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MLB return: Will pending free agents choose to sit out 2020?

MLB return: Will pending free agents choose to sit out 2020?

“Risk” continues to be the defining term while the Major League Baseball Players Association and league haggle over how to start the season.

The players vaulted a proposal back to the league late Sunday night, as reported by ESPN, which included a 114-game season to run from June 30-Oct. 31 (as opposed to the 82-game season offered six days ago by the league). Players added a salary deferral caveat. Deferrals of $100 million for players who make $10 million or more would be triggered if the postseason -- a large earner for owners and risk in financial recuperation for the players this year -- did not occur. The players threw in some fresh ideas, including additional microphones on the field, possibly a separate offseason Home Run Derby, and expanded playoffs for the next two years, to further ring the cash register.

An open-ended idea also made its way into what the players sent back. The union proposed players deemed high-risk to play during the coronavirus pandemic could opt out of the season and still receive salary. It also suggested players not deemed high-risk could opt out of the season. They would not be paid, but would still receive service time. This is a wild-card in the proposal.

A tussle between personal preservation and team duty will be coming for players who can be free agents. Does Mookie Betts, who will be the offseason’s focal point, want to risk playing this year? Does Sean Doolittle? Will they worry about this extended lull before sprinting back into a season? If the union gains games -- forcing multiple doubleheaders into the schedule -- will an everyday player scoff at putting his body through that with a payday just months away?

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Betts was the central figure in the union’s original agreement with the league in March. Service time was crucial to the players because they wanted to vault Betts into free agency no matter what. They wanted Juan Soto’s clock to move another year forward. Major League Baseball is structured against young players. Free agency is the only salvation. Moving toward it is paramount at any point, even when recent offseason spending has lost its past fervor.

So, underlying this agreement will be that idea. The players will not give on service time. They say they will not give on salary. These are two anchors going forward.

Betts, Doolittle and a slew of others will have to evaluate their “risk” differently. Betts will be 28-years-old this offseason. A 10-year contract for more money than Bryce Harper or Manny Machado received will be his focus. Doolittle is in the final year of his overwhelming underpayment as a result of a five-year, $10.5 million contract he signed in Oakland. He will be 34 by the time the offseason starts. His remaining contracts are few.

These questions will slam into the general desire percolating beneath all players. They are here to compete. Emerging from the minor-league crab bucket is a challenge for most. Doolittle was a late first-round pick. As a first baseman. He didn’t reach the major leagues until he was 25 years old. Telling him sitting out any portion of a season would be in his theoretical best interest is a difficult sell. But, he will have to consider it, along with the health of his wife, Eireann Dolan, who has a chronic lung condition. Even in a season which could be a “repeat” for the Nationals.

A new challenge emerges each time a new proposal is lobbed from one side to another. Perfect is unattainable. Good enough is the goal here, and if that means service time moves without certain players on the field in 2020, so be it. The union just said that’s acceptable.

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Nationals Scene and Heard: Team has a staff member opt-out

Nationals Scene and Heard: Team has a staff member opt-out

WASHINGTON -- Tuesday night was a quieter one in Nationals Park. Multiple members of the bullpen pitched against the same hitters over and over in what was less an intrasquad game and more drill work.

Will Harris, Daniel Hudson, Javy Guerra, Aaron Barrett, Kevin Quackenbush and Ryne Harper pitched. Trea Turner, Adam Eaton, Starlin Castro, Carter Kieboom and Eric Thames hit the most.

So, let’s get started with what was going on at the park:

-- Davey Martinez announced Tuesday night that batting practice pitcher Ali Modami has opted out of the 2020 season. Modami throws BP as a left-handed pitcher, but he’s also one of the fixtures at the park since joining the team in 2011.

His initial work was often with Bryce Harper in the batting cages before games. Modami always pitched to Harper, who did not take BP on the field. Overall, Modami threw a massive amount of pitches on a daily basis to whomever was ready to swing.

Modami added good-luck charm to his duties in 2019 when he was tasked with carrying the lineup card to home plate Friday, May 24, when the Nationals were 19-31 and staggered home from New York. They won -- in sloppy fashion -- that night. Modami went out the next day, and every day from then on.

You might also remember him as Brian Dozier’s celebratory transportation in the dugout. Modami is another part of a would-be normal situation who will not be around in 2020.

