One of the Cubs’ biggest opponents the last two years isn’t going away anytime soon.
And it’s a hard reality for Cubs president Jed Hoyer to escape as he considers a roster overhaul this winter amid an ongoing pandemic that finally bit his under-vaccinated team on the ass with a COVID-19 outbreak the final week of the season.
Whether Hoyer considers vaccination status of potential offseason targets — he wouldn’t say when asked Wednesday — it’s hard to imagine Cubs management tolerating another season in which they wind up among the few teams with player-vaccination rates below MLB’s herd-immunity threshold of 85 percent.
And it’s almost as hard to imagine Major League Baseball tolerating the potential economic and health volatility represented by the status quo if it can secure through current labor talks at least some incentives to increase its vaccination rates in 2022.
“I hope that’s something that’s addressed,” Hoyer said during his end-of-year media session Wednesday. “I’d love nothing more than to walk into a fully vaccinated clubhouse every day and get rid of those concerns.
“Obviously, I don’t think COVID’s going away,” he said. “And you can still get it when you’re vaccinated. I’m a living, breathing example of that. So it’s not like we’re going to eliminate it.”
But Hoyer, and manager David Ross, also are living, breathing examples of how those vaccinated against the virus typically experience mild or no symptoms they do have a breakthrough positive test.
They’re also examples of team officials — like the Red Sox, Yankees, Nationals, Brewers and others before them — to experience a team outbreak this season, with five Cubs going on the COVID-19 injured list in four days during the last week of the season.
That included the team’s home run leader, Patrick Wisdom, and Opening Day second baseman, David Bote.
“That was a horrible feeling at the end of the season, no question,” Hoyer said. “Given our vaccination rates, I think we were unbelievably fortunate throughout the year that what happened toward the end of the season was the first time that’s happened to us in two years.”
The Cubs were the only team in the majors during the shortened 2020 pre-vaccine season without a player testing positive from the time summer training camps opened in July through their first-round playoff elimination in October.
Whether MLB can achieve vaccine incentives during talks this fall over a new CBA, they at least have role models in the NFL, NHL and NBA — where various rules, including lost pay for time lost to the virus by unvaccinated players, have resulted in mandate-like rates of vaccinations league wide.
“It’s going to be addressed in the CBA, clearly,” Cubs veteran pitcher Kyle Hendricks said Sunday. “I’m curious to see where they go and what they decide. I’m glad I don’t have to make that decision.”
Hendricks, who believes in the vaccine and said he and his family are vaccinated, might get a chance to help make that decision once the terms of a new CBA are presented to the rank-and-file for a vote — though he did not seem interested in publicly suggesting a position on mandates Sunday.
Many teams, such as the Cubs, already have vaccine mandates in place for non-playing personnel. And some teams pushed players hard early this season to get vaccinated — the playoff-qualifying Cardinals one of the first to get nearly full compliance after having experienced one of the two biggest team outbreaks of the 2020 season.
“We witnessed it,” Cardinals pitching coach Mike Maddux said of the competitive impact. “I think that made our vaccination fairly easy because we went through a lot.”
Industry buzz suggests executives across the league will invest in players this winter with an eye on avoiding unvaccinated players when the decisions between players are equal or similar.
And with billions at stake industry-wide annually, it would be naive to think that wouldn’t impact the first free agent market with both the virus in play and vaccines available.
“It’s something I hope we can eliminate, not just with the Cubs,” Hoyer said. “As an industry I hope we can get to a place where who’s on the COVID list and who’s vaccinated and unvaccinated [aren’t issues]. It’d be awesome if that was not a topic of discussion, and that we could just move forward and not have those concerns about vaccination rates or masks and things like that.
“It’d be nice to get to a place where the whole sport is vaccinated.”