Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias said today that he anticipates having a full roster and staffs for the beginning of spring training 2.0. Camps open on Friday after testing for COVID-19 is conducted two days earlier.
Multiple players on other teams already have decided to sit out the 2020 season, which is reduced to 60 games due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman and Joe Ross and the Diamondbacks’ Mike Leake opted out today.
“After a great deal of thought and given my family circumstances - three young children, including a newborn, and a mother at high risk - I have decided not to participate in the 2020 season,” Zimmerman said in a statement issued by his agency, CAA.
Others are likely to follow, but the Orioles thus far expect perfect attendance.
“We recognize that this will be fluid and everyone is having to make personal decisions and circumstances might not be fully understood until the season starts, but so far we are expecting full participation,” Elias said.
“You see in the news around the league that’s not the case everywhere and I wouldn’t be shocked if that ends up happening, but that’s going to be part of this.”
Elias said one young international player early in the process showed signs of COVID-19, but he was monitored, never had adverse health effects and is fine.
“It was a situation that occurred overseas,” Elias said. “Other than that, we’ve been remarkably lucky thus far. I don’t expect that to continue throughout the season. We’re going to have cases. That’s been the expectation for Major League Baseball all along and we’re going to do the best we can to be prepared for it and contain any situation that occur to keep everyone healthy even when they do test positive and try to have the best outcomes that we can. But we all know we’re heading into a situation that is not without its pitfalls and we’re going to do the best we can.”
Anyone who’s high risk and chooses later to opt out will be paid and earn service time, per league rules. If he isn’t high-risk - and it doesn’t matter whether someone in his household or family is - he won’t receive a salary or service time.
“It’s not our determination,” Elias said. “Everyone who’s coming really wants to be here and our approach is this is an unusual situation, everyone’s got their own circumstances. We’re not pressuring anyone or shaming anyone that feels they shouldn’t be here and we’re making that known and I think it’s well received. And so far no one has decided not to come, but we’ll see how it goes.
“Our players have been itching to play for a while. I think the whole delay was frustrating for them, for us and everyone just wants to go play.”
Elias, who was made available to the media on a Zoom video call, also confirmed that the Orioles will use an alternate site besides Camden Yards, but he isn’t ready to say when that camp will open or pinpoint its location.
Prince George’s Stadium in Bowie appears to be the favorite. The 44 players announced for the pool on Sunday will congregate in Baltimore, with the remaining 16 - a combination of veterans who can be promoted later and prospects in need of work to further their development - using a different facility.
“It will open at some point during the quote-unquote spring training period of time,” Elias said. “We’re very fortunate that we have multiple local professional affiliate options right in the neighborhood here, so we’re going to be in good shape wherever it is. We will be utilizing that.
“I do expect that we will have players appear from the low minors that realistically otherwise wouldn’t have had a chance to come participate at the high minor league or major league level this year will be there primarily for player development purposes. Logic would dictate it will be some of our top prospects, but we’ve also got a lot of prospects that perhaps aren’t publicly ranked as highly but they are closer to the major leagues and we need to get them ready for eventual or possible major league debuts this year.
“It’s going to be kind of a sliding scale between who you are and how close you are to the big leagues, but also filling out depth for the major league team this year. So there’s a lot of considerations and it just makes it a case-by-case, person-by-person decision. And it’s been an extensive conversation. So we have kind of a game plan, but we’re not going to lock ourselves in with announcing all 60 players until it makes sense to do so.”
Elias also praised ownership for paying the minor league players through the end of the schedule and taking care of employees “under the most challenging circumstances that this business has ever seen.”
“I know that I speak for a lot of people that we are all very proud of the way the Orioles have navigated this and continue to try to navigate what’s been very challenging,” he said. “I know we’re looking forward to getting back to baseball. We’re working right now to make sure it’s as smooth as possible and we’ll see how this goes and what the future holds for us. But I know everyone’s so excited to see one another again.”
But for how long?
The season has been reduced to 60 games and there are no guarantees that it won’t be interrupted.
“Major League Baseball has taken an incredible amount of time and care to script out highest quality protocols that they could,” Elias said. “Consulted experts, consulted governments. We’ve got all types of planning going into this. But that said, no one has ever done this before. You can’t plan perfectly for anything, let alone something that has never been experienced and I imagine things will evolve.
“It won’t go perfectly, but we all recognize this is important not just to us, but to fans, to the country. We want to try to make this work and I think we’re all staying optimistic within reason and we’re going to do our best to get to the playoffs and have a successful World Series.”
The 44 players announced on Sunday are competing for roster spots on opening day. Elias is in no rush to fill the other 16 openings. There’s no pressure to do it.
“The way that we have analyzed the rules are that it’s easier to add people than take them off that 16, especially certain types of people,” he said. “A young prospect, a young minor leaguer who we would add more for player development purposes, cannot be removed from that list unless you release them and certainly we don’t want to get in a situation where we would even consider something like that. Or if their presence might otherwise cause us to release or waive someone that we didn’t want to otherwise. So we’re being very cautious about fleshing out that list.
“We don’t need to do it right now. Obviously, we’re going to get to 60 and use our full 60, but we want to wait, get into Camden Yards, see what this looks like, see how our schedule’s unfolding and we will fill out that 60 over time.
“Also, the players that are competing for opening day roster spots, which everyone on that initial 44-man roster is, they’re going to need every bit of time doing what’s going to be a very quick three-week spring training anyway to get physically ready for the season and also for us to make a couple hard decisions at the bottom of the roster. But the guys that have no realistic shot to make the opening day team, obviously they’ve got the luxury of more time. So there’s just no rush to get them up here. We want to get them up here. Everyone wants to get as many players from our organization as we can up here, but we’ve got to be smart about uncertain nature of what this is going to look like for the first week or two and then also the fact that the rules are kind of a one way street.”
Are players who didn’t make the group of 44 unable to compete for spots on the opening day roster?
Individuals who already were sent out in March, with outfielder/infielder Ryan Mountcastle and pitchers Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer representing prime examples, are less likely to find their way back onto the roster.
“Nothing has really changed for them,” Elias said. “Obviously, you get into spring training, something changes, injuries occur, we revisit it. But we’re kind of reverting to the status quo at the end of spring training there.
“There were some players - Bruce Zimmermann and Mason Williams, at least so far - who were not included on that 44-man who had technically been in camp at the end of camp when it abruptly ended. Looking at things and trying to keep these numbers tight as much as possible in this very early period when we only have one facility open and when we’re just unsure how the days are going to go, we don’t want to overwhelm ourselves with numbers given that we can add at any time, that we did shift out for right now. But we’ll just see how the camp goes.
“I think some of those guys, there’s a scenario where they do creep into it and especially if there are injuries and they make the opening day team, others probably not, but we expect to see them potentially later this year.”
Workouts will be staggered with less room at Camden Yards than the Ed Smith Stadium complex in Sarasota. Manager Brandon Hyde and major league field coordinator Tim Cossins are mapping it out.
“The last thing I want to do is meddle in the daily schedule of something as chaotic as this,” Elias said. “Not my area of expertise to begin with, but I know those guys have been looking at it, thinking about it from a number of angles. The whole coaching staff. So we’ve got a plan for that so that the pitchers get in their work, the hitters get in their work.”
Players who aren’t on the active roster during the season will be kept game-ready.
“We don’t have Norfolk as our Triple-A this year because of the setup, but we’ll still have the ability to option people down,” Elias said. “They will go to our secondary site and it’s not just going to be practice. We’re going to have simulated games so pitchers can throw innings and hitters can get live at-bats. I’m sure we’ll figure out a way to simulate game environment as best as possible.
“The pitchers will be able to log their innings and be kept on a real innings schedule, which I think is the most important aspect of that. ... We’re very mindful that it’s a cozy building to begin with and we’re not going to be able to just have everyone there hanging out. There’s going to have to be real scripted plans for who’s working where and when. It’s a big effort.”
Here’s more from Elias:
“Our entire organization, not just baseball operations but ballpark operations and everyone in the organization has been working tirelessly the last few weeks and days to get us extra prepared for players returning for activity, returning to Camden Yards. Obviously, this is going to be unlike anything that any of us have ever experienced, but we’re looking forward to the challenges that this season will provide. We’re looking forward to getting back on the field.
“It’s been a tremendous effort from everyone to make sure that we are prepared. We’re doing this as safely as possible for our players and staff members and ultimately we hope this will be a successful campaign for the sport.”
