schedule. Said Manfred, “I think that a team losing a number of players that rendered it completely non-competitive would be an issue that we would have to address and have to think about making a change. Whether that was shutting down a part of the season, the whole season, that depends on the circumstances. Same thing with respect to league-wide; you get to a certain point league-wide where it does become a health threat and we certainly would shut down at that point.”

Here one can’t help but wonder if that point would already have been reached, and the situation met with greater alarm if a bona fide contender — rather than one of the majors’ least competitive and least-watched teams — had so many players test positive. The Marlins project to be the NL’s worst team; imagine if players from its best, the Dodgers, had similarly experienced an outbreak. Transpose the positions of the Marlins who tested positive onto the Dodgers’ lineup and you’d have the rather shocking news that Sunday starter Julio Urías, catcher Will Smith, first baseman Max Muncy, and right fielder Mookie Betts were all sidelined — and then, that seven or 11 additional, unidentified Dodgers were positive as well, raising the possibility that reigning NL MVP Cody Bellinger and/or three-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw might be among them. Perform that mental exercise with Yankees, Astros, Nationals, or Cubs players and again, it’s likely a whole different ballgame, with public outcry at least an order of magnitude beyond what it is for a set of players who aren’t household names.

If MLB won’t cancel the season outright, should it consider stopping play for two weeks right now to make sure that the Marlins and any other team that they’ve been exposed to is clear of an outbreak, thus pushing the now-expanded postseason into November? Nobody in any official capacity has broached the subject, but with the nationwide case numbers where they are, shutdowns and/or rollbacks of reopening appear inevitable in places like Florida, Georgia, Texas, and Arizona, so it’s difficult to imagine that infection rates could be higher later this year than they are now. Attempting a reset of the MLB season, with more stringent protocols in place — cracking down even on the spitting and the high-fiving and so on while finding ways to further increase testing capacity and oversight while decreasing turnaround time — might be safer than proceeding under the current conditions.

If pushing further into the fall is deemed unwise, well, maybe the 60-game season becomes 50 games, which would stink, and also mean less money for the players. With the move to expand the playoffs to 16 teams this year, this season already resembles a tournament more than it does a standard major league campaign, so what’s another concession in that direction? Maybe a team that reaches some threshold for infections is shut down for a couple of weeks, effectively eliminating them from contention, but is allowed to return to play for the sake of competitive integrity (if such a thing can exist amid this mess). If that left contenders with an uneven number of games, they’d be ranked by winning percentage without regards to the differing number of games played, because again, this is a dumb tournament, not rocket science.

Of course, all of these admittedly slapdash solutions beg the question of whether MLB should even be attempting this. As I sit here brainstorming half-baked solutions to problems that rely on the shaky premise of having to complete the season, it feels cavalier to do so without acknowledging that each positive-testing player may face life-threatening or career-altering consequences. Earlier this month, we learned that Freddie Freeman was praying for his life when he battled infection, and more recently, Eduardo Rodriguez was diagnosed with myocarditis. This is nothing to take lightly.

As with the situation when MLB’s transition from intake testing to daily testing turned into a mess due to holiday-related delays and backlogs, the public is losing confidence in MLB’s ability to pull this season off safely, and it’s possible that the players are as well. [UPDATE: On that note, Rosenthal reported on Tuesday that the “vast majority” of Nationals players voted against going to Miami for their scheduled three-game series from July 31-August 2. The players don’t get to make that call; the decision on whether to move the series “will rest with MLB.” Even so, it’s noteworthy that the Nationals have publicly offered some pushback as to the league’s plans.]

If MLB is determined to bluster and blunder through this, one wonders if this scare will induce more players to consider dropping out. On Monday I noted the ambivalence of Mike Trout when it came to playing this season, as he and his wife Jessica are expecting their first child next month; not until last Wednesday did he definitively say he would continue, that while citing the way his teammates had adhered to safety protocols and had avoided an outbreak. If one on the order of the Marlins’ outbreak were to occur within the Angels’ clubhouse right now, Trout might well pick up his bats and go home for the rest of the summer. Not only would it be impossible to fault him for doing so, but his decision could embolden other players to make the same one themselves.

As the rapid spread of COVID-19 has shown at several turns, today’s bold plans to forge ahead may look foolishly optimistic tomorrow. Maybe MLB will get lucky, and the outbreak within the Marlins’ clubhouse won’t spread even further within the team, or to another club, or be replicated in a clubhouse far away. Most likely, however, this is just the latest of many serious situations the league will have to confront before deciding whether it still has the stomach to continue.

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Cave Dameron
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Cave Dameron

Thank you Jay, very cool!