Questions about COVID-19 safety protocols are the most significant but not the sole health concerns that baseball will confront in a potential 2020 season.
As an orthopedist who regularly repairs shredded elbows and who serves as the head physician of the Yankees, Chris Ahmad spends much of his time concerned with the well-being of athletes, with a particular interest in pitchers. As someone whose entire family became infected with the coronavirus early in the spring and who, after recovering, assisted in the emergency room at Columbia University Medical Center to help treat victims, Ahmad is spending plenty of time thinking about the devastation of the pandemic.
Perhaps it was inevitable that he would identify potential overlap of those two concerns. Earlier this month, he wrote a blog entry exploring why the return to baseball from the shutdown could lead to “a surge in Tommy John injuries” with players moving too quickly to ramp up from zero to season-ready form, in the process putting too much stress on their arms and potentially leading to elbow injuries and surgeries.
“I wrote the article anticipating a convergence of a Tommy John epidemic with a COVID pandemic,” Ahmad explained.
Such a view from the Yankees’ team physician naturally raised eyebrows — particularly with MLB contemplating the potential resumption of play in July with a ramp-up of as little as three weeks in a rebooted spring training. Ahmad clarified that his primary concern in writing the article, however, was with amateur athletes from youth leagues to college who won’t have the same oversight and guardrails in place for their return to action as major leaguers — always the most at-risk group of pitchers, and a demographic that could face even greater jeopardy.
“[Big leaguers] may not be at the same risk [of post-shutdown Tommy John injuries] even though their demands of baseball may be higher,” said Ahmad.
Even so, it is possible that some big league players — particularly pitchers — may face elevated risks in trying to get ready for a season in roughly half the time that they usually spend in Florida or Arizona.
With only three weeks to prepare, teams will need pitchers ready to throw at something close to max effort when they report, rather than taking weeks to build to that point. If the season begins in July, teams would want players to start building their workloads now so that they arrive in camp ready to throw at something close to full intensity.
“It’s almost like you’re showing up in the modified spring training full-go — you’re not 80 percent,” said former Red Sox trainer and current White Sox senior medical adviser Mike Reinold. “If that happens, to be honest with you, I actually don’t think you’re going to see a spike in injuries. But I do know that it’s very challenging to players to do that.”
Indeed. The lack of access to gyms, workout facilities, and throwing partners creates a host of variables that have upended routines and may affect some players’ readiness to compete when camps open. On top of that, the emotional and physical challenges of social isolation are likely to affect the conditioning of some players.
“The freshman 15 pounds, it’s now the COVID 15 pounds,” said Ahmad. “There’s something about being socially isolated that makes it harder to stay in shape, be in shape, and prepare.”
Red Sox pitching coach Dave Bush noted that his pitchers are trying to increase their workload now, with starters already having progressed to “up-and-down” bullpen sessions to roughly simulate the workload of multiple innings, and all pitchers throwing multiple times per week. If possible, the team wants pitchers to face hitters in live batting practice sessions before convening for formal workouts.
Even so, there’s only so much guidance that teams can offer by video, and it’s impossible to map a clear progression toward potential July games without being able to have the pitchers examined in person. With an abbreviated training period, teams recognize that some pitchers may not be ready for the start of the season.
“It’s been documented in the past that there are more injuries in spring training than at any other time," said Bush. "That’s a risk and a concern all the time . . . We’re going to have to monitor it a lot. We monitor everything anyways, but it’s even more important now.
“That build-up will be dependent on each person. If that means some guys will be behind on Opening Day, then that’s just the way it’s going to be.”
Bush and Reinold both expressed hope that starters could build up to roughly five outings in a three-week camp. At the same time, concerns about injuries will result in altered roster rules, with expanded rosters (beyond the new 26-man limit) and the possibility of a taxi squad in play, to measure pitcher workloads.
Precedent suggests that efforts to avoid injuries and expanded staffs could result in a significant decrease in starting pitcher usage in the season’s early paces. In 1990 and 1995, when labor disputes led to shortened spring trainings, MLB featured expanded rosters for the season’s early weeks; average starts during the first month dropped by one-third to one-half of an inning from prior years.
