As the Toronto Blue Jays scramble to prepare for an unprecedented, condensed, potentially ill-advised MLB season scheduled to begin in less than a month, more questions exist than answers. From the material, like where are these games going to be played? To the abstract, like what happens if COVID-19 finds its way there, too?
Friday, Blue Jays President Mark Shapiro conducted a conference call with media to shed some light on how the club is navigating the uncertainty. Entering a pivotal weekend for Blue Jays players and staff, here are some of the biggest questions facing the club as it tries to play baseball during a pandemic.
Where are Blue Jays players and staff going to be when MLB training camps open next week? And where will regular season games be played?
Those are the biggest questions — so big they deserve their own piece to explain where things stand. Short answer: we’ll know by Monday.
Wherever the Blue Jays end up playing, will fans be able to attend?
Right now in nearly every part of Ontario, you can drink a beer on a restaurant patio, get a haircut or your nails done, and walk around a shopping mall. But if the Blue Jays end up playing the home slate of their 2020 schedule at Rogers Centre, it’s extremely unlikely fans will be able to attend.
“No,” Shapiro said, when asked if he’d had any discussions with government officials regarding the possibility of spectators at games. “We do not expect to have fans, regardless of location.”
Amidst a raging pandemic that has killed nearly 125,000 people across the United States, and more than 8,000 in Canada, that’s an understandable position. But it’s not the one several other MLB clubs are taking.
In Texas, where records for new daily cases have been broken repeatedly over the last several weeks, the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros are preparing to host fans as part of the state’s aggressive reopening policy which allows professional sports venues to admit 50 per cent of capacity.
Meanwhile, in Florida, where new average highs for cases have been set 19 days running, Miami-Dade County mayor Carlos Gimenez has publicly ruminated about hosting fans at Marlins Park in July and St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriseman says he’s “open-minded” to allowing fans to attend Tampa Bay Rays games at Tropicana Field.
And in Minnesota, where cases have been trending downwards since a peak in May, Twins President Dave St. Peter said that the club was having ongoing conversations with government officials about potentially allowing fans at Target Field, and that he was “hopeful” it would happen sometime this season.
Such is the difference in pandemic policy between Canada and the United States. And the accordingly vast difference in COVID-19 case counts and infection rates clearly demonstrate the outcomes of those decisions. If the Blue Jays do receive governmental clearance to play at Rogers Centre, don’t count on being able to buy a ticket.
How many Blue Jays players and staff have tested positive for COVID-19? How many ultimately will? What happens when they do?
Shapiro wouldn’t say exactly how many positive tests the club has experienced to this point, although that may become more clear next week if there are some conspicuous absences as Blue Jays camp opens. What he did say is the club is bracing itself for many more to come.
“I can tell you that we expect a lot of positive tests,” Shapiro said. “As testing goes up, the numbers go up. So, if we’re testing every single person at intake, I can’t characterize what it means, but I would expect a large number of positive tests. That’s going to be part of the transition process into creating the closed environment as much as possible around our players.”
In its 101-page Operations Manual, MLB has outlined a thorough intake process that all players and staff must undergo upon arriving at training camps, including a pre-arrival symptom and exposure questionnaire, temperature checks, saliva and blood samples, and a 24-48 hour self-quarantine while awaiting test results. The question isn’t will any players discover they’re carrying the coronavirus through that process — it’s how many.
Anyone who produces a positive sample will have to self-isolate and cannot return to the team until they have tested negative on two separate tests taken at least 24 hours apart, shown an afebrile temperature for at least 72 hours, completed an antibody test, and been deemed to no longer present a risk of infection to others by a team physician and a committee of two other physicians and non-medical representatives from MLB and MLBPA.
Interestingly, MLB does not stipulate within its Operations Manual whether or not there is a threshold of positive tests that would necessitate shutting down a team’s training camp. Within a meticulously detailed document, one that provides diagrams outlining where players and coaches are to sit in the dugout and stipulates the size of condiment packaging in team lunch rooms, the omission is glaring.
For that reason, next week ought to be a very informative one as to how much infection the league is willing to tolerate. What happens if 10 of a team’s 60 players test positive? What if it’s 15? What if three-fifths of a team’s starting rotation have to spend the first two weeks of training camp quarantined in their hotel rooms? What if it’s both the starting and back-up catcher? Once the testing begins, we’re going to find out.
Will any Blue Jays players opt out of the season?
Currently, every medical staff across the league is in the process of determining which — if any — of a club’s players qualify as “High-Risk Individuals.” That would include any player with a certain characteristic, condition or medical history that makes them more likely to suffer severe illness upon contracting COVID-19.
Anyone deemed a High-Risk Individual will have the right to sit out the season while still receiving their full salary and service time. It’s expected that several players across the league will choose this option rather than putting themselves at heightened risk of contracting the virus. Could that include any Blue Jays?
“I don’t know,” Shapiro said. “I do not expect it but I don’t know for sure. It’s a bargained right and certainly one I respect.”
For players who are not at an elevated risk themselves, but reside in close contact with a partner or family member who is, the decision is even more difficult. The league has not mandated that clubs must pay those players their salaries and award them service time if they opt to sit out — it’s up to each team’s discretion whether to do so or not.
Players falling into that category could be faced with an awful choice between sitting out a season or playing and being separated for months from an immunocompromised loved one or newborn child. That’s the debate two-time all-star Ryan Zimmerman is currently having.
The Blue Jays have until 4pm ET on Sunday to submit their 60-player roster for the season, so any potential opt-outs would need to raise their hand sometime in the next 24-48 hours. Speaking of…
What will the end of Toronto’s 60-man roster look like?
With minor-league baseball postponed indefinitely — more on that later — each club will operate with a 60-player roster for the 2020 season, providing plenty of depth to cover potential injuries and coronavirus-related absences. All 60 may be invited to training camp, but on opening day clubs will carry only 30 along with a three-player taxi squad that would cover any last-minute replacements.
That major-league roster will decrease to 28 on the 15th day of the season and 26 on the 29th day. The remaining players will be stationed at an “Alternate Training Site” where they can work out, play intersquad games, and stay ready in case they’re called upon. For the Blue Jays, that site will almost certainly be Sahlen Field in Buffalo, NY.
It’s possible the Blue Jays will have a decent number of players in their pool of 60 who are never called upon to join the MLB roster, which presents some interesting opportunities for club decision-makers. Would they consider using a roster spot on a top prospect like Jordan Groshans or Alek Manoah in order to expose them to a competitive environment and continue their development?
“I think the first thing we need to do is make sure we are 110 per cent comfortable with the depth at the major-league level in an environment where we have no idea what level of depth we could possibly need,” Shapiro said. “I think that has been the overarching priority.”
That’s fair enough. If the Blue Jays run into a string of injuries, or have a coronavirus outbreak that sidelines several players but doesn’t stop the team from continuing to play, they’ll need to reach deep into their player pool. Players like Groshans and Manoah are exciting young talents, but would the team want to find itself in a position where it had to thrust them into a big-league game before either has even touched high-A?
These are the conversations Toronto’s front office is having right now as it builds out the 60 players it’ll roster for the season. That list will be finalized Sunday afternoon. And next week Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins is expected to speak to the media and explain the club’s decision-making process.
What happens to the rest of Toronto’s minor-leaguers?
For minor-leaguers who aren’t selected to Toronto’s 60-player pool, the wait continues. It’s a near certainty that minor-league baseball won’t be played this season, and MLB has yet to announce an alternative arrangement. Ideas have been bounced around about a late-summer instructional league or a super-charged Arizona Fall League, featuring more teams, more players, and more games. But as of now, nothing has been determined.
“All of minor-league baseball is in a holding pattern,” Shapiro said. “There has been discussion at the player development and GM level about how we try to create and make up for — with some creative thought programming — our player development. But we aren’t there yet.”
As it tries to turn the page on a rebuild and graduate young, homegrown players to its major-league roster, Toronto is uniquely disadvantaged by this reality. And with a minor-league system brimming with intriguing talent in need of game repetitions to continue improving, the Blue Jays would no doubt have interest in supporting a prospect league later this summer or into the fall, should it come to fruition.
Of course, that would cost money — and the axis of baseball’s extended labour dispute that ate up the last three months of our lives was the unwillingness of some owners to spend it. So, in order to get a unique prospect league off the ground, enough franchises would have to commit to paying, feeding, and instructing those players.
The Blue Jays have been among the industry’s leaders in this regard, having increased pay for minor-leaguers last season. And on Friday, Shapiro announced that the club was committing to continue paying its minor-leaguers their current stipends through September 7, which would generally be right around the end of a traditional minor-league season.
According to Advocates for Minor Leaguers — a non-profit organization that does exactly what its name suggests — as of Friday afternoon nearly half MLB’s clubs had yet to publicly commit to extending minor-league stipends beyond the end of June.
Continuing to pay minor-leaguers is a positive step for the organization. It’s a relatively inexpensive extension of goodwill during a difficult time. Now, the challenge is finding a way for them to play ball.
“That’s been something I’ve been wrestling with throughout the last eight-and-a-half weeks just way too much — way too much of my downtime is spent thinking about it,” Shapiro said of the developmental opportunities that are being lost this year. “When it comes to player development, there’s moments when I just reflect on the reality of a potentially lost season for the majority of our prospects and worry about our staff. And then I pull back and remind myself that we’re not operating with isolated challenges.
“The challenges are not solely focused on player development. They’re not solely focused on MLB. And they’re not solely focused on the Toronto Blue Jays. We’re operating in an environment where the challenges are universal — with tens of millions of people out of work and so many other things that are going on in the world. So, it’s hard to feel bad just about what we’re facing.”