More Coronavirus Infections on Marlins, Phillies, and Now Cardinals Mean More Scrambling — and More Questions — for MLB

The impact of the Marlins’ outbreak of coronavirus and Sunday’s ill-fated decision to allow the team to play the Phillies continues to resonate throughout major league baseball. Both teams have now reported more positive tests within their organizations, and more games have been postponed, causing a ripple effect within the schedule. Meanwhile, the league is reportedly upgrading its protocols, has launched an investigation into the outbreak, and has reached an agreement with the Major League Baseball Players Association to reduce doubleheader games to seven innings apiece, just as the necessity for such twin bills appears to be increasing by the day as the postponements mount.

How necessary? On Friday morning, MLB Network’s Jon Heyman reported that the night’s game between the Cardinals and Brewers — neither of which team has crossed paths with the Marlins or Phillies — has been postponed as well due to multiple positive tests on the Cardinals. Sportsgrid’s Craig Mish followed up with a report that it’s two players infected. The team has been instructed to self-isolate. In other words, a new front in MLB’s battle to forge ahead has opened up.

Folks, it’s going great.

Since publishing my latest update on the subject on Wednesday morning, three additional Marlins players, all as yet unidentified, have tested positive, bringing the team’s total to 18 players and two coaches. The majority of those players are unidentified, but among those reported to be infected are catcher Jorge Alfaro, first baseman Garrett Cooper, shortstop Miguel Rojas, right fielder Harold Ramirez, and starters Sandy Alcantara and José Ureña. ESPN’s Jesse Rogers reports that the infected players and other personnel will be driven back to Miami on sleeper buses, while the rest will continue on their road trip.

As for the Phillies, none of their players has tested positive thus far, but a visiting clubhouse staffer did so over the weekend, and on Thursday, multiple outlets reported that one coach and a home clubhouse staffer both tested positive as well. In the wake of that news, the Phillies not only canceled workouts at Citizens Bank Park, but canceled all activity at the ballpark until further notice, and players have been told to isolate while they await more daily testing and results. Obviously, this is worrisome, not only because it could mean more infections on the way but because an outbreak crossing from one team to another is a nightmare scenario, even if it’s not specifically commissioner Rob Manfred’s nightmare scenario.

MLB had already postponed the Phillies’ home-and-home series against the Yankees this week, and has now postponed the team’s entire weekend series against the Blue Jays — a series it had already revisited twice since the schedule was originally announced, first to have the Phillies play as the visiting team because the Blue Jays’ temporary new home, Buffalo’s Sahlen Field, is still being upgraded to comply with the particulars of MLB’s 2020 standards, and then to move Friday’s game to part of a Saturday doubleheader, presumably to allow for one more day of testing.

Officially, the Phillies’ next scheduled game also happens to be the Marlins’ next scheduled game, since the latter’s weekday home-and-home series with the Orioles and weekend series with the Nationals were already canceled. On August 4, the two teams are supposed to play a three-game set in Miami. However, on Tuesday MLB said via a statement that additional rescheduling for the week of August 3rd would be announced later this week. MLB has already shown flexibility with regards to rescheduling games, and teams have shown a willingness to go along with the program; rather than let both the Yankees and Orioles idle in place while their opponents were shut down, MLB paired the teams for a two-game series in Baltimore — games that were originally scheduled to be played on August 3-4 — on Wednesday and Thursday. The opening of those dates, and the pending announcement of more rescheduling, may have to do with the Yankees and Phillies making up this week’s games, a possibility floated by the Washington Post’s Dave Shenin on Tuesday. Yankees manager Aaron Boone was working under that impression as well:

Though they don’t extend to the active roster, the Phillies’ positive tests may force the postponement of their meeting with the Yankees even before it’s officially announced. Meanwhile, it may be the case that the Marlins remain on hiatus beyond Tuesday. All of which is to say that the schedule is still in flux. Good thing nobody needs to worry about tickets this year, right?

Leaving aside the possibility of further rescheduling beyond Tuesday, the Marlins and Phillies will have both gone at least eight days without playing, all but eliminating the likelihood that they will make up every postponed game; the math says that even if the league were to reschedule both teams to play on Monday, August 3, each would have 56 days to play 57 games, and there’s no way that the players’ union will let that fly. While not official yet, it sounds as though the league is prepared to accept the possibility of teams playing differing totals of games, in which case playoff spots would be decided by winning percentages, as was the case in the strike-shortened 1972 and ’81 division races.

That said, the new rule for seven-inning games for doubleheaders appears to be MLB’s attempt to minimize that possibility. As with the man-on-second extra innings rule, MLB has once again taken a page from the minor leagues in a manner almost certain to enrage purists and invite ridicule; thankfully, both changes are in place only for 2020. The doubleheader rule is an attempt to protect pitchers, expedite games, minimize the time at the ballpark for players and staff, and allow for the possibility that postponements may create a frequent need to play two games in one day. Through Wednesday, the average game time this year was three hours and nine minutes. At that pace, a seven-inning game would be 42 minutes shorter; multiply it by two, and the savings approach an hour and a half.

