Aftermath of Marlins COVID-19 outbreak will drastically alter NL East in 2020

Aftermath of Marlins COVID-19 outbreak will drastically alter NL East in 2020

Three of the five NL East teams will be shut down at points this week. 

Instead of playing the Yankees four times Monday through Thursday, the Phillies are off in the aftermath of the Marlins' coronavirus breakout this past weekend while playing at Citizens Bank Park.

The Marlins, after having half of their 30-man roster reportedly test positive for COVID-19, won't play all week.

That also means the Nationals, who were scheduled to face the Marlins this weekend, will be off.

Less than a week into the season and things have already been thrown off drastically. If you weren't a believer before that MLB could get through the 60-game season ...

Health is obviously the most important factor in all of this, but it's fair to also wonder what will happen to the competitive balance of baseball after its first regular-season outbreak.

It will be impossible (and pointless) for the Marlins to make up all the games they lost. They will have to replace half of their roster and some or many of those replacements will be players who wouldn't otherwise be in the big leagues in 2020. Why even make them play doubleheaders? Every team that does play the Marlins over the next few weeks will be playing the equivalent of a minor-league team. No, the Marlins didn't have a juggernaut roster before this, but they still had mostly big-league-quality talent.

The Phillies, if they lose only four games, will either have to make them up down the road or finish with 56 games and have their record interpreted based on winning percentage. What then if the Phillies tie in winning percentage with another team for playoff positioning? Does the tiebreaker go to the team that played four more games, even if circumstances outside the Phillies' control resulted in them playing fewer games? MLB previously announced that there will be no tie-breaker game(s) this year — head-to-head record is the first tiebreaker when applicable.

"After thinking about it, I think this could happen more than one time with an organization," Phillies manager Joe Girardi said on MLB Network Radio Tuesday. "If everyone doesn't play 60 games, that's all right. We want to get to the playoffs. If a team plays 57 games, you go by winning percentage to take the playoff teams."

If the Phils do end up making up the lost games this week, they would do so with either doubleheaders or by losing future off days, or both. Keep in mind that three of the Phillies' six scheduled off-days come in the one-week span from Aug. 17-24 during their road trip to Boston, Atlanta and Washington. There is only one common off-day during that week shared by the Phillies and Yankees.

Either solution will harm the Phillies' pitching staff. If they play doubleheaders, it would necessitate using starting pitchers who wouldn't have otherwise been in line to start.

But the time off this week allows the Phillies to reset their rotation this weekend and use Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler for four of their first five games, you might say. That certainly is a benefit because the Phillies' weakness is their pitching staff after those two. But consider also that the week off throws off the schedule of those two, and it's not as if they needed the long breather after having nine months off from regular-season play. It also further delays the season debuts of Jake Arrieta and Zach Eflin, who need to work off some rust.

The time off also could affect the timing of Phillies hitters. The Phillies had a decent opening weekend offensively with six homers, an .841 OPS and more walks (19) than strikeouts (18), but their situational struggles overshadowed all of that. In the opening weekend, the Phils went 3 for 22 with runners in scoring position and left 26 men on base in the series loss to Miami. They stranded the bases loaded three times Sunday. How will they look this weekend after another extended stretch without games that you typically only see during MLB's All-Star break?

One issue that has apparently already been resolved is of player pay. Players on the Phillies, Yankees and Nationals will still make their prorated pay for the games those teams missed because of the Marlins' outbreak, according to Ken Rosenthal and Jayson Stark. MLB rightfully deemed the circumstances outside of those teams' control.

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Phillies weighing options on Spencer Howard’s next start

Phillies weighing options on Spencer Howard’s next start

For weeks, we wondered when Spencer Howard would make his first big-league start.

Now, we wonder when he’ll make his second.

Friday is Howard’s day to pitch again.

But it’s also Vince Velasquez’ day to pitch.

So, who’s getting the ball that night against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park?

Maybe both. 

“We're going to prepare them both to start on Friday,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said Monday, one day after Howard’s not-great-but-not-bad-either debut against the Atlanta Braves.

Girardi said he would name a starter by Thursday.

Whoever doesn’t start Friday's game could be used in multiple-inning relief that night.

“We could piggyback them,” Girardi said. 

The Phillies need to keep both Howard and Velasquez stretched out because they will need a sixth starter the following week because of a doubleheader against Toronto. Beyond that, the Phils have four doubleheaders in September so they will need six starters for most of that month.

Velasquez and Howard each started one of the games in Sunday’s doubleheader against the Braves. The Phillies lost both games. Velasquez pitched four innings and allowed three hits, a run and three walks. He struck out six. Howard pitched 4 2/3 innings and allowed four runs and a walk. He struck out four. He threw a first-pitch strike to 17 of 22 hitters but was tagged for a pair of homers by Ronald Acuna Jr. and Freddie Freeman. 

