More Questions Than Answers as COVID-19 Forces MLB into Holding Pattern

On Thursday, Major League Baseball caught up to the rest of the world of U.S. sports in its response to the novel coronavirus, conceding that public health is the priority by shutting down its spring training schedules in both Arizona and Florida. The start of the regular season, which was slated to begin on March 26, will be delayed by at least two weeks, and if the responses from local officials are anything to go by — such as Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker banning gatherings of more than 1,000 people until May 1 and urging that those of 250 or more people be postponed — that period could run longer.

It’s the governmental restrictions on large gatherings — first in Seattle an San Francisco, and since put into effect in Illinois, New York, and Ohio — that forced the hands not only of MLB but other leagues and organizations when it came to canceling games. As previously noted (this bears repeating), such social distancing measures have been proven to slow the spread of a virus — to “flatten the curve” in order to avoid overwhelming health care systems and force grim decisions on triage — that has shown a 33% daily rise in the cumulative number of cases, and that may ultimately infect 70 million to 150 million people in the U.S. amid this pandemic.

At this point there are still more questions than answers as to where things go from here for MLB, which like just about everybody else, is working without a roadmap. Per the New York Post’s Joel Sherman, the league passed along the recommendation of health experts that players remain in camps:

At this point, no major or minor leaguers have tested positive, and it doesn’t sound as though any of them have been tested, period, but with over 1,200 players in the 30 camps, it seems like it could only be a matter of time before that changes. The National Basketball Association, by contrast, had two players from the Utah Jazz (Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell) test positive for the virus, the first of which led to the decision to suspend its season, since quarantining the players and their recent opponents was necessary. At a time when COVID-19 tests are in short supply, somehow the Jazz were able to test 58 people — players, coaches, support staff, broadcasters, and repoorters — a figure that represents a staggering 0.8 percent of all tests administered by state labs as of Thursday, and 20% of Oklahoma’s existing stock of tests. Hmmm.

Given that major and minor league players — the latter’s season was also put on hold indefinitely — don’t get paid their salaries during spring training, just per diem meal money, it’s unclear how their inevitable cash flow problems, particularly those of players making less money and those who aren’t yet in the players’ union, will be handled.

In his column for the Post, Sherman noted that issues such as the report on the 2018 Red Sox’s illegal sign-stealing effort and MLB’s response for how to handle in-game technology are on hold as the league confronts its response to the crisis. Sherman wrote more about the salary and service-time issues for major leaguers:

And the nerves could be frayed further as teams and players battle over whether players should be paid during an absence not caused by their doing. MLB will almost certainly take the position that the commissioner has the power under Paragraph 11 of the uniform player contract to suspend all contracts during a national emergency — and MLB used the term “national emergency” in its Thursday statement canceling the rest of the spring training and suspending the first two weeks of the regular season.

The sides will also have to determine with a shortened schedule how service time is accrued, since that is the key element that pushes players toward the paydays of arbitration and free agency. How will contractual performance bonuses based on, say, plate appearances or pitching game appearances designed for a 162-game schedule be recalibrated? If the season is delayed too long, will that motivate clubs in a greater way not to call up their best prospects and start service clocks, especially if a shortened season is to count in full as one service year?

Additionally Sherman mused about the possibility of enlarged rosters as a way to deal with a condensed spring training and a shortened season, noting that when teams returned from the strike in 1995, they began the season with 28-man rosters. He also wondered about the possibility of experimenting with the expanded 14-team playoff format idea that was floated last month. The specifics of that one, including teams being able to choose their own opponents, were tough to stomach, but MLB has a precedent for temporarily deviating from the standard format during shortened seasons. In the strike-split 1981 season, the teams that were leading their divisions at the time the seven-week strike hit were crowned “first-half” winners, and the standings were reset when play resumed, with those atop their divisions when the remaining schedule played out declared “second-half” winners. Each team’s two division winners then faced off in best-of-five Divisional Series, previewing the format that was first put into use in 1995, with each league split into three divisions and a Wild Card team added in each league.

(Don’t worry, there will be plenty of time to kvetch about that silly 14-team format, and no changes can be made to the playoff structure without the approval of the union…)

Most teams are in holding patterns and downshifting to lighter workouts as they await further instructions.’s Greg Johns reported that the Mariners are breaking players into smaller groups for the weekend in order to to limit number of people in building at one time. “Players will come in to play catch or lift, but no organized on-field workouts until Monday at earliest.”

For a window into how one team is handling the situation, Zach Buchanan, who covers the Diamondbacks for The Athletic, put together a useful thread on Twitter. The whole thing is worth reading, but I’ll hit the highlights: Arizona players will remain in camp; commissioner Rob Manfred will meet with MLB Players Association head Tony Clark on Friday to discuss matters such as the aforementioned salary issue as well as what happens if and when a player tests positive; the team has told non-baseball operations employees to work from home and won’t require anyone to dip into their sick leave if they’re feeling ill; the team is concerned about game-day employees, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck; there’s no guidance yet regarding players getting tested, especially since tests are in such short supply, but the league is watching how the NBA handles the aforementioned situation involving the Jazz.

