While the other four teams in the NL Central are between 16 and 19 games into their schedules, the Cardinals have played just five. They began the shortened season by beating the Pirates twice at home, losing to them once, and then losing two to the Twins in Minnesota. Before the start of their three-game series in Milwaukee on the weekend of July 31, two players tested positive, leading to the series’ postponement. Further positive tests have brought the total number of positives to 18 – 10 players and eight staffers, including a coach whose positive result was reported on Thursday — and they’ve had additional postponements of series against the Tigers, Cubs and Pirates, as well as the marquee “Field of Dreams” game against the White Sox in Dyersville, Iowa.
According to MLB.com’s Anne Rogers, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak told reporters via Zoom on Thursday that the 18th positive test is a coach whose positive test “comes after several days of inconclusive results. He is asymptomatic and has been in isolation for the past week.”
Per their RosterResource page, the Cardinals have placed nine players on the COVID-19 Injured List due to positive tests: catcher Yadier Molina, shortstop Paul DeJong, infielders Edmundo Sosa and Rangel Ravelo, outfielders Lane Thomas and Austin Dean, and relievers Junior Fernandez, Ryan Helsley, and Kodi Whitley. Pitcher Austin Gomber, though he has not tested positive, is on the COVID-19 IL because he was identified through contact tracing as being at risk. Additionally, starter Carlos Martinez is on the IL for undisclosed reasons, and MLB insider Robert Murray reported that he is also among the players who tested positive.
Shildt and Mozeliak told reporters that one player and one staff member had to visit a hospital emergency room “for IVs and a little more clarity,” as the former described it in an interview with KMOX; neither individual was hospitalized. Said Shildt:
“Nobody has had to stay. But there are people dealing with — I mean, this is real. And people are experiencing a lot of the symptoms that we hear about, that are associated with this. A variety of them. Most of them are experiencing multiple ones. Seems like they rotate with them… And again, nobody is in close to any critical shape, but people are having to deal with some things that aren’t comfortable at all.”
Goold reported that Dean, Helsley, and Thomas tested positive this past weekend, while Molina and DeJong, both of whom tested positive in Milwaukee, are known to have begun the protocols for returning to play: “They had to wait a minimum of seven days and be asymptomatic. The team’s current quarantine has lasted long enough for them to be tested as many as four times. Each player needs two consecutive confirmed negative tests at least 24 hours apart and also to go through an antibody test and cardiac evaluation before rejoining the team.”
Understandably, the Cardinals are scrambling to rearrange their roster, which has also been hit by the losses of a trio of pitchers for the remainder of the season, namely starter Miles Mikolas and relievers John Brebbia and Jordan Hicks. Mikolas tore a flexor tendon, while Brebbia underwent Tommy John surgery in June, and Hicks opted out just before Opening Day while working his way back from his own Tommy John surgery. Goold reported that the Cardinals’ top prospect, 21-year-old switch-hitting left fielder Dylan Carlson, who ranked 39th on this year’s Top 100 Prospects list, will be promoted from the team’s alternate training site in Springfield, Missouri. Additional reinforcements will include first baseman John Nogowski, starter Seth Elledge, and relievers Rob Kaminsky and Ricardo Sanchez, according to Rogers.
In an effort to give Cardinals players a chance to ramp up before returning to action — the reason that Friday’s game against the White Sox was postponed — the team reportedly had individualized workouts of about 20 minutes, staggering access to the field at Busch Stadium to allow one pitcher at a time to throw, and separately one hitter at a time. Commissioner Rob Manfred has said that it’s unlikely the Cardinals will play a full 60-game schedule, but the league appears bent on getting them close. The current plan calls for them to play a doubleheader on Saturday against the White Sox, then a single game between the two teams on Sunday. After that, they’ll move to Wrigley Field, where they’ll play doubleheaders against the Cubs on both Monday and Wednesday, with a single game between the two teams on Tuesday. While the crunch will be mitigated at least somewhat by the new-for-2020 rule calling for seven-inning games in doubleheaders, as Craig Edwards pointed out, that’s still an average of 12 innings per day for five days.
Even that stretch would only put a dent in the Cardinals’ deficit, leaving them 47 games to play in 40 days. Obviously, that would require more doubleheaders, and that appears to be what’s on tap:
What I said on Fox: League working with union on setting full Cardinals schedule. Players want additional doubleheaders to create off-days. League believes STL still could get close to 60 games, and maybe even to 60 by making up doubleheader if necessary day after season ends.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) August 13, 2020
Given that MLB hasn’t been shy about revising schedules to compensate for teams that have been quarantined, we can do a little math and assume the schedule is configured so that the Cardinals get three days off in that nightmare stretch, about one every two weeks. That would leave 37 playing days, requiring 10 doubleheaders to get to 60 games. Assuming no extra-inning games or rain-shortened ones, that’s 140 innings for the 20 doubleheader games, and 243 innings for the other games, for a total of 383 innings spread over 40 days, an average of 9.6 per day. By comparison, the original schedule of 60 games in 66 days, with no doubleheaders, called for an average of 8.2 innings per day; the revised daily workload is about 17% higher.
While MLB’s 2020 Operations Handbook allows for teams to add a 29th man to their rosters for doubleheaders, and the shortened games further help to lighten the innings load, that’s still a lot for a pitching staff to absorb in an abbreviated amount of time — and that in a season where injury rates among pitchers have already sounded alarms. Last week, The Athletic‘s Eno Sarris reported that for days 2-11 of the season, three times as many pitchers were on the Injured List compared to the same window a year ago, with more than twice as many on the IL as in any of the previous 10 seasons.
One possibility that could provide a bit of relief would be to prioritize making up the missed games against NL Central teams, while worrying less about completing the interleague schedule against AL Central teams. Under that scenario, last week’s four-game home-and-home series against the Tigers, the only meetings between the two teams, would fall by the wayside, and the Cardinals — and Tigers, who have started 9-7 and are thus suddenly relevant again — would “only” need to get to 56 games. MLB hasn’t made an official announcement thus far, but multiple insiders have reported that if such a case exists where teams play unequal number numbers of games, playoff spots and seeding would be decided by winning percentage. MLB previously did that in the strike-shortened 1972 and ’81 seasons, much to the chagrin of three teams that finished in second place, with the same number of losses but one fewer win than the division winners.
One other issue that MLB will probably need to confront, in the cases of both the Cardinals and the Marlins, is some relief when it comes to 40-man roster rules. Players on the COVID-19 Injured List don’t count against the 40-man limit, nor do those on the 45-day IL (normally the 60-day IL). Under the circumstances, both teams have had to add several players to their 40-man rosters in order to have enough players active, but once the positive-testing players are cleared to return to play, restoring them to the 40-man roster will require other players to be removed, which means designating them for assignment — exposing them to other teams via waivers before outrighting them off the 40. In a Twitter thread on the subject, Baseball America‘s JJ Cooper suggested that for an outbreak-stricken team, half the number of players added to the 40-man should be allowed to move off the roster without going through the DFA/waivers process. It’s unclear whether the union and the league have discussed such matters, but if not, the two sides should.
It counts as good news that the Cardinals are ready to go again, but the fact that two teams’ seasons have been massively disrupted by outbreaks in the first third of the season, with a ripple effect throughout the East and Central divisions of the two leagues, is hardly a glowing outcome. The plan to push the team hard enough that it can complete most if not all of its schedule carries risks to the players beyond the possibility of further infection, and further strains whatever notions of competitive integrity remain in this very weird, imperfect season. The defending NL Central champions were once considered contenders, but it would hardly be a surprise if the load they’re being asked to carry is too much.
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