While this doesn’t seem like he most urgent matter at the moment, Angels manager Joe Maddon told the Associated Press that he could see the potential utility with the new rule: “Right now, I don’t think it’s necessary based on how this season has been set up. If the doubleheaders were to pile up for whatever reason, I would have it like in a contingency plan.”

The Athletic’s Britt Ghiroli reported on Wednesday that the players’ union was surveying its members about the possibility either of playing two such games for a doubleheader or simply shortening the second game to seven innings. Concurrently, the league checked opinions on the matter among owners and general managers, and in marked contrast to so many other negotiations between the two sides lately, the decision came together very quickly, and will go into effect as of August 1. A doubleheader between the Indians and White Sox, played in order to make up a rainout from the day before, took place on Tuesday under standard nine-inning rules.

Off the field, MLB is updating its protocols in the wake of the Marlins’ mess, a possibility that commissioner Rob Manfred suggested in his interview with MLB Network on Monday. ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that Manfred sent a memo to teams on Tuesday that includes mandates that players and staff wear surgical masks instead of cloth masks while traveling, and that each team travel with a compliance officer who will ensure that players and staff properly follow the league’s protocol. It’s unclear yet who will fulfill that role — a team executive or athletic trainer, or somebody from the league office — or how it differs from the previously created role of infection control prevention coordinator, a position described in MLB’s 2020 Operations Manual as an existing staff member “who will monitor and ensure compliance with MLB-mandated health and safety protocols.”

Regardless, it doesn’t sound like a lot of fun for the compliance officer, who would theoretically be charged with policing the spitting and high-fiving that has taken place despite the league’s directives, as well as working to ensure the wearing of masks and maintenance of social distancing. According to Passan, this person’s duties will include submitting reports, monitoring hotels, and arranging seating charts on buses to ensure the maintenance of social distancing rules, perhaps separating teammates likely to break them. The officer will be credentialed as Tier 1, as are players, managers, coaches and training staff; that status allows them access to restricted areas.

Manfred’s memo does not mandate a quarantine for teams that are on the road, but it does discourage players and staff from venturing outside hotels except to travel to games, and even from gathering in common areas of the hotel. Passan wrote that the protocols could be further strengthened in the coming days.

Back to the Marlins, the outbreak has fueled numerous rumors as to its origin, none of which have been substantiated. The New York Post’s Joel Sherman reported that the league has launched an investigation into the situation, not for punitive purposes but “with the aim of reinforcing better practices specifically with this team and learning what can be done to prevent a repeat elsewhere.” A league official told Sherman, “Something happened massively disruptive to the process that is not going on anywhere else.” More:

There is concentration currently on whether there were infected personnel on the Marlins’ charter last Tuesday from Miami to Atlanta, and whether protocol to avoid crowded public places while on the road was violated by members of the Marlins’ traveling party after a Tuesday night exhibition game against the Braves.

While MLB appears to be making an effort to understand how the outbreak happened, questions still linger as to how Sunday’s decision to play unfolded. “Nobody from Major League Baseball or the Marlins has publicly provided detailed answers about the behind-the-scenes decisions or protocols that led the league to determine it was safe to play Sunday, wrote The Athletic’s Meghan Montemurro and Jayson Stark. An epidemiologist working in professional sports (unidentified because he was not authorized by his employer to speak publicly) told The Athletic that the league’s protocols raise serious questions about how communications should be handled for similar situations, and that the decision to play can’t be left up to players, as it apparently was for the Marlins. “There has to be some medical intervention,” said the epidemiologist. “There has to be someone who can say, ‘This is what we have,’ and can say, ‘We need to stop it here.’” The epidemiologist suggested that if one or two teams needed to be shut down and quarantined for 10 to 14 days, then that should be the case for the entire sport, for the sake of safety and competitive integrity.

The league’s course of action regarding the Cardinals, who played the Twins on Tuesday and Wednesday, may indicate what kind of lessons have been learned from the Marlins-Phillies debacle. It counts as progress that Friday’s game was postponed before the team even reported to Miller Park. Then again, the speed with which MLB seems to want to move on may raise eyebrows:

Presumably if additional positive tests arise, the rescheduled games will also be in jeopardy. Via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Derrick Goold, “traditional” in this context means that the second game will start soon after the first one ends, as opposed to being a day-night doubleheader. The games are scheduled to be seven innings long, according to an official source. MLB officially announced the new rule on Friday afternoon.

This is a developing story, and it’s fair to wonder how different the outlook for continuing the 2020 season will look by the end of this coming weekend — or even the end of Friday. Suffice it to say that a league with 20% of its teams out of action on a given day due to the coronavirus probably isn’t sustainable.

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, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
3 years ago

The worst flu season of the past decade years caused 61,000 deaths. COVID has already claimed more than twice that. Not to mention all of the people who don’t die who have long-term damage to their heart or lungs.

3 years ago
Reply to  SandyK

If I’m not mistaken, I believe that is the *estimated* deaths and not *confirmed* deaths. The number of estimated deaths is always higher than the number confirmed; when they do the estimation it’s going to dwarf anything we’ve seen in the US that is contagious in the last 100 years.

All that said, I think the latter part–the people who just don’t seem to get better–seems to be at least as relevant here. If we’ve got 500K-1M deaths, that is bad. But if you add in 5M-10M people who are disabled for a few months/years afterwards, that’s even worse.