2020 MLB season likely to come with more risk than first promised

2020 MLB season likely to come with more risk than first promised

The more we learn about Major League Baseball’s efforts to work with the players union on a tentative plan to start the baseball season in early July, the more it looks like it will become an economic decision over a health decision — a likely reality facing most industries slowed or shut down by the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s really tricky, said Dr. Robert Cintronberg, an infectious disease specialist affiliated with Advocate Lutheran General Hospital. “The right time to restart activities in general is when the cases of this disease are declining day after day after day, and we don’t know when that’s going to be yet. So it’s very difficult to assign an arbitrary date and say July 1 we’re going to have baseball.”

MLB has said little publicly on its would-be plans but has stayed in regular communication with other leagues as golf and auto racing have begun to schedule events, as the NFL moves undeterred toward an on-time start and as the NBA reportedly discusses an Orlando hub for finishing its season and conducting the playoffs.

The Cubs are among the teams keeping staff and players in the loop on possible timelines and scenarios being discussed by MLB with top team officials so they can be ready for whatever might happen — though nothing definitive has been discussed.

RELATED: How pandemic shutdown might cost ex-Cub Starlin Castro shot at 3,000 hits

With no way to project anything close to effective testing capacity or proven antibody immunity — in the next six months, much less the next six weeks — any 2020 baseball season almost certainly will start under imperfect conditions for preventative health measures and come with more risk than originally promised.

“And it’s not just for baseball games,” said Cintronberg, speaking with NBC Sports Chicago for a podcast about the health factors involved in starting the season. “It’s for everything we do in society. At some point we’re going to have to go back and eat at restaurants. We’re going to have to go back and do all those things we do, and just try to do it in the safest manner possible.

“We’re all going to go back gradually into society, but I think people need to understand it’s not going to be without risk.”

Cintronberg suggested the U.S. might be at the point during the crisis to begin the process of increasing activities, with an abundance of respect for safe practices.

Stay-at-home orders already are being lifted in states such as Texas and Georgia have been lifted despite daily increases in COVID-19 infections and deaths — among at least 28 states that have lifted at least some restrictions or that never imposed limits.

MLB reportedly has prepared a proposal for the players union regarding a plan to start an abbreviated baseball season in early July. A series of hurdles must be cleared for that to happen, including the players and MLB resolving disagreements over prorated salary terms.

Meanwhile, little to nothing has changed in the leaked details of that proposal since the earliest reports of leaked plans more than a month ago, at least in terms of timelines and desired season length.

And what’s significant about that is that little to nothing has changed in our understanding of how best to contain or even treat the virus — much less how widespread it might be in many regions of the country because testing lags far behind what experts suggest.

By midweek, about 250,000 Americans per day were being tested or the virus, compared to the minimum 900,000 experts at Harvard University said were needed for adequate tracking.

More than 75,000 deaths in the U.S. have been attributed to COVID-19, and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington this week doubled its previous projected national death estimate by August to 134,000 as stay-at-home orders were lifted.

At the very least, don’t expect enough testing to be available for MLB to take the kind of “best guess” precautions Cintronberg advises even with some quarantine conditions: at least weekly testing of all personnel from Day 1 of Spring Training 2.0 to the end of a postseason.

Some have estimated at least 1,600 players, coaches, managers and other essential personnel would be needed to conduct a season. That would mean at least 32,000 tests for a mid-June spring training start through late October. Never mind starting earlier or staging playoffs through November as some have suggested.

Even if MLB could secure that many tests and the means to run them, “I’m not sure how well received that would be [in the public],” Cintronberg said.

Antibody tests are available now. But researches have yet to prove that the presence of antibodies assures immunity, Cintronberg said.

Sources: Cubs one of three MLB teams not to participate in coronavirus study

Vaccines? A best-case scenario, he said, even with research labs around the world working on them puts a possible vaccine into late next year. If one is even found. Researchers still have not developed an effective vaccine for the SARS coronavirus that killed about 900 people globally from 2002-04.

Nobody’s waiting until 2022 to play baseball — or anything else. 

As the nationwide shutdown of professional and major college sports reaches the two-month mark next week, maybe a restart for baseball and some others is coming sooner than we expected. Maybe by July.

But it won’t be because they have adequate resources to contain or track infections or because we’re certain anyone’s immune.

“It’s really more of a philosophy, I think, about what you want to do,” Citronberg said. “I caution people that if we’re careless or reckless about it, we can have a second wave of infections that’s worse than the first wave, believe it or not. And I think that would be devastating. We really have to be smart about this.”

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.