There are reasons why the Phillies might choose Howard to start Friday’s game over Velasquez: 

- Howard represents the future and could be a foundation piece in the Phillies’ rotation for years to come. Why not start grooming him now?

- Velasquez has been inconsistent in the rotation for four-plus seasons. He does have some experience working out of the bullpen.

Another potential reason: The Mets have never seen Howard while Velasquez is 2-4 with a 4.35 ERA in 11 career starts against them. There aren’t many secrets in this era of data and video scouting, but the Mets’ lack of firsthand familiarity with Howard could help the pitcher. 

Stay tuned.

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Who makes next start for Phillies: Spencer Howard or Vince Velasquez? Joe Girardi weighs in

Who makes next start for Phillies: Spencer Howard or Vince Velasquez? Joe Girardi weighs in

Phillies fans have been clamoring for Spencer Howard for a little while now. They've heard about the velocity, the swing-and-miss slider, the knee-buckling curveball, the diving changeup, the beyond-his-years command. The organization has been just as excited.

With a couple of doubleheaders this week, you could smell Howard's debut. It became apparent that the Phils would need a sixth starter and who better than Howard, the top pitching prospect in the organization who was already on the doorstep of the majors and who probably would have been here on opening day if not for service time considerations.

This was a big day for the Phillies. Two games against your division rival, the NL East favorite. Sweep the doubleheader and you win the series against the Braves. Split and you have a chance to win it Monday night.

Instead, the Phillies were outscored 13-2 in a pair of losses. They hit .146 on the day, went 0 for 9 with runners in scoring position and the bullpen allowed eight runs on 13 hits in 5⅓ innings.

Still, there was excitement in the air because of Howard's long-awaited debut, which came Sunday afternoon in Game 2. After a couple of scoreless innings, the Braves welcomed Howard to the majors. Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuña Jr. took him deep, and Howard allowed four runs over 4⅔ innings. The Phillies lost the game 8-0, a few hours after falling to the Braves 5-2.

There are far greater sins than being beaten by two of baseball's best. Given the circumstances — Howard hadn't pitched against another actual team in months and his own throwing schedule was changed this week to accommodate the Sunday start — it wasn't that bad. (The Phillies' offense was much worse.)

"Spencer, for his first start, I thought he did pretty good," manager Joe Girardi said. "He was able to throw strikes. The first two guys get on (in the first inning) and he's able to not give up a run. He didn't fall apart, which sometimes it's tough to slow a young person's mind down when it's their first start or first year. I thought he handled it pretty well."

Howard did not feel sharp. He added that he'd rather get hit on a day like today than on a day when he does feel sharp because that, after all, could be symbolic of a larger issue than being rusty and making a few mistakes against a strong lineup like the Braves.

"I wouldn't say I felt sharp," the 24-year-old rookie said. "Just a little out of sync with mechanics. Left a lot of balls over the plate and mistakes get hit in the big leagues. Overall, it was a decent day, awesome to compete again."

It was obviously strange for Howard to debut with no fans or family members in the stands. Not how a little kid dreams about making his first start in The Show. Howard dreamt of pitching a shutout in his first start in front of mom and dad. 

But it's 2020, so c'est la vie.

"The cardboard cutouts actually made a difference, surprisingly," Howard said. "Coming back in the summer camp when it was just the blue bleachers and then seeing the cardboard with the fan noises, it was OK actually. I wish all my friends could be here but I know they're all watching and that's all that matters."

The question now becomes: Who makes the next start five days from now? Will it be Vince Velasquez, who allowed one run in four innings in Game 1 Sunday, or Howard?

"Right now, my plans are for Vinny to make that start," Girardi said. "I have not talked to anyone. We're going on a five-man rotation, Spencer came up and threw the second part of a doubleheader. I'll sit down and talk to our coaches and (GM Matt Klentak and assistant GM Ned Rice) and we'll make a decision.

"We didn't come into today and say we were going to make a change in the rotation. We didn't come out and say that. We said we're going to evaluate every day what's best for our team."

It is possible the Phillies, with such a bad bullpen, could make Howard a multi-inning reliever. They wouldn't use him as a closer but as a pitcher capable of picking up six, maybe even nine outs as a reliever when the situation calls for it. Long-term, Howard will be a starter. But given the struggles and lack of plus stuff in the Phillies' bullpen, Howard could make a big impact as a multi-inning reliever in a short season if the Phillies go that route.

It seems unlikely, if only because the Phillies still have five more doubleheaders and will need a sixth starter again. But it's on the table. Most everything is on the table until the Phillies find out a formula for a bullpen that has an 8.10 ERA with 44 hits allowed in 30 innings.

"It's something that we've talked about," Girardi said. "It's something we will continue to talk about. What we do and how we have the best makeup of a pitching staff."

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