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-- A staffer who is back is hitting coach Kevin Long. Tuesday night was his first in Nationals Park since intake testing which forced him into quarantine.

“I know he had a mask on, but he was smiling ear to ear,” Martinez said. “He was dying to come back, and he’s back now. That’s one guy we got back. Hopefully, we get the rest of the guys back soon.”

-- Wednesday marks two weeks since intake testing began. The Nationals performed rolling testing the first week of “Summer Camp” and eight players have not been seen since. Among them are Juan Soto, Victor Robles and Howie Kendrick.

Martinez said recently the team is following District-mandated protocols -- which are more stringent than the ones put in place by MLB’s operations manual -- when deciding who will come back.

If any of the players went into quarantine July 1 or 2, they are nearing the end of their 14-day stay in such isolation. So, are they close to joining the team just three days before the exhibition game and eight before the start of the season?

“Honestly, I don’t know that answer,” Martinez said. “Every morning I wake up, all I can do is ask my medical staff, ‘Are they coming?’ and they give me a no. Hopefully, one of these days when I wake up and ask if they are coming, they give me a yes. That’s all I can say about it. I do know we can’t wait to get all these guys back and be in full force. Hopefully it will be soon.”

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-- Harris worked a clean inning Tuesday. His recovery from a spring-time abdominal strain is complete and he often worked from a mound in Baton Rouge while everyone waited for the season to begin. Tuesday was the first time he’s faced hitters since the 2019 World Series.

“I’ve thrown a lot of bullpens,” Harris said. “The reps are there, as far as just pitching and my arm. It’s just now getting the feedback from hitters and basically the validation of, OK, my stuff is doing what I think it’s supposed to be doing and I’m getting the swings I’m accustomed to getting. I got to have a bigger sample size, but with all the technology today you can pretty much know where you’re at pretty quickly. So, me throwing [Tuesday], I’ll take a look at it [Wednesday] when I get here, make sure my stuff’s doing what I’m accustomed to it doing, if it’s not, figure it out before my next outing.”

-- A quick Harris quip about the idea he might be used frequently at the start of the season. “If you don’t want to throw 18 times in a month, give up some runs and you won’t throw 18 times in a month.”

-- The Nationals worked on preparation for the new extra-innings rule this season which will place a runner on second base to start the 10th inning. They immediately tried a “daylight” pickoff play -- when the shortstop cuts in behind a runner leading off second, the catcher signals there is space, or “daylight”, between the fielder and runner, and the pitcher pivots for a pickoff attempt. Tuesday was the first time they started to fold this into their daily routine.

-- Martinez said to-go meals are prepared at the end of workouts so players and staff can leave with food and go straight home.

“We’re making it a point for these guys, when you leave here, you’re pretty much going to a hotel or you’re going to your place that you have and you’re staying in,” Martinez said. “If we’re really going to do this and keep everybody safe, I tell these guys all the time, you can’t be messing around. You’ve got to really take it seriously. One, I don’t want to get sick. Two, I don’t want anybody else around here getting sick. You’ve got to be smart about everything we do.”

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Former Astros RP Will Harris dons ‘District of Champions’ T-shirt for Nationals press conference

Former Astros RP Will Harris dons ‘District of Champions’ T-shirt for Nationals press conference

Will Harris may have been the pitcher who served up Howie Kendrick’s go-ahead home run in Game 7 of last fall’s World Series, but he apparently isn’t holding any grudges about the outcome.

Harris, who spent five years with the Houston Astros before signing a three-year deal with the Nationals over the winter, sat down for a Zoom press conference Tuesday in what his first chance to speak with the media since Summer Camp began. He wore a T-shirt that was a bit surprising for a player who was on the losing end of Washington’s title run.

The shirt reads “District of Champions,” a nod to D.C. winning titles in MLB, NHL and WNBA over the last three years. To his credit, Harris hasn’t shied away from talking about his performance in Game 7.

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“Look, I took the L in Game 7, that’s never gonna change,” Harris said on MLB Network in January. “But at the same time, I plan on winning my next Game 7 and I plan on winning more World Series, and I think Washington is a place I can do that.”

As if there was any doubt before, it appears that Harris has completely committed to his ballclub and D.C. as a sports town.

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