One more injury or a positive COVID-19 test within the starting rotation, and the Cubs will be in trouble.
Jose Quintana’s thumb injury, which is expected to keep him from throwing for two weeks, called to attention just how precarious the future of every team is this season.
"We had some concerns about our starting pitching depth,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said Thursday. “A freak injury further challenges us in that area, and we have to respond."
Starting pitching is a particularly vulnerable area in general. COVID-19 can affect anyone, even a team’s ace. And with a three-week Summer Camp expediting the ramp-up process, risk of soft-tissue injury becomes a concern for pitchers in particular. Add into the mix a microscopic surgery on a lacerated nerve in Quintana’s left thumb – the Cubs announced on Thursday that he suffered the injury while washing dishes – and the Cubs are beginning Summer Camp already shorthanded.
“No one’s going to feel sorry for us,” Epstein said. “This this is a bump in the road that we just have to overcome.”
MLB's intake testing produced initially encouraging numbers. The league and players union jointly announced Friday that 38 players and staff members tested positive for COVID-19 across the league, accounting for 1.2 percent of the 3,185 tests. Of those who tested positive, 31 were players. Per league policy, Cubs manager David Ross did not comment on if any Cubs players had tested positive, but he said he expected all players who were scheduled to report Friday would be at Wrigley Field as planned. Nineteen of the 30 clubs had a positive test during intake screening.
The baseball season could be cancelled for any number of reasons, safety as judged by the league and government officials being the most important. But MLB also has the power to suspend or cancel the season if the competitive integrity of the season is undermined.
What that means isn’t for Epstein to decide, but he declined to give an opinion on the topic Thursday.
“My understanding of what the standards would be don’t necessarily matter,” Epstein said. “It’s a question for the league. I hope we never get in that situation.”
Injuries always have the power to alter a season. But that’s even more so the case during a 60-game season. At best, Quintana’s injury could delay him a several weeks. At worst, even just a three-month recovery time would wipe out his entire season.
For now, the plan is to replace Quintana with someone like Alec Mills. Assuming Mills does win the starting job, that takes him out of his role as a middle reliever, a bullpen spot Ross emphasized earlier in the week.
“It’ll be really unrealistic to expect guys to get to maybe 100 or so pitches right out of the shoot,” Ross said on Monday. “That may be a bit of a challenge. … The real important areas for me right now is that swingman, your Alec Mills-types that can give you two or three innings ang get to the back end of the bullpen. Those middle innings if guys aren’t stretched out enough are going to be vitally important.”
The ripple effects from Quintana’s injury aren’t nearly enough to undermine the competitive integrity of the season. But what if several teams have their starting pitching depth dramatically affected by COVID-19? What if those teams include the Dodgers and the Yankees?
Now that MLB has started ramping up for the 2020 season, it’s incentivized to keep the season running. But as the Cubs learned this week, just one dish-washing accident can alter a team’s 2020 outlook.