The baseball world is headed to summer camp. The s’mores and bunk beds are optional, but playing sports outside is not.
With the pandemic-affected Major League Baseball season supposed to start in just a few weeks, players have reported to their teams to prepare for a summer like none they’ve never experienced. The Washington Nationals open their camp Friday at Nationals Park, a far different setting than their spring training digs in West Palm Beach, Florida — no fans, no daily games against other teams, but still plenty hot and humid.
Here are the most important questions that linger as the Nationals get this thing off the ground.
1. Will the team stay healthy?
An outbreak of COVID-19 among the Nationals would be devastating from more than just a baseball perspective. Young and fit though they are, these are human beings with families at home, and no one wants to see any more community spread of the virus.
In terms of the protocols, players will be administered COVID-19 tests every other day, and if their daily temperature check exceeds 100.4 degrees, they’ll be tested and sent home until the fever breaks. There will also be strict regulations monitoring who players and staff can be in contact with. For example, media will be granted access to workout sessions and games, but they won’t be able to go down to the field or inside the clubhouse like usual.
2. How will baseball adjust to the new normal?
It’s a question Sean Doolittle pondered in an ABC7 interview this week — as well as in Twitter threads he wrote throughout the return-to-play negotiations.
Doolittle admitted he wasn’t sure how committed he was to playing the 2020 season, saying “I think I am,” and adding he wasn’t convinced baseball was going to work during a pandemic.
We’ll see starting on Friday how players interact with each other on the field. As seen in other sports, like golf, protocols for who touches what equipment can be hard to follow when athletes have done things a certain way their entire lives. Once-innocuous things like high-fives and spitting are prohibited, too. It could be harder to adjust than we think.
3. How will the team respond to Ryan Zimmerman and Joe Ross opting out?
First, let’s take the non-baseball view of this question. General manager Mike Rizzo said in a statement this week that the team supports Zimmerman’s and Ross’ decisions not to play in 2020. Zimmerman cited the health and safety of his family as his primary concern.
That’s somewhat different than, say, the Washington Wizards’ Davis Bertans — a pending free agent who opted out of the NBA’s return-to-play. He didn’t release a statement about his reasons, but it’s widely believed he is protecting his future earning potential. A bad injury in the Orlando bubble, after all, would cost him millions. He caught some heat from fellow NBA player Evan Fournier of the Magic for it.
But teammates are likely to be supportive of Zimmerman and Ross opting out if they don’t perceive it as a selfish move. Zimmerman, especially, is a veteran and one of the team’s most respected players. This shouldn’t be an issue.
4. Who fills in for Zimmerman and Ross?
Now to talk baseball.
Zimmerman, 35, was projected to split the starting first baseman job with free agent addition Eric Thames this year. Now Thames might be given some more responsibility, though it could still be a true platoon at that position. Howie Kendrick can fill in there in a pinch despite his advanced age.
Ross was in position to win the Nationals’ No. 5 starting pitcher job. That was a revolving door last year, with Ross, Erick Fedde and Austin Voth combining for most of the reps. Will Fedde or Voth get the edge in Ross’ absence? And given the quirkiness of the 60-game schedule, might the Nationals consider some other players for some starts — even some of the prospects who are part of their 60-man player pool?
5. Will there be word about some important contract extensions?
Rizzo and manager Dave Martinez still don’t have new contracts. Their deals expire whenever the Nationals’ season ends.
The Athletic reported last week that there has been no move to negotiate a new deal for Rizzo, the GM who signed the likes of Max Scherzer and assembled the franchise’s first World Series winner. Likewise, Martinez may have managed the Nationals to the 2019 title with his inspiring messages of “Go 1-0 every day,” which the team seems to have adopted as an unofficial slogan. But at the moment, he’s working on an expiring deal.
How weird or different will it be for a front office to negotiate contract extensions in the middle of a pandemic-shortened season, when it feels like all bets are off? That’s just one of the endless mysteries about the world of sports in 2020 that still lie ahead.