ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays are taking an initial — and small — step toward returning to action, opening Tropicana Field on Monday for limited and mostly individual player workouts.
This will be the first official action at a team facility since March 17, when about a dozen players took part in a light, optional workout at the Port Charlotte spring facility before it was shut down as a result of the coronavirus pandemic that has delayed the season.
Players will be limited to using the field for playing catch, running and other cardio exercises and some light weight work. They initially will not be allowed to throw off the mounds, hit in the batting cages or go into the weight room or clubhouse, though those restrictions could be loosened over the next few weeks as the Rays take a cautious approach.
Only players on the 40-man roster are invited, and they will be limited to small groups, essentially to have a private open space to work out. Several coaches and athletic trainers will be there as well, but interaction will be limited and social distancing protocols in place. Players were notified Wednesday afternoon about the optional sessions.
Since the spring shutdown, players have been working out on their own, with some guidance from team officials and some video consultation, but no supervision or direct contact. Brandon Lowe, for example, takