Opt-Outs, Uneasiness Abound During MLB’s First Weekend Back

July 3, 2019 was a pretty typical day for major league baseball. Cody Bellinger hit a walk-off home run in the 10th inning against Arizona to give the Dodgers their league-leading 59th win of the season in their 88th game. Last-place Cincinnati defeated first-place Milwaukee to bring all five NL Central teams within 4.5 games of each other. Stephen Strasburg struck out 14 Marlins without allowing a run. Mike Trout hit two dingers, because of course he did. There were close games and there were clunkers, thrilling displays and frustrating setbacks. You probably forgot about all of it.

This July 3 was, well, different. Temperatures notwithstanding, it might as well have been mid-February, as players from all 30 organizations gathered in their respective ballparks for their first official team workouts in months, after the global COVID-19 pandemic suspended the major league season. Players and staff rejoined their teammates only after first undergoing intake tests for the virus, with several wondering even as they took the field whether they were doing the right thing by attempting to play at all. Those circumstances made for a strange and chaotic first weekend of camp.

Longtime star pitchers David Price and Felix Hernandez announced on Saturday that they would opt out of the 2020 season, one day after veteran catcher Welington Castillo was also reported to have opted out. On Monday morning, Nick Markakis also informed his team he would opt out of the season. Their decisions bring the total number of major league players known to have decided against playing this season to nine.

Castillo’s decision was brought to the press by Nationals manager Davey Martinez on Friday, while Hernandez’s agent announced the six-time All-Star right-hander’s decision on Twitter late Saturday:

Price, meanwhile, issued a statement on Twitter:

Out of this latest round of opt-outs, Price figured to be the best player in 2020, but he was also going to be part of baseball’s deepest collection of starters. The Dodgers acquired Price along with Mookie Betts in a February trade that sent Alex Verdugo and minor leaguers Jeter Downs and Connor Wong to Boston. Before pro-rating, his salary for the 2020 season was set to be $32 million, with the Red Sox and Dodgers each paying him one half of that total. That salary structure is the same in 2021 and 2022, which will be Price’s age-35 and 36 seasons. Whether Price will still be paid for the 2020 season has yet to be reported; remember, only players deemed to be high-risk can opt out while receiving their salaries and service time.

A Cy Young winner, World Series champion, and five-time All-Star, Price was very good in his first season with Boston in 2016, but injuries have sapped him of important chunks of time over his last three. After averaging 218 innings per year from 2010-16, Price averaged just under 120 from 2017-19, making just 63 total starts. When he was on the mound, however, he remained very effective, logging an ERA- of 81 and a FIP- of 89 over the past three years.

He would have slotted in as the third starter behind Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler in the Dodgers’ rotation this year, according to The Athletic’s Pedro Moura. In his absence, left-handers Julio Urías and Alex Wood could move up in the rotation and be joined by a veteran such as Ross Stripling or Jimmy Nelson or one of the team’s exciting young hurlers, such as Dustin May or Tony Gonsolin.

Hernandez’s spot on the Braves’ roster was a bit less secure. The 34-year-old signed a minor league deal with the team this offseason, and certainly had a chance to win a job as the team’s fifth starter behind Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Mike Foltynewicz and Cole Hamels. He was competing for that spot, however, with several young pitchers including former first round picks Kyle Wright, Sean Newcomb and Touki Toussaint. Because of expanded rosters, it’s very likely Hernandez would have had some kind of role in Atlanta, it just might not have been a prominent one.

Castillo also would have benefited from expanded rosters opening the door for teams to more easily carry three catchers, as he wouldn’t have bumped Yan Gomes or Kurt Suzuki from their spots on Washington’s depth chart. A 10-year major league veteran, Castillo was a two-win player as recently as 2017 when he was with Baltimore. But he’s coming off the worst season of his career, a -1.0 WAR showing for the White Sox during which he hit .209/.267/.417 for a 78 wRC+.

Markakis, 36, will also fall out of the Braves’ plans for this season. He had re-upped for a sixth season with the team on a one-year, $4 million deal early in the offseason, coming off a campaign that saw him hit .285/.356/.420 for a 102 wRC+ in 116 games. His spot in the starting lineup was going to be greatly assisted by the addition of the DH to the NL for this year, as he might have otherwise struggled for plate appearances alongside Ronald Acuña Jr., Marcell Ozuna and Ender Inciarte in the Braves’ outfield. In his absence, the Braves could still use Adam Duvall as a respectable enough fourth outfielder, or even clear some room for top prospect Cristian Pache to squeeze in some playing time.

While a couple of longtime stars were making their decision to temporarily walk away from the game, others threw the risk of resuming play in the face of the pandemic into specific relief. A total of 31 players and seven staff members tested positive for COVID-19 in the first round of testing the league announced Friday. Among those identified were Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman and relief pitcher Will Smith, Royals catcher Salvador Perez, Twins slugger Miguel Sanó, Yankees second baseman DJ LeMahieu, and Padres outfielder Tommy Pham.

Some of those players were reportedly asymptomatic at the time they were tested, but others weren’t as lucky. Freeman’s wife opened up about his condition over the weekend, saying the virus “hit him like a ton of bricks.”