The difference in 2020 could be even more extreme given the growing openness to openers and other nontraditional pitcher strategies (e.g. bullpen games, piggyback starters, multi-inning relief roles). Bush said that the Red Sox will try to prepare their pitchers for a multitude of deployments while awaiting clarity about what a season and roster rules might look like.
“It’s frustrating to not have and not be able to give more specific answers. That’s what’s challenging for everybody — for myself, for the players, for the front office,” said Bush. “We’re trying to prepare for something and don’t know exactly what we’re preparing for. It goes against all of what we do. We spend all this time preparing for specific dates, on-field, off-field, contracts — everything is highly scheduled. We’re all working around dates. Suddenly we’re in a situation where we don’t have any dates . . . We don’t even know where we’re going to be.
“All of these things are complicated. We’re trying to be as prepared as we can be for whatever scenario comes up so that once that happens, we’ll be ready, because there won’t be a lot of time.”
Could undrafted players go global?
With MLB deciding to slash costs this year by capping the draft at five rounds and limiting bonuses for undrafted players to $20,000, there’s a question: What will happen to the most talented players who aren’t drafted?
Last year, there were 11 high school players who were taken in the sixth round or later and signed for at least $500,000. This year, comparable talents will have to decide whether to sign for $20,000 to start their pro careers or enroll in junior college (to become draft eligible next year) or a four-year program, which would postpone their pro careers by three years.
But what if there’s another path? In 2018, pitcher Carter Stewart didn’t sign after the Braves took him with the No. 8 overall pick in the draft. He went to junior college and saw his draft stock slip. Rather than making himself available as a potential second-round pick in 2019, he elected to go to Japan, signing a six-year, $7 million deal with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks — a far greater guarantee than he’d have gotten through the draft.
Scott Boras, who represents Stewart, said by text that he “fully expects the NPB [Nippon Professional Baseball] to move in this direction after Carter Stewart.” At least one NPB team has been discussing the availability of an unusual talent base of American amateurs this year, and others are believed to have done the same. Teams in Japan or Korea could offer undrafted players not just bonuses well beyond what they could get from US clubs but also salaries that would exceed minor league wages by orders of magnitude.
“I think it’s a real possibility that some kids will end up over there playing,” said one major league source. “Going to the NPB or KBO [Korea Baseball Organization] may appeal to some kids.”
There are caveats. Teams in Japan and Korea hadn’t set up the scouting infrastructure to cover US amateurs who are likely to be available this year, so they will need to rely on agents to alert them to players.
Moreover, the two leagues have limits on the number of foreign players their teams can sign. Given that the NPB and KBO may be positioned well to pursue more established talent this coming winter — when the MLB free agent market could be lethargic — the idea of pursuing riskier amateur talent may have limits.
Nonetheless, the trail blazed by Stewart is available — at a time when more players might be inclined to consider it.
▪ Speaking of the draft, Red Sox amateur scouting director Paul Toboni is well aware of the talent available outside of the first five rounds. In 2011, Toboni had a teammate and close friend at Cal-Berkeley who slipped to the sixth round, signing with the White Sox for $130,000. Last year, that teammate — shortstop Marcus Semien, now with the A’s — finished third in American League MVP voting.
“He was one of the hardest-working — forget players — one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever been around,” said Toboni. “He was just coming around into his own when he entered school. He was getting so much better seemingly every week in college . . . If [his junior year] had stopped on March 15, 2011, who knows where teams would have evaluated him?”
▪ There’s anxiety among scouts about the possibility of furloughs and layoffs after next month’s draft. After all, there aren’t games to scout.
For years, the job security of scouts has been in question with some teams placing growing reliance on increasingly granular statistical data. It’s not hard to imagine revenue losses in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic pushing some teams to accelerate the downsizing of amateur and pro scouts.
(The Angels reportedly will furlough their area scouts June 1, nine days before the draft —meaning the people in their organization with the closest relationships to potential draftees and signees won’t be available.)
But one executive observed that this could prove the worst possible year to diminish scouting staffs. At some point, there will be pro and amateur activity to scout — perhaps fall college workouts or assemblies of minor leaguers at spring training complexes — while trying to prepare for offseason trades and the 2021 draft. Data from those settings may be in short supply, and if so, boots-on-the-ground scouts could provide teams with an edge.