On feeling pride in how the organization has conducted itself:
“We’ve been very careful and deliberate with our moves, prioritizing the safety of our players and employees. That’s been reflective in the way that we staged the end of spring training and now as we look to resume activities in the major leagues we’re taking the same approach. I think it has been a wise one and as a result so far our organization has remained very healthy and we’re hoping to continue doing that the best we can. But we know that not everything is inside our control.”
On protocols and procedures implemented at Camden Yards beyond the norm:
“Not really anything in particular to share at this moment. I would emphasize, however, that we are taking care to execute the league’s protocols to the fullest. Make sure that any amount of planning or care that is not only required but suggested or prudent, that we’re being sure to take.
“We take this very seriously. We have from the start. I think the state of Maryland has a similar approach and we certainly don’t want to stop that now.”
On trying to make evaluations in a shortened season:
“It’s going to be a very small sample for these players. I think in terms of evaluating our talent based on what happens this year, we’re going to be probably more reliant on objective criteria that are not the statistical samples that could be misleading in this short of a time. We’re going to be looking at guys’ stuff, what type of shape they’re in, how they’re playing defense, how hard they’re hitting the ball, all that. But it is very possible that somebody has a pretty misleading stat line over 60 games that they wouldn’t have had over 162.
“It’s just one of the many challenges of this season. There are so many, it’s hard to think of them all and that’s just one of them. I imagine we’re going to have to make some personnel decisions like we do at the end of every year and we’re only working with a third of the info that we’re accustomed to.”
On whether a 60-game season changes anything related to what team wants to accomplish in a rebuild:
“I think it’s going to be kind of fun. It will be interesting. I think it’s going to fly by. I think playing the National League East is going to be interesting. I didn’t think our strength of schedule, being an American League East team, could get any tougher, but it actually did. We do have the toughest strength of schedule this year, so it’s not going to be an easy road, but I do think it makes things a little less predictable.
“The fact that the pitchers may not be totally built up at the beginning of the year, and then you get some extra roster spots with some more pitching changes, maybe that helps us, maybe it doesn’t, but I think it creates a little uncertainty. And I think our goal is just to be an unpredictable young team that’s scary to play in these circumstances and we mix things up. We are out our best player (Trey Mancini) from last year and that’s tough, that’s a big blow and we’re going to miss him, but I think that we’ve got a bunch of guys who are out there with their careers on the line and they play hard and it’s going to be unpredictable and interesting.”
On whether being in contention after around 40 games could change how the roster is constructed:
“If we get into the season and we’re surprising people and we’re playing well and our record is good, I think it will be a lot of fun. I think we still have a lot of work to do in this organization to set it up consistently for the future. It was a multi-year effort when it started and will continue to be a multi-year effort. We’re making progress in spite of the curveball that this year has thrown at us and so we’re keeping that in our sites, but if we have a chance to make the playoffs this year, we’ll be happy about it and we’re going to look at that very seriously if that’s the position that we’re in.”
On whether roster moves will change this year with perhaps fewer waiver claims:
“I don’t know. The waiver wire still exists, those transactions and those rules have not been altered. And I don’t know if there’s going to be less waiver activity given the circumstances and sort of the difficulty of off-boarding and on-boarding players. But I think the other GMs are proceeding with the expectation that it won’t be much different. Teams are going to have to do things. Players get hurt. There are all types or transactions that you can’t avoid over the course of the season and this is why we’re taking every care to make things as safe as possible, knowing that baseball is going to have to conduct its business, like it or not. Even with the incredible circumstances. So we’ll just have to see.”
On whether 2020 draft picks could be in the secondary camp:
“Possibly. We’re going to tell everyone to stay ready and we’re going to hope to get as many young players from the lower levels of our organization as involved as we can. We think that those opportunities might become more plentiful the deeper we get into the season. I wouldn’t rule out 2020 draft picks at all, but I don’t think it’s going to be something that’s instantaneous.”
Elias also said players will be allowed to shower at the ballpark and travel won’t be restricted to buses. Not with games in Florida, Atlanta and Boston.
“It’s not an option to do it that way,” he said, adding that behavior on planes and buses and the number of personnel will be adjusted.
The team will use more auxiliary rooms at Camden Yards to house players and allow for proper spacing.
“It’s something that everyone is taking real seriously,” Elias said.