It’s likely that most other teams are establishing similar work-from-home strategies for some employees as well. Here’s Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein to’s Jordan Bastian:

Hopefully MLB teams are as mindful of the aforementioned game-day employees — who are generally paid by the hour and thus in real financial jeopardy when they’re not on the clock — as Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is. Here’s what he said when the NBA suspended play on Wednesday night:

“I reached out to the folks at the arena and our folks at the Mavs to find out what it would cost to support, financially support, people who aren’t going to be able to come to work,” Cuban said. “They get paid by the hour, and this was their source of income. So, we’ll do some things there. We may ask them to go do some volunteer work in exchange, but we’ve already started the process of having a program in place. I don’t have any details to give, but it’s certainly something that’s important to me.”

Said Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers, “We feel for the workers mostly, the low-income wage earners that count on working our games. If you’re going to have empathy, have it for them, not for us. We play basketball. It’s a big business, but we’re just playing basketball.”

Your move, baseball.

The Athletic’s Yankees beat writer, Linsey Adler, put together a list of key questions and tentative answers about both the situation in general and the team in specific. For any club facing a raft of injuries such as the Yankees — whose Aaron Judge, James Paxton, Gary Sánchez, and Giancarlo Stanton are all recovering from ailments of varying severity — the delay of Opening Day is a silver lining, assuming those players don’t get the virus. At the same time, their returns would represent tough breaks for the backup players who might benefit from the additional exposure, the Clint Fraziers and Mike Tauchmans of the roster. Suspended players such as Domingo Germán, who must still serve the remaining 63 games of his 81-game suspension for violating the league’s domestic violence policy, will presumably have to wait for the season’s clock to begin again. The team’s 64th game was scheduled for June 5, but obviously, that date has been pushed back.

Back to the NBA, the infection of Mitchell, which came from Gobert (who “had been careless in the locker room touching other players and their belongings”) has a baseball connection that carries some ramifications. Mitchell’s father, Donovan Mitchell Sr., is the Mets’ director of player relations and community engagement; he saw his son and the Jazz play the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on March 4, then returned to the Mets’ spring training complex in Port St. Lucie the following day. He will be tested for the virus, according to Sherman. Said the Mets in a statement:

“We have been in regular communication with medical professionals and public health authorities over the past several weeks. When news surfaced (Wednesday) night of the situation involving the Utah Jazz, we immediately contacted Donovan Mitchell Sr. to advise him to not report at our facility this morning. Upon learning today that his son, Donovan Mitchell Jr., tested positive for the Coronavirus, we brought that fact to the attention of our medical team, who recommended, as a precautionary measure, that Donovan Sr. be tested, and we are making those arrangements. We will continue to closely monitor the situation and the medical staff will advise us if any additional testing becomes advisable.”

There’s no word yet on the results, and also no word about any testing for the Nationals players who golfed with president Donald Trump on Sunday, including Patrick Corbin, Daniel Hudson, Kurt Suzuki, Trea Turner, and Ryan Zimmerman. Various politicians who came into contact with the president have self-quarantined upon learning they had previously been exposed to someone who had subsequently been diagnosed with COVID-19, and it has since been reported that Fábio Wajngarten, the communications director for Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro, and Miami mayor Francis Suarez, both of whom spent time in proximity with Trump in the past week, have both tested positive. Bolsonaro reportedly tested positive in a first test but negative in a second one.

All of which is to say that the Nationals have a greater reason to be concerned that the virus is camp than most teams, so here’s hoping they’re treating the situation with the appropriate gravity.

The situation and MLB’s response to it are likely to shift, perhaps dramatically, in the coming days. We’ll continue to provide updates and write about baseball (or the idea of it) as best we can. For now, we hope everyone stays safe and listens to experts. And please, wash your hands.

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

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Psychic... Powerless...
4 years ago

“At a time when COVID-19 tests are in short supply, somehow the Jazz were able to test 58 people — players, coaches, support staff, broadcasters, and repoorters — a figure that represents a staggering 0.8 percent of all tests administered by state labs as of Thursday, and 20% of Oklahoma’s existing stock of tests. Hmmm.”

Whoever made this decision owes the public an explanation.

4 years ago

Jazz medical staff brought them with them? When I initially read the story I thought it happened in Utah, where there’s at least one private lab with massive manufacturing capacity. But it’s not. I dunno.

4 years ago

Well if nothing else, they all have confirmed contact with an individual known to be infected. That rates pretty highly on the priority scale, regardless.

4 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

Yeah, it definitely deserves questioning, but at least it wasn’t just some random rich guys hoarding testing kits or something. They did have legitimate cause to be tested.

4 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

People who exhibit symptoms but aren’t running high enough fevers have been denied tests. That’s higher on the scale than people potentially exposed but not exhibiting symptoms.

4 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

It doesn’t actually. In most situations, you have to be symptomatic (sometimes severely so) and have contact to get a test. Its ridiculous.

4 years ago

These people make money for the super-rich. Of course they will get priority over regular people in America right now.