The specter of COVID-19 will hang over the entire 60-game Major League Baseball season that is set to begin in three weeks.
Heck, it’s already hanging over Phillies training camp.
The Phils will officially begin their three-week training period on Friday. They will utilize Citizens Bank Park and the fields across the street at FDR Park.
The Phils have set a 54-man roster for camp — it can grow to 60 — but at least four players will not be there. Second baseman Scott Kingery and pitchers Hector Neris, Ranger Suarez and Tommy Hunter have all been placed on the 10-day injured list, retroactive to Tuesday, and won’t be eligible to return until late next week at the earliest.
No reason or particular injury was given for placing any of the four players on the IL — baseball-related injuries are usually disclosed — and that is essentially confirmation that the four are dealing with something related to COVID-19 — either a positive test, symptoms of the virus or possibly human contact with someone who has already been infected.
“What I can tell you is they're on the injured list, and that's about all I can tell you,” manager Joe Girardi said on Thursday afternoon. “MLB has given protocols on how to handle it.”
For reasons of medical privacy, teams are forbidden to talk specifically about COVID-19 cases.
But Girardi was able to answer baseball-related questions about the players in question. Of particular pertinence: Will these four players be ready for the July 23 or 24 season opener?
“I don't have a timetable on those players,” Girardi said. “I can't really answer that question. As soon as I get an answer, I will give it to you.”
So, it’s at least a possibility that one or more of these players won’t be ready for the opener?
“I think you have to look at all possibilities,” Girardi said.
Further indication that Kingery, Suarez, Neris and Hunter are dealing with something related to COVID-19: Girardi said no player has reported to camp with any new injuries. Relievers Seranthony Dominguez and David Robertson are both on the 60-day injured list with stated elbow injuries. Robertson had Tommy John surgery in August and is iffy for a return this season; Dominguez will have Tommy John surgery in the coming days. His elbow injury, suffered in June 2019, will end up impacting three seasons.
It’s very possible that Kingery, Neris, Suarez and Hunter are, at this moment, completely healthy. However, a player on the COVID-19 IL must test negative twice and pass a medical review before he can return to the group. That could take some time and possibly prevent the players from getting enough practice reps in camp to be deemed ready for opening day.
The possibility of not having Kingery, Neris, Suarez and Hunter at the start of the season is not insignificant.
Kingery is the team’s starting second baseman.
Neris is the team’s closer.
Hunter is an experienced setup man who takes the ball.
Suarez was a late-season find in the bullpen last year and a candidate for the fifth starter’s job back in March.
With an expanded roster, the Phillies could plug second base a number of ways if Kingery is not ready for the opener. Jean Segura could play there and rookie Alec Bohm could get a look at third — if the Phillies wanted to start his service time clock on Day 1. Holding him back a week would garner the Phillies an extra year of control before Bohm would become a free agent.
The Phils also have a bunch of other players in camp (Neil Walker, Josh Harrison, Phil Gosselin, Logan Forsythe) who can play second.
The bullpen would take a hit without three projected contributors, particularly Neris, but the Phils do have 29 other pitchers in camp so there will be choices. In a 60-game season, every game is vital, every win and loss magnified and multiplied. It’s not necessarily the time to start experimenting, but if Girardi were open to doing so … might it be worth seeing what Vince Velasquez looks like as a closer if Neris misses time?
Time will tell how long Kingery, Neris, Suarez and Hunter will be out.
And don’t think there won’t be more players showing up with mysterious, unexplained trips to the injured list.
COVID-19 will hang over this entire season.
It's already affecting Phillies training camp.
"Do I think there will be players who get COVID-19? Absolutely," Girardi said. "I think with the protocols MLB has with the testing of players, the protocols before you come to the ballpark, and the protocols you do while you're at the ballpark, the contact tracing that we do, I think we will have cases. Hopefully, they will be really containable and we can pull this off.
"For me, it comes down to really how socially responsible we are as an industry, as a state, and as a country. I think we can do it."
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