Freeman’s story is a sobering one for a league and a country that would like to believe the athletes it wants to place in harm’s way won’t be seriously affected by the virus if they come into contact with it; Markakis cited how Freeman sounded in a conversation they had over the weekend as part of his decision to opt-out. Baseball’s 38 total positive tests were out of 3,185 samples taken, a 1.2% rate. That number was treated somewhat as good news for the league, with ESPN’s Jeff Passan reporting that it was a “far lower percentage than expected around the game.” Part of that expectation is likely due to the positive test rates other sports observed in their first rounds of tests, with the NBA reporting positive results in 5.3% of their tests and MLS reporting a 2.7% positive rate.

As Meredith Wills expressed on Twitter, however, there may be reason to doubt MLB’s report of a 1.2% positive rate. When speaking with reporters on Sunday, Nationals left-hander Sean Doolittle revealed that he still hadn’t gotten results back from a COVID-19 test he’d taken two days prior. He and his teammates also have not received the masks and gloves they were expected to have this weekend. As a result of those difficulties, the Nationals were forced to cancel their workout Monday morning.

Elsewhere, initial tests for Oakland A’s players and staff members were still in transit to MLB’s lab in Salt Lake City on Sunday night. For the Angels, Astros, and one other team, testers who were supposed to evaluate players and staff on Sunday simply did not show up. The snafus make the true positive rate on intake difficult to determine, and it could very well be higher.

It’s important to remember that this is only the beginning. Even if we took the 1.2% positive rate at face value, it comes before teams begin game travel; while MLB’s protocol encourages personal responsibility, it is light on mandates away from the ballpark, even when players are on the road. More players are likely to get the virus, and while many will show mild symptoms or none at all, a few will be like Freeman, and that is going to be a very uncomfortable and dangerous look for the league when it’s more readily apparent that someone’s suffering is a direct result of what MLB is trying to do.

The need to prevent and contain illness is crucial, and it’s a task that MLB has yet to prove it’s able to handle. These setbacks call the entire feasibility of the season into question. Because team personnel are not allowed to enter their facilities without a negative test, delays like this can result in suspended practices, putting some teams at a competitive disadvantage through no fault of their own. More importantly, it severely hinders teams’ ability to catch an asymptomatic carrier of the virus before he has the chance to unknowingly spread it.

The public scrutiny for players who opt out, the stories of players who are already sick, and the logistical difficulties already popping up in MLB’s testing procedures are already understandably taking their toll on players, coaches and staff members. On Friday, Trout still wasn’t fully committed to playing this season, telling reporters, “Honestly, I still don’t feel that comfortable.” Charlie Morton was similarly apprehensive as camps opened, saying, “I don’t know what we’re supposed to do. I don’t know how long we’re supposed to sit in our homes and wait to make a decision about our careers.” Andrew Miller, a representative on the MLBPA’s executive board, was still uncertain on Sunday that there would even be a season.

“You’re always kind of waiting for more bad news,” Doolittle told reporters on Sunday, inadvertently uttering the defining slogan of 2020. This is all going to be incredibly hard, maybe even impossible. Of course some don’t want to play, and for good reason — what are you going to do, accuse David Price of being a bad teammate? But most players seem to genuinely want to. That’s why Doolittle is specific about what needs to improve. That’s why Trout is wearing a mask during baserunning drills. As bleak as all of this is, one of the game’s few bright spots in this moment is that some of its most prominent voices are so eager to point baseball forward, and remind you that its players are regular people with relatable concerns. They want to be in the room when their first child is born. They want to feel safe living with their high-risk partners. They’re willing to do their part to make all of this somehow work. MLB has a long road ahead in holding up its end of the bargain.

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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3 years ago

Freeman’s condition is terribly sobering. I work as a paramedic and I’ve encountered plenty of patients who were severely sick, ICU-eligible in the back of my ambulance. This is worrisome on a fan and human level. I love Freddie Freeman, and watching him hit is a pure joy. More importantly, however, is that there are thousands in the US who still have near-debilitating symptoms for 70+ days. We don’t yet know the harm that COVID-19 can produce in the long-term, and that, to me, is the most terrifying part. I sincerely hope that no one’s career is hampered because of this.

3 years ago
Reply to  DuPu

Thank you for all that you do, and have been doing. You’re all saving us, out there.

I have been hearing about neurological damage (loss of smell, etc). I am not a medical professional, but I doubt we’ve had enough time to see how long it takes for those injuries to recover.

3 years ago
Reply to  drewsylvania

Rudy Gobert (the NBA player whose positive coronavirus test essentially kicked off the cascade of sports leagues shutting down) was saying his sense of smell still isn’t recovered, approaching 4 months later. So yeah, following the rest of the country in rushing back to do unsafe things in the middle of a pandemic whose long-term ramifications we are yet to understand (and demonstrably apply even to professional athletes) is probably not a great idea!

3 years ago
Reply to  DuPu

There is a small but significant group of people who remain with symptoms, often debilitating ones, for months. E.g., about 1500 “long-haulers” were identified in a recent study in the Netherlands. Many of them are relatively young, ball player age, and most of them initially did not have severe symptoms.


3 years ago
Reply to  WARrior

Exactly. Thank you for providing that study. The Atlantic documented the long-haulers in the United States as well. Just really terrible. The fact that any athlete could contract this and have debilitating, potentially career-ending symptoms for an unknowable amount of time is just terrible. Not sure how much that is getting talked about within MLB.

3 years ago
Reply to  DuPu

And just to be clear, this is terrible for anyone it happens to re: long-haul symptoms. I sympathize with athletes however because their career/earnings window is already so narrow.