Major League Baseball finally moves into a full bickering-free, play-oriented week starting Monday. Pitchers and catchers will begin reporting for Spring Training 2.0 -- or is it Mid-Summer Training? -- on Wednesday. The Nationals expect to assemble on the field Friday. For the first time since Oct. 27, 2019, baseball will happen inside Nationals Park.
Sunday, the team distributed its 60-player pool to draw from this season. Thirty will be on the active roster when the season starts July 23 in Nationals Park against the New York Yankees -- a natural scheduling selection for the league to try to open with a fan-less boom.
Sean Doolittle and Ryan Zimmerman were both in the initial player pool. It doesn’t mean they will be in the park when a pre-recorded anthem plays in an empty stadium in less than a month.
Ahead for them are difficult decisions influenced by family, money and everything they have built decades around. The pair will need to decide if they want to play baseball this year. If either does not, it will be the first time in three decades they have gone without some form of season. From boys hitting off a tee to men winning the World Series, they played season after season. The coronavirus, which has stalled so much, may stall them in 2020, too.
When the initial, and lone, agreement was struck between the league and players on March 26, the element of service time was paramount. The MLBPA wanted player clocks to move in any instance this season. Games or no games, opt-out or on the field, high-risk or standard risk. There is not a no-risk component.
The final parameters will not allow that. If players take part in the 60-game season, their service-time clocks move. They receive credit for a full season. If they are determined to be part of the high-risk pool and they opt-out, they receive credit for the season. If they are healthy, but have a high-risk situation at home, they don’t receive service time or pay if they choose not to play. This is the rub for Doolittle and Zimmerman.
Doolittle would perform as the Nationals’ closer. If he appears in 40 percent of the Nationals’ games -- which would be a higher percentage than when he was overused out of necessity last season -- he would make just 24 appearances. That’s his on-field quotient.
Eireann Dolan, Doolittle’s wife, has a chronic lung condition. Her acute asthma manifests more often as viral pneumonia than an asthma attack. So, what starts as a cold or flu or upper respiratory infection is more likely to become lower respiratory pneumonia. She has been hospitalized for extended periods, and then in need of oxygen, because of the condition since she was nine years old. In addition, one of the prescription medications she has to take creates more ACE 2 receptors in the respiratory tract, which essentially creates more “doors” for viruses to enter the lungs. She told HBO’s Real Sports she was scared for her life at spring training when the virus began circulating around the country.
So, Doolittle’s options look like this: play this season, receive service time and a full prorated paycheck, become a free agent as a result, and likely do so while separated from Dolan from July to possibly November. Or, opt-out, lose the service time, lose the prorated pay, and come around the bend in 2021 with a year left on the contract. Also, when showing up in 2021, rejoining a team which had to compete without him the year after winning the World Series, even if it is for a false 60-game title.
On top of those layers is a simple, core one: his competitiveness stirs him to play. It’s why he is there in the first place.
Doolittle turns 34 years old in September. What will likely be his last chance at a multi-year deal -- after being woefully underpaid by a contract signed in Oakland -- comes two months later if he plays. The offseason market will be suppressed. Maybe that’s a reason to wait. He opts out, chooses the safest route for his home life, and personally, skips the upcoming nasty free agent winter, reconvenes with the team in the spring, becomes a free agent in 2021. Though, that promises to be an ugly winter, too. The collective bargaining agreement expires that fall. There could be a strike or lockout. What there won’t be is a smooth transition to a new deal. And the risk of injury in between looms.
Zimmerman, 35, is faced with a similar scenario. He told the Associated Press last week he was not sure if he will play this year, referring to it as a “family” decision.
“I have a 3-week-old baby,” Zimmerman told the AP. “My mother has multiple sclerosis and is super high-risk; if I end up playing, I can pretty much throw out the idea of seeing her until weeks after the season is over.”
Zimmerman is looking at the same process as Doolittle. Play, receive service time and pay, become a free agent, possibly live separated from family, including a newborn and your mother. Don’t, receive no pay or service time, remain under contract, skip a year of baseball.
Zimmerman doesn’t need the money. He’ll say that openly and repeatedly. He could well not need the risk. His options, if he chooses not to play, are retire as a World Series champion and city sports icon, or presumably come back next year on a one-year deal. Eric Thames is on a one-year deal with a mutual option. So is Howie Kendrick. Natural space for a part-time, right-handed first baseman exists, especially with the likelihood of the designated hitter remaining in the National League for good. Zimmerman still fits in the roster mix.
These choices are challenging because no outcome is clean. The process has been corrupted by the virus, the ongoing and most prevalent enemy of the season, in so many ways. If you play, you lose something. If you don’t, you lose something. Decisions are coming this week.
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