10 days to Opening Day: Astros and MLB hope COVID-related ‘fire drills’ come to an end

In 10 days, the Houston Astros will open their pandemic-shortened 2020 season, and as they quickly ramp up through three weeks of “summer camp” training, the red flags are impossible to ignore.

Oh, All-Star third baseman Alex Bregman is working through some swing issues and launched a home run in an intrasquad game Monday. Pitcher Josh James joined workouts after the birth of his second child, reporting in excellent shape. Even with no high-fives to celebrate small victories, the anticipation of real baseball is building.

Yet the Astros, to use one high-profile example of a team trying to play through the realities of COVID-19, can scarcely go a day without myriad reminders of the season’s challenges.

Reigning Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez and starting pitcher Jose Urquidy have yet to report and were placed on the injured list, with no explanation for their absences. Sunday, the team’s major league pitchers and coaching staff were kept away from a workout at Minute Maid Park after possible exposure to a person with COVID-19, prompting the club to move back the start time of Monday’s workout as they awaited test results.

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Saturday, their workout was cancelled altogether, the second time in six days that happened.

First-year general manager James Click says injuries are always front of mind any time a group of players begin preparing for the season. But this year, the state of play is decidedly different.

“I really do think that whichever team has the fewest cases of coronavirus is going to win,” he said. “It’s impossible to state how that can devastate a team and that’s why we have to be so vigilant about it.”

Alex Bregman takes batting practice at Minute Maid Park. (Photo: Thomas Shea, USA TODAY Sports)

Indeed, the Astros have caution in abundance these days, erring on the side of isolating as necessary, awaiting test results if they are delayed and heeding as gospel the words and actions of Jeremiah Randall, the point man in their efforts to make Minute Maid Park as pandemic-proof as possible.

The three-week window for “summer training” allows for some starts and stops, and baseball, unlike, say, basketball and football, is far less reliant on collective cohesion on the field. Yet the most alarming element of this disjointed ramp-up period is a lack of clarity in how teams and Major League Baseball react should these problems occur in what’s already a tightly-bunched 60-game season over 66 days.

“We’re working closely with Major League Baseball and our doctors on that,” says Click. “Obviously, we want to do everything possible to avoid that and that’s why following the screening and testing protocols will be so critical.

“Having gone through a couple of these fire drills, it makes me have a lot of faith in the protocols we have in place. We’ve gone through them, we’ve worked through some things we didn’t expect, conversations about possibilities we did not contemplate until you end up in that situation. It’s obviously better to go through them now than the regular season.”

Yet the sheer volume of “fire drills” across the major leagues creates a mind-boggling set of competitive disadvantages should they play out during the season.

On Monday alone, the Astros were shorthanded, the Cubs without manager David Ross and five others for workouts as they awaited test results and longtime Astros nemesis Trevor Bauer tweeted that he “can’t go to the field” due to a delayed test.

All this came one week after a half-dozen teams, the Astros among them, cancelled at least one workout due to a holiday weekend delay in test results.

The first pitch of the 2020 season is expected to be thrown by Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer, in a July 23 primetime matchup against the New York Yankees. That otherwise appetizing matchup, though, is for now riddled by prominent absences, many stretching back to MLB’s “intake” process when players reported at the start of the month.

Nationals outfielders Juan Soto and Victor Robles, postseason hero Howie Kendrick and reliever Wander Suero have yet to work out. Yankees All-Star second baseman DJ LeMahieu still hasn’t returned from a positive COVID-19 test and closer Aroldis Chapman almost certainly will miss the opener after testing positive over the weekend.

The Tampa Bay Rays, perhaps the AL’s deepest team, just welcomed No. 2 starter Tyler Glasnow to camp Tuesday morning – and afterward acknowledged he tested positive for the coronavirus during intake screening. Yet to appear are starting pitcher Yonny Chirinos and DH Jose Martinez, while All-Star outfielder Austin Meadows and pitcher Brendan McKay have not been seen at Tropicana Field for more than a week, with no explanation.

At least the Rays have had relative continuity in their workout schedule, a claim at least 10 teams can’t make.

“I don’t think we’re going to make any excuses about it,” says Bregman. “I know our trainer is doing a tremendous job. The Astros organization is doing a great job keeping us safe. We’re going to keep working hard.”

And hope that the disruptions subside. Comings and goings are easier to swallow in camp – less so in a tightly-packed sprint.

“I don’t think it’s lost on any of us the logistical heft of this entire operation – the number of teams, number of cities, the number of hoops you have to jump through to get all these things done,” says Click. “Inevitably, there’s going to be some hiccups and speed bumps. You’re trying to create a new system on the fly.

“That said, having gone through a couple of these (disruptions), you make the same mistake once, hopefully you don’t make it again. And hopefully there will be fewer hiccups going forward.”

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