At a time when Jarren Duran is offering a compelling glimpse of his potential impact on the Red Sox lineup, the 25-year-old won’t be available to the team next week for a key series in Toronto against the Blue Jays because he remains unvaccinated against COVID-19.
Duran has been little short of dazzling in the big leagues this year, most recently in Wednesday’s 6-2 win over the Tigers. He opened the game with a nine-pitch, left-on-left at-bat against Detroit starter Tarik Skubal that concluded with a grounder to first on which his standout speed forced Tigers shortstop Javy Báez into an error. He later shot a game-tying two-run double down the field line, and scored what proved to be the winning run when Rob Refsnyder followed with a homer.
Over 10 games, Duran is hitting .297/.366/.486 with two steals in place of primary Red Sox centerfielder and leadoff hitter Kiké Hernández. He’s looked like a dynamic player with a chance to contribute to the Sox for years to come – and who is already making a short-term impact for a contending team.
“[His speed is] elite,” said manager Alex Cora. “It’s been fun to watch.”
For now, Duran’s place in the big leagues is likely temporary — dependent on Hernández being unavailable. But his expected return to Worcester has already been postponed by the incumbent’s slower-than-expected return to the field.
With a return to division play on tap in Toronto on Monday, Hernández — who has been on the injured list since June 8 — remains sidelined. Cora said there’s a chance Hernández won’t be ready to play against the Blue Jays.
With Canada requiring any visitors to the country to be vaccinated at least 14 days in advance of entry, Duran will be ineligible to stay with the Sox. Assuming Hernández isn’t ready, Duran seems likely to join closer Tanner Houck on the restricted list, with the Sox summoning another player from Triple-A Worcester.
“It’s hard [not to be able to contribute in Toronto]. It’s also a personal decision. It’s just what I have to decide,” said Duran. “Obviously, I want to be in the lineup every day. But it’s just a personal decision that I’m still thinking about with family and friends and everybody.”
Duran joins Houck as Red Sox players who will be unable to play in Toronto. In April, Houck — then in the rotation — and Kutter Crawford (now in Triple-A) were on the COVID-19-restricted list for the first trip to Toronto.
For players, the decision to remain unvaccinated comes with professional repercussions. The players lose both their salary and service time (used to calculate arbitration eligibility and free agency) while on the restricted list.
For Duran (who missed time last September with a COVID infection and was once again sidelined by an infection in April) and Crawford, the decision also comes with a lost opportunity to make an impression for players who have yet to establish themselves in the big leagues. Versatile Triple-A prospect Ryan Fitzgerald — a former indie leaguer who has clawed his way to Triple-A Worcester, where his performance has him on the brink of the big leagues — likewise would not be a candidate to join the Sox in Canada because he remains unvaccinated.
“If I miss my [big league] shot because of that, it is what it is,” Fitzgerald said recently. “I’m not going to think twice about it.”
MLB and the MLB Players Association agreed that vaccination would be a matter of individual player choice in 2021, a stance that remained in place in 2022. (MLB considered but did not implement a requirement for minor leaguers not on the 40-man roster — and thus not covered by the Collective Bargaining Agreement — to get vaccinated.)
Nonetheless, the decision not to vaccinate will impact the broader team, as the Red Sox will be without one of their most valuable relievers and potentially their leadoff hitter (barring a return by Hernández).
Next week’s visit also serves as a reminder that Houck, Duran, potentially Chris Sale (who said in spring training that he remained unvaccinated), and others — barring a change of Canada’s entry requirements — might not be available at the end of the year, when the Sox play their second-to-last series in Toronto.
“Obviously we want [Duran] and all of our players available everywhere, but we know that this is a decision that they have the right to make for themselves,” said Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. “We’ll continue to advocate strongly for vaccination for everyone who’s eligible. During the season, players miss time for all sorts of reasons, and it’s on us to build depth to be able to withstand those absences and still win games.”
While some teams such as the Yankees and Astros have been fully vaccinated for their trips to Toronto, the Sox are not alone in being forced to make roster decisions for games in Rogers Centre as a result of the unvaccinated status of some of their players.
The Twins lacked four players, including outfielder Max Kepler and reliever Emilio Pagan.
The White Sox went to Canada without key pitchers Dylan Cease and Kendall Graveman.
Robbie Ray — who won the Cy Young Award pitching for the Blue Jays in 2021 — couldn’t accompany the Mariners to Toronto.
The significance of any absence is potentially considerable. After all, last year, the Sox edged out the Blue Jays in the wild card race by one game — doing so despite a late-season COVID-19 outbreak that ripped through the club.
“We know that one game, one pitch, one inning changes the course of the season,” said Cora. “We lived it last year.”
Now, the Sox — amidst an outstanding 16-4 stretch sustained in no small part by Houck and Duran — and Jays again find themselves neck and neck, with the two teams separated by a half-game. The available personnel in their remaining matchups could mean the difference between a playoff spot or an October vacation. The consequences of personal decisions will not occur in a vacuum.