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