Cubs' Adbert Alzolay complains about South Bend conditions but comments misleading


Cubs' Adbert Alzolay complains about South Bend conditions but comments misleading

Cubs right-hander Adbert Alzolay made waves on Thursday tweeting (now deleted) about the conditions for players at the club’s alternate training site, hosted at the South Bend Cubs facility.

Alzolay and the 10 other players in South Bend are eligible for this season but will remain inactive unless need arises on the big league roster. He tweeted the players make $18 a day — or $10, when accounting for “dues” the players owe, while possibly tipping clubhouse attendants.

Whether it was a miscommunication by someone with Alzolay, the actual amount the players get is $25 and no dues are deducted from that. The option to tip clubhouse attendants is up to players individually. Through Summer Camp, the 11 Cubs in South Bend will also receive two packaged meals a day at the complex.

Once the regular season starts (July 23, per MLB’s arrangement for the 60-game campaign), the alternate site Cubs will receive $50 a day in meal money, instead of what was originally proposed because the Cubs proposed higher daily meal money.

Players will receive full salaries beginning July 23, per MLB’s agreement, and minor leaguers are being paid in the meantime. Six of the 11 Cubs in South Bend are not on the 40-man roster, and they will continue receiving $400 a week. Those on the 40-man (including Alzolay) received advanced salaries, per MLB’s agreement with the MLBPA in March.

Alzolay received $30,000 from that agreement.

Additional important context is the South Bend facility is one of the best in minor league baseball — with housing for the players nearby. The players are residing at new apartments that opened in December right outside the ballpark. They aren’t being charged for those apartments through Summer Camp, and the Cubs will subsidize many of the players in South Bend once the regular season starts. 

MORE: Where Cubs could find position of strength in 2020: South Bend

Alzolay later tweeted an update on the matter.

In wake of José Quintana’s thumb injury, general manager Jed Hoyer said Tuesday the Cubs haven’t decided if Alzolay will join the Wrigley Field training group.


Why it matters that the Cubs bullpen is 'deeper' than David Ross expected

Why it matters that the Cubs bullpen is 'deeper' than David Ross expected

The Cubs pitching staff is staring at a block of 17 straight games to start the season. After just three weeks of Summer Camp.  

“There’s a reason why Spring Training’s so long,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “Because we want to stretch it out, make sure everybody’s healthy. So, outside of the virus factor, there’s a risk-factor of injury as well.”

Expecting starting pitchers to consistently throw seven innings at the beginning of the season isn’t realistic, so pitching coach Tommy Hottovy has built in a cushion. While most Cubs starters are upping their workloads to three-plus innings this week, some middle relievers are stretching to multiple innings as well.

Click to download the MyTeams App for the latest Cubs news and analysis.

Late this week, Hottovy said he expects Rex Brothers, Dan Winkler, Casey Sadler, Duane Underwood Jr. and James Norwood to throw two innings in simulated games.

“As much as it is important to get these guys going multiple innings,” Hottovy said. “It’s also important to get them the volume they need, that you would see during a regular season. So throwing a two or three inning stint and having three or four days off, it may help us in one game, but over the course of the season … we’re going to need guys to be able to bounce back.”

Those who aren’t expected to throw multiple innings will, for the most part, still work up to a batter or two over one inning.

Kyle Ryan, who was delayed by what Ross called “protocol technicalities,” is in that category. He arrived in Chicago Wednesday night, according to Ross. Ryan was scheduled to be tested for COVID-19 along with the rest of the team Thursday. He will be quarantined until the Cubs receive his tests results, as long as they come back negative.

But Hottovy still believes there’s a chance Ryan could be ready to pitch in time for opening day in two weeks.

“We still have to get our eyes on him,” Hottovy said. “I feel like there is because of the work that he’s done and what he’s had access to back home.”

Either way, the Cubs hope to avoid having him pitch in back to back games early in the season.

“I don’t think anybody,” Hottovy said, “no matter what work you’ve done, is going to be ready to go back-to-backs at least consistently and definitely not those three days in a row.”

Not even closer Craig Kimbrel. Hottovy anticipates several of those pitchers will need to fill late-inning roles due to the compact 60-game schedule.

The Cubs starting rotation may be lacking in depth, even more than the Cubs originally expected after southpaw Jose Quintana lacerated his left thumb while washing dishes. But even with swingman Alec Mills expected to join the starting rotation, Ross has been pleasantly surprised with the overhauled Cubs bullpen.

“It’s definitely deeper than I had in my mind going into it,” Ross said. “These guys have really taken it upon themselves to be in tip-top shape.”