Cubs' Yu Darvish plans to play as others in MLB opt out over COVID-19 concerns

Cubs' Yu Darvish plans to play as others in MLB opt out over COVID-19 concerns

If Major League Baseball is able to thread the needle of a 60-game season during a pandemic, the Cubs will have ace starter, Yu Darvish, on the mound, at least for now.

They’ll also have five-time All-Star Jon Lester and three-time All-Star Anthony Rizzo in camp when summertime Spring Training starts at the end of the week.

Big deal?

It’s looked bigger and bigger as news around the league surfaced of players opting out of the 2020 season over COVID-19 concerns.

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Darvish was the first player during spring training months ago to express concern over the coronavirus, long before the first known death from the virus in the U.S. and before MLB shut down the sport in mid-March — and looked like a possible candidate to opt out of an abbreviated season as the pandemic continues to rage across most of the country.

Lester and Rizzo are both cancer survivors and appear to qualify for the “high-risk” category of players who would be allowed to opt out and still receive service time and salary.

After Diamondbacks pitcher Mike Leake became the first player reported to opt out, a source close to Darvish said the four-time All-Star intends to report to camp this week and pitch — which appears to be the consensus intent across the Cubs’ roster.

“To this point we have not had anyone talk to us about opting out,” general manager Jed Hoyer said Monday afternoon during a zoom session with reporters. “But that said I’ve seen in the last hour or so that three players around the league have opted out. I’m sure there’ll be more. And I feel we have to respect that. 

“Everyone’s going to come at these decisions from a different angle,” he added, “but i don’t think anyone that plays in the major leagues is going to make that decision lightly. They’re going to make it with a lot of input from probably friends and family and probably from teammates as well.”

In addition to Leake, Nationals pitcher Joe Ross and Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman also opted out. 

None of the three are known to be in the high-risk category.

Under the rules outlined in the operating manual MLB and the players union approved for 2020, players reserve the right throughout the training period and season to change their minds on whether to opt out (or back in).

Darvish, a native of Japan who made a brief trip back home over the winter, expressed concern to Cubs officials as spring training opened over possible exposure from the handful of baseball media traveling from Asia, where the virus was more prevalent at the time.

“I’m really worried about it,” he said in early March.

Rizzo and Lester have said for months they intended to play and didn’t consider their medical backgrounds significant enough risks to opt out.

“Right now we don’t have anyone that we know about that’s considering it,” Hoyer said. “But I think if we did we would respect the decision and understand that this is being made from a very important place of wanting to keep either themselves or keep their family members safe.”

Cubs outfielder Ian Happ, who recently took over as the Cubs’ union representative, said last week that teammates and the union would support any player’s decision to opt out.

“I think it’s so important to see the whole picture here,” said Happ, who declined to predict which teammates might be considering opting out, “and that this is our job, and guys want to get back to playing, but at the same time, there’s a lot more that goes into it.”


Why Theo Epstein says MLB is better positioned to play now than it was in March

Why Theo Epstein says MLB is better positioned to play now than it was in March

The statistics on new daily COVID-19 cases paint a bleak picture, and Theo Epstein is known for being analytical. But the Cubs president of baseball operations isn’t just looking at the over 54,000 new cases in the U.S. over the past day, believed to be a new record.

“I think we’re better positioned now than we were in March or April to try to pull off a baseball season,” Epstein said on a video conference with local media Thursday. “Are we in control? Do we have a guarantee of success? Of course not, no. The pandemic is in control.”

Why does he think MLB is better positioned now than when the novel coronavirus shut down Spring Training? Testing capabilities and understanding of COVID-19.

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Major League Baseball converted a lab in Utah, which the minor leagues had previously used for drug testing, into a COVID-19 testing center.

“We’re able to provide the type of testing that’s the volume and turnaround and accuracy of testing that is necessary to even consider this type of endeavor,” Epstein said. “And, they’re able to do it in a way that doesn’t take resources away from any essential workers in the country.”

When MLB suspended the season in March, it certainly wasn’t ready for the volume of testing that it has now committed to. The 2020 Operations Manual requires all Tier 1 individuals – players, manager, coaches, team physicians, athletic trainers, etc. – to take a diagnostic COVID-19 test every other day. Each team can designate up to 87 Tier 1 individuals.

Tier 2 individuals – clubhouse staff, remaining coaches and medical staff, traveling staff, front office employees, communication staff, head grounds keeper, security personnel assigned to restricted areas, etc. – must be tested multiple times a week.

MLB also committed to offering free COVID-19 testing to those who live with Tier 1 and Tier 2 individuals, and healthcare workers or first responders in MLB cities.

“There’s some increased understanding of how the virus operates,” Epstein added, “and best practices to attempt to mitigate the spread.”

MLB consulted health experts in developing its health and safety protocols.  This week, Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer, pitching coach Tommy Hottovy and most recently Epstein expressed their confidence in the process that produced those protocols.

“Now, no protocols are fool-proof,” Epstein said. “…This is merely an exercise to see if we can put on a baseball season safely. So, it deserves all of our best efforts and full attention. It’s a responsibility to take very seriously, and we know that if it turns out that we can’t put on a baseball season safely, then we won’t proceed.”

Hottovy, who said he tested positive for COVID-19 despite diligently taking precautions, can attest to the fallibility of even the strictest protocols. He battled the virus for a month, and two weeks later he still hasn’t regained full strength or lung capacity.

“Tommy’s story illustrates that nobody is immune from coronavirus,” Epstein said, “and that while people who are young and healthy may do better on a percentage basis overall, it’s still quite dangerous, even potentially deadly for people of all ages and people in perfect health.

“Tommy is 38 years old, a former big-league player in great health, and there were times talking to him through the course of this struggle that he sounded like an elderly person fighting for breath.”

MLB’s testing capacity and understanding of COVID-19 may have improved since March, but not everything has changed for the better. Florida set a new daily record Thursday, with over 10,000 new cases of COVID-19. Texas, Arizona and California are also seeing a rise in new cases.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced an emergency travel order on Thursday, which will require travelers coming from several states with COVID-19 surges (including Florida, Texas, Arizona and California) to quarantine for 14 days. The order will go into effect on Monday.

As Epstein said, COVID-19 has control.

“Every single person in the organization,” Epstein said, “every player, ever staff member, everyone in uniform, out of uniform, we all have to make great decisions, exercise great discipline, hold each other accountable, collaborate, go into it with an open mind and exercise real personal and collective responsibility.”

Yes, for the sake of baseball. But more importantly, for the sake of the people risking their health to put on a season.



Strange injuries Cubs players have encountered in recent memory

Strange injuries Cubs players have encountered in recent memory

Cubs players have suffered a fair share of freak injuries in recent memory, with starting pitcher José Quintana cutting his thumb while washing dishes being the latest ailment.

Quintana lacerated a nerve in his left thumb washing dishes June 27 and will likely miss the start of the abbreviated 2020 season. A mid-August return appears to be the best-case scenario.

In light of Quintana’s injury, here’s a look back at some other strange Cubs injuries from recent years.

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Strange Cubs injuries of recent memory