COVID-19 cases and player opt-outs mounting across MLB

COVID-19 cases and player opt-outs mounting across MLB

The Phillies have four players on the COVID-19 injured list (Hector Neris, Ranger Suarez, Scott Kingery and Tommy Hunter) and three more who have yet to arrive in camp because of coronavirus protocols (Aaron Nola, Adam Haseley and Christian Bethancourt).

We’re already seeing how unsteady and unpredictable this 60-game season will be. Nola is the Phillies’ best starting pitcher and Neris is their best reliever. Kingery is their starting second baseman. Haseley was set to start or split time in center field. Suarez was in the race for the fifth starter’s job.

So much for the Phillies would change without them, and it’s reasonable to expect at least a few of them will miss time early in the season. Phillies lefty Cole Irvin said Saturday he thinks it could take pitchers up to six weeks to return from coronavirus because it would require two weeks of quarantine, then the resumption of throwing, then a few bullpen sessions. The severity of cases varies, but it looks like it will generally cost pitchers more time than position players.

The best hitter in the NL East, Freddie Freeman, is also dealing with COVID-19 and is not feeling well at all right now, according to his wife Chelsea. Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters Saturday "it will be a while 'til we can get him back." It totally changes the Braves’ equation and 2020 chances if their rock is missing for a third of the season.

Will Smith, Atlanta’s top-tier lefty reliever signed to a three-year, $39 million in the offseason, also tested positive. Then on Saturday, Braves starting pitcher Felix Hernandez opted out of the season, as did their first base coach Eric Young Sr. Four Marlins players tested positive as well.

Yankees All-Star infielder D.J. LeMahieu tested positive.  So did Royals catcher Salvador Perez, Twins slugger Miguel Sano, Padres outfielder Tommy Pham and Indians speedster Delino DeShields Jr. Last week, Charlie Blackmon tested positive. There are at least another dozen known or suspected cases around the league with more, surely, to come.

On Friday, Mike Trout said "Honestly, I still don’t feel comfortable" about the season ahead with a pregnant wife.

On Saturday, Dodgers left-hander David Price opted out of the season because of health and family concerns, joining King Felix, Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman, Mike Leake and Joe Ross. Buster Posey is reportedly mulling the decision too.

Other than that ... decent first weekend of camp?

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Aaron Nola not in Phillies camp; will Zack Wheeler start opener?

Aaron Nola not in Phillies camp; will Zack Wheeler start opener?

It has been widely assumed that Aaron Nola will make his third straight opening day start when the Phillies begin their shortened 2020 season later this month.

But now you have to wonder if things might be shaping up for Zack Wheeler to make that start.

Nola has not participated in either of the Phillies' first two workouts since training camp opened — re-opened might be a better way to put it — on Friday.

"He is not here yet," manager Joe Girardi said Saturday. "We're trying to work our way through that."

Nola is said to be working out, throwing, locally. It's unclear why he has not worked out with the club, though many things are unclear in the age of COVID-19. Girardi is prohibited from discussing anything related specifically to COVID-19.

Center fielder Adam Haseley has also missed the first two workouts. He is also said to be working out locally, away from the team.

Girardi did say Haseley's absence was "due to a medical condition. We're trying to work through it and get him here."

Ditto for non-roster catcher Christian Bethancourt, who, despite being absent from the 60-man player pool, is still part of the organization, according to Girardi.

Already, the Phillies are without pitchers Ranger Suarez, Tommy Hunter and Hector Neris and second baseman Scott Kingery. All are on a special COVID-19 injured list.

If you're keeping score at home, the Phillies have yet to see their potential opening day starting pitcher, their second baseman and their center fielder. That's not exactly good for the strength-up-the-middle philosophy. At least shortstop Didi Gregorius worked out for the first time Saturday. Catcher J.T. Realmuto is in camp and working out, as well.

Given that Nola has been throwing, it's still possible he could make the opening day start in three weeks. But if he's delayed much longer getting into camp, Wheeler could jump in. The right-hander threw to hitters on Saturday and his next outing could come in an intrasquad game, according to Girardi. That could put him considerably ahead of Nola.