“What prospects are emerging? Who’s taking a step forward? Who’s taking a step back?” observed the executive. “Teams that have scouts on the ground identifying prospects are going to have such a huge advantage moving forward. It’s going to be fascinating to see the difference.”
Bard has come full circle
In 2007, Daniel Bard’s career looked like it might be derailed in its infancy, as the 2006 first-rounder endured a gruesome inability to throw strikes first in High A Lancaster and then with Single A Greenville. That offseason, however, he regained his strike-throwing ability in Hawaii. The next year, he returned to Greenville as an overpowering reliever (0.64 ERA and 43 strikeouts in 28 innings).
“I still remember then-Charleston RiverDogs hitting coach Greg Colbrunn saying it was the most dominant pitching performance he had ever seen,” recalled Drive GM Eric Jarinko.
Greenville served as the start of a fast track through the minors that made Bard one of the most dominant late-inning relievers in baseball in 2010-11. Now, Bard — whose career unraveled with control woes that started in 2012, hasn’t appeared in a big league game since 2013, and retired in 2017 to work as a mental skills coach with the Diamondbacks — is once again at Greenville’s Fluor Field hoping for a career rebirth.
This winter, Bard — who will turn 35 next month — elected to give pitching another shot, signing a minor league deal with the Rockies. With spring training camps shut down, Bard is working out in Greenville (the city where he and his wife, Adair, met) with other displaced players, including Red Sox reliever Heath Hembree. Even now, the electric arm that put Bard on a fast track is evident; Jarinko said the righthander is working in the mid- to high-90s.
“Watching Daniel work out at Fluor Field and attempt to return to the big leagues as a member of the Rockies has been fun to see, especially since these workouts have been the only baseball we’ve had in several months,” said Jarinko.
MLB is expected to deliver its 2020 economic proposal to the Players Association on Tuesday — meaning that negotiations will have to occur quickly if there is to be a spring training 2.0 starting in early June, particularly given the possibility that interstate and international travel may require periods of quarantine upon arrival … The “Woonsocket Rocket” nickname was more of a joke than a fixed title in Rocco Baldelli’s baseball upbringing, something that has brought some chuckles when periodically resurfacing. So imagine the Rhode Island native’s surprise this past week when “Late Night” host Seth Meyers responded to a Twitter survey by pronouncing the “Woonsocket Rocket” the greatest nickname in baseball history. “Will Venmo later with the prearranged amount,” the Twins manager replied … There’s already been plenty of conjecture about which teams might benefit from a shortened season and expanded playoff format. With starter workloads likely restricted to start the season, could teams built around pitching depth rather than elite frontline pitching see their fortunes improve? “I don’t know,” confessed Red Sox pitching coach Dave Bush. “I was laughing the other day, because all the articles out now are, ‘How are your teams going to benefit from a shortened season?’ You read all the articles and everyone thinks they’re going to benefit from the shortened season. I have yet to see an article that says 30 teams are not going to benefit from only playing 82 games.” … As soon as Monday, Japan’s NPB is expected to announce a revised starting date — likely mid- to late-June. The season is expected to be shortened from 143 games to no more than 125, and is likely to start without fans in attendance ... First baseman Mitch Moreland was named Jimmy Fund Captain for the 2020 season, a reminder of his atypical emergence as a Red Sox community and clubhouse fixture. He’s reached free agency three times (after the 2016, 2017, and 2019 seasons), signing with the Sox each time. The only other players to sign at least three big league deals as free agents with the Red Sox this century were David Ortiz, Jason Varitek, and Mike Timlin … Happy birthday Carlos Febles (44), whose final season as a player was spent entirely with the PawSox — and without a big league call-up that would have netted him a ring. Febles has since collected three World Series rings as a coach and manager in the Red Sox organization, however, most recently as the third base coach of the 2018 team. Febles shares a birthday with Bartolo Colon (47), whose Red Sox career (4-2, 3.92 ERA in seven starts) concluded in ignominious fashion when he quit the team in September 2008. It would have been hard to imagine that, 12 years later, Colon would be looking to pitch again, hoping to prolong a second act of such iconic stature that it yielded a book (“Big Sexy: In His Own Words) this month.
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.