Group of 13 players still in West Palm Beach, none tested

Thirteen Nationals players, plus general manager Mike Rizzo, manager Davey Martinez and a skeleton crew of coaches, doctors, trainers and conditioning staff continue to ride out the coronavirus pandemic in West Palm Beach, Fla., though all have been instructed to take steps to ensure social distancing in an effort to prevent spread of the virus.

Rizzo, who said three players and other staffers are now in Washington while others have returned to their various hometowns, said no players to date have shown any symptoms and thus none have been tested for COVID-19.

Ballpark-of-Palm-Beaches-Sidebar.jpgAll of these decisions, Rizzo explained today during a conference call with reporters, were made at the advice of health experts and Major League Baseball.

“Our focus is simple: It is for the health and safety of our players, our staff and their families,” the GM said. “That is our top priority, and that is what we’re working diligently to get done.”

No members of the Nationals organization had spoken publicly since March 12, the day MLB announced it was suspending spring training and delaying the start of the regular season until at least April 9. At that point, Martinez and staff ace and players’ union rep Max Scherzer expressed the belief that it was safer for players and team employees to gather daily at the club’s spring training complex than disperse around the country or internationally.

Over the course of the next few days, it became clear that would no longer make sense. MLB and the players’ association negotiated a deal that would allow players to stay at their spring training sites if desired but also allow them to return either to the team’s home city or their own hometowns. Most players elected to stay in West Palm Beach and hold group workouts, but then a new advisory from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calling for the elimination of all gatherings of 50 or more people forced MLB to shut down all formal spring training activities.

MLB’s deal with the union still required spring training facilities to remain open and available to any players on major league rosters who wanted to stay in place, and 13 members of the Nationals’ 40-man roster chose to do that. Rizzo and Martinez also elected to remain in West Palm Beach, along with a handful of baseball operations employees who already live there during the offseason.

The three players who returned to Washington have access to Nationals Park, where another group of doctors, trainers and conditioning staff works with them.

“There are no formal, structured workouts,” Rizzo said. “But they are able to get their workouts in, in small, isolated groups, in accordance with MLB protocol and the CDC.”

With a potential dates to resume formal workouts and to begin the season completely unknown at this point, pitchers have been instructed to proceed as though they’re in their offseason throwing programs. Once the green light is given, Rizzo expects there to be some type of spring training-like period before the season begins, giving pitchers and position players time to ramp themselves back up.

“Obviously, the ramping up of pitchers and players in a safe manner is of the utmost importance to us,” the GM said. “There’s a fine line and a delicate balance that we have to strike between having them ready on opening day, whenever that is, and ramping them up to get to that point. We will have in place a protocol in our set of different criteria to get them to that point. ...

“When opening day is announced and decided upon, we’ll work our schedules back in a way to make sure that we’re fully ready to go.”

Though minor league camp was closed and players were sent to their hometowns, a few international players remain in West Palm Beach, including all Venezuelans and some Dominicans who could not safely return home.

The Nationals announced earlier this week they will continue to pay all minor leaguers their daily spring training stipend after MLB formally announced all 30 clubs would do the same. (Rizzo said the club would’ve proceeded with that plan on its own even if the entire sport did not.)

The Nationals also announced plans this week to make payments totaling $1 million to stadium workers who otherwise would have lost their income due to the delayed start to the season.

“These people are the backbone of the Nationals Park experience,” Rizzo said. “And it really feels good to make sure that they know that there’s a little less uncertainty in their lives because of what MLB did and the Nationals did to take care of them.”

Rizzo said he will continue to participate in two conference calls each week with MLB and the CDC, and other club officials remain in communication with league, government and health experts as they navigate their way through this most unusual moment in both baseball and world history.

“Hey, there are still a lot of unknowns, and our leadership team is working tirelessly to make sure our organization is handling this situation the best we can,” Rizzo said. “It’s a very, very fluid situation. This thing is not in the general manager’s manual. These are very, very fluid times, and they are very uncertain times. Suffice to say, we are all about caring for our players, our staff and their families, to make sure we do what we’re supposed to do and be good citizens and take care of each other.”

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