Maybe this is as good as baseball’s coronavirus testing gets.
Players, managers, coaches and staff want better, and many say they expect continued improvement.
But with a week left before teams start leaving individual bubbles to travel for games, this may be where tests of faith start to fill the gaps in testing for the virus.
And that means players might have decisions to make all over again. It already means teams have been troubleshooting how scenarios that played out at Wrigley Field twice this week might be managed during games days.
“I think some more players will opt out,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said Wednesday after the Cubs held out six players from workouts as a precaution over “pending” results from Monday’s test.
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That could be an immediate cost. Thirteen players already have declined to accept the health risk and play this season, including Giants star Buster Posey and former Cy Young Award winners David Price and Felix Hernandez.
Angels superstar Mike Trout and Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish are among several others who have said they haven’t ruled out joining the 13, depending how safe things look as the game inches closer to a 60-game season to be played in the 30 home ballparks — many of which are located in COVID-19 hot spots.
The Cubs got word late Wednesday that none of the players they held out of practice had tested positive. But it’s at least the fourth time in six rounds of testing that results have been delayed or inconclusive enough to force the Cubs to reschedule workouts or hold out players and staff — and came two days after manager David Ross was among the group to miss workouts.
“There’s definitely a level of fire drill some mornings,” Ross said.
And this is where the teams have their work cut out, regardless of how strong their numbers remain when the season starts.
“This will present a problem if it happens within the season, and we’ll have to adjust,” Ross said. “But I think they’re working through that so we don’t have these problems when the season starts. … This is all new.”
But it’s also not likely to go away anytime soon, and almost certainly not by next week's openers — at least not as dramatically as players and other team officials would like to see.
MLB is using labs in Utah and New Jersey to turn around thousands of coronavirus tests every other day, which is subject to occasional issues involving a stressed national shipping industry when it comes to getting the samples to the labs and occasional batches that require quick retests because of inclusive results — or in some cases a positive result within a given batch.
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The vast majority of delayed and retested samples produce negative results — as in the case of the Cubs’ half dozen on Wednesday. And MLB’s positive rate overall is about 1 percent.
Based on conversations with baseball people, not every team is approaching its “pending” cases with the same level of “abundance of caution” as the Cubs seem to be taking. Other teams are using case-by-case approaches or waiting until specifically positive results (or symptoms/risk behavior) to restrict activities.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Cubs remain the only team in the league without a known positive test among its players and coaching staff since intake testing began more than two weeks ago.
But what happens when the season starts, and a day like Monday or Wednesday comes up again — whether for the Cubs or an opponent?
“If we’re on a getaway day and Jon Lester’s our starter and has a pending test, it’s going to be hard for us to scramble,” Rizzo said. “I’m sure they’re working on it right now already to make sure that on Opening Day everything’s running as smooth as possible.”
But MLB does not appear to be in position to increase its testing capacity or delivery speed within the next week — especially when much of the country is experiencing surges in cases of COVID-19, positive rates and testing shortages.
One potential mitigating factor might be the fact that 48 of the Cubs’ 60 games (80 percent) are night games and two more are late-afternoon games. In theory, night games Monday and Wednesday of this week would have meant enough time in both cases to clear the “pending” results in time for the players in question to have played.
It may be small consolation to some.
“We didn’t sign up for these bad protocols as far as testing,” said Rizzo, whose Opening Day might already be in doubt as he battles a back issue. “The biggest thing for us is the safety.”
Neither he nor Ross are pointing fingers at MLB or the labs. They, along with other players and team officials, keep saying they expect the testing process to get even better.
But there may not be any specific reason to believe it will. And you can bank on roster rules staying where they are (nobody’s adding the kind of daily flexibility that would be certain to be abused — and would add to payroll costs).
So keep an eye on Mike Trout and Yu Darvish — and Sean Doolittle and Ryan Braun and everybody else who remains on edge about the risk this pandemic season poses?
“Listen, we are in a pandemic. We are all at risk,” Rizzo said. “We all want to play baseball because that’s what we love to do, and we have an opportunity to bring joy to a lot of people that are home, through these tough times.
“But we are all human. If guys start testing positive left and right and this gets out of control, I’m sure you’ll see some guys opt out.”
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