"I thought he looked pretty good," Girardi said of Wheeler's work on Saturday. "I think in a lot of ways, pitchers might be ahead of where they would be in a normal spring training when it comes to the volume, but what they're missing is having a hitter in there and competing. 

"That's what our concern is about, being sharp and being able to get out of jams and those sorts of things. But I thought he looked pretty good today. His next outing, I'm not sure what it'll be, if it'll be another bullpen, a simulated game, or even an intrasquad but he should be able to go further as long as he wakes up and feels good."

It's not a given that Wheeler would be the opening day starter if Nola doesn't get enough time to prepare with the team. Wheeler's wife is due to give birth around the time of the July 23 or 24 opener. He will leave the team for a few days to be with his wife. But if the birth doesn't happen until a day or two after opening day, Wheeler could make that start then slip away to be with his family and possibly not even miss a start.

More will be known in the coming days. But Nola's status is certainly something to keep an eye on.

Meanwhile, another player, former American League Cy Young winner David Price of the Dodgers, opted out of his season on Saturday because of concerns about COVID-19.

Girardi is still confident the season will get off the ground.

Time will tell.

"I think there's a lot of concern and I think that's why we continue to educate as much as we can," he said. "We continue to test every other day, there's temperature checks a number of times during the day. 

"It's players being socially responsible to themselves, to the people around them, and to their teammates. If you have a symptom, don't just assume 'Ah, I have a headache today. It's normal,' or 'I'm sneezing more than normal today. It's my allergies.' You have to be completely honest in all of these questionnaires that we fill out or you jeopardize everyone in the room. It is a concern, yes."

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Bryce Harper: Not signing J.T. Realmuto would be 'terrible and sad'

Bryce Harper: Not signing J.T. Realmuto would be 'terrible and sad'

Bryce Harper never stopped working out after baseball shut down. He hit three times a week back home in Las Vegas.

So it really wasn't surprising to see Harper launching balls into the empty seats at Citizens Bank Park on the first official day of the Phillies' restart Friday.

And it wasn't surprising to see him wearing his new favorite T-shirt, the one with teammate J.T. Realmuto's name and number 10 on the back.

The shirt was a giveaway last August and giveaways are always plentiful in the clubhouse. Harper wore one under his uniform a number of times late last season and is rocking it again during preparation for the new season. He has worn it three days in a row during workouts at Citizens Bank Park.

Harper is pretty shrewd when it comes to messaging. Look at the way he instantly connected with Philadelphia by embracing civic icons like the Eagles and the Phanatic last year.

Is there a message in his donning the Realmuto shirt three days in a row — with cameras catching it all? After all, Realmuto could become a free agent after the season and Harper, who's here for another dozen years, has long been on record as saying he'd like to see the Phillies lock up the catcher with a long-term deal.

"No message," Harper said after Friday's workout. "But I think J.T. is a great player. 

"If the Phillies don't end up signing him back, which would be terrible and sad, I think there's a lot of other teams out there that are going to want to sign the guy. He's a Gold Glove-caliber catcher every year, he's a great person, a great player. I mean everybody in this organization from the top down wants to see him in red pinstripes for the rest of his career and hopefully we can make that happen."

The Phillies and Realmuto were in the midst of negotiations when the game shut down in March. The two sides are now permitted to talk again, but general manager Matt Klentak has said the landscape is different because no games and no fans have equaled no revenues for the last three months. Klentak still hopes to get something done with Realmuto, maybe even by the season opener later this month. But the player is now a lot closer to free agency than he would have been in March and free agency can be enticing to a player. To be determined is whether the reduction in revenues throughout the game and the uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic will hurt the market for free agents this winter.

Message or not, Harper will continue to wear his Realmuto jersey. It's not hard to spot. It's white with maroon lettering. Pretty much everyone else on the field Friday wore red.

"I wore that underneath my jersey last year," Harper said. "It was actually a cut-off version. I wore it pretty much the whole second half of the season. It was T-shirt day at the ballpark and I wanted one. I stole one for this year as well because it was very comfortable underneath my jersey and I think it gave me a little bit of good luck."

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