Put away the asterisks.
If, somehow, Major League Baseball crosses the finish line of a 60-game season and playoffs, there need not be a question about the legitimacy of the eventual champion. Because that last team standing, no matter how unlikely, would have overcome more challenges – and in less time – than any World Series winner that came before.
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Forget about which team’s roster has the most WAR. The real fight will be to stay healthy amid COVID-19, which just so happens is wreaking havoc in places like Florida, Texas, Arizona, and California – baseball hotbeds that are home to 10 major-league teams.
Talent will matter, as always. It will be surpassed, though, by two other requirements for success: depth and discipline.
There’s a reason teams are being allowed to invite as many as 60 players – twice the capacity of expanded opening-day rosters – to “spring training 2.0,” slated to begin next week in cities across the country (and possibly Toronto) after players and staff complete intake testing and self-quarantines.
Moreover, Article 6.1.8 in MLB’s 101-page operations manual – the establishment of a “COVID-19 Related Injured List” – wasn’t written as merely a topical reference in an exhaustive playbook for staging a season in the midst of a global pandemic that has infected nearly 2.5 million people in the United States.
Players are going to get sick. There’s no getting around it. Some will test positive when they show up for training camp.
The Phillies were adhering to strict precautions at their spring-training facility, according to several people familiar with the protocols, and yet seven players and five staff members still tested positive (and had symptoms) this month in baseball’s largest-known coronavirus outbreak. Three Colorado Rockies players tested positive this week; the Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers, and Seattle Mariners also have announced positive tests.
It’s going to happen. And when COVID-19 does infiltrate a clubhouse, the infected players will need to be isolated (a two-week quarantine represents roughly 20% of the season) and replaced. It follows, then, that the 31st- to 40th-best players on every roster could have as much impact on the season as the top-30.
Where does that leave the Phillies?
In an attempt to gauge, however imprecisely, the depth of every National League East team, we broke down each club’s 40-man roster. The Washington Nationals have the most players (37) who spent time in the big leagues last season and the most collective Wins Above Replacement (47.8, according to Fangraphs). The New York Mets were next with 40.1 WAR (not including pitcher Noah Syndergaard, who will miss this season, or outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, who missed all of last year), followed by the Atlanta Braves (39.8).
The Phillies were fourth with 34 WAR from 33 players on the 40-man roster who were in the big leagues last season. Not included in the tally: veteran non-roster invitees such as reliever Francisco Liriano and infielders Neil Walker and Logan Forsythe, who have not yet made the team, and top prospects Alec Bohm and Spencer Howard, who haven’t made their major-league debuts.
“I do think [depth] becomes much more important,” manager Joe Girardi said on March 18, the last time he addressed the local media and before many people fully comprehended the scope of the virus. “Because even the building up of position players is probably going to be a little bit.”
But if illnesses are inevitable, teams can take steps to control the spread. And it won’t be as simple as following Article 8.1.2 of the MLB manual, which calls for players to watch an “educational video” and receive “in-person education” from their team’s medical staff “to gain a broader understanding of the new MLB protocols.”
It should be noted that MLB’s manual is so comprehensive that it seemingly touches on everything that shouldn’t be touched. It’s all there, from covering the dugout railing with a towel before leaning on it (Article 4.2.2) to allowing pitchers a “small wet rag” in their back pocket in lieu of licking their fingers (Article 5.1.1), which, like spitting, high-fiving and hugging, is prohibited.
But for as much detail as the operations manual contains, enforcing those protocols is entirely another matter, especially the guidelines for off-field behavior.
Article 7.1.7, for instance, forbids members of the travel party from eating in restaurants on the road and using a hotel fitness center. But who’s going to stop a player or staff member who has a late-night food craving from going out in a city that has reopened?
So, discipline will be paramount.
“We need to make sure everybody understands why these protocols are in place, the importance of being responsible off the field,” Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said in a conference call this week. “We’re going to educate them on the things they can do to be responsible.”
Girardi is known for bringing structure to a clubhouse. Legend has it that he eats the same breakfast – six egg whites, a little ham, and dry wheat toast – every day. Early in his tenure as New York Yankees manager, he was ridiculed as “Binder Joe” because of his folders filled with scouting reports. He runs a tight ship, and it’s doubtful he will loosen up now.
But leadership from players will take on a new dimension, too. It will fall to the veterans and those with the most clout – with the Phillies, think of Andrew McCutchen, Jake Arrieta, J.T. Realmuto, and certainly Bryce Harper – to guard against teammates letting down their guard, perhaps by organizing team events.
Group meals, for example, in designated hotel dining areas will become more important as both bonding opportunities and requirements for staving off a virus that doesn’t have a rooting interest in the pennant race.
“This is a serious matter,” Girardi told MLB Network this week. “I think there’s a huge responsibility on our industry to make sure that we do things the right way and that we protect each other and that you follow the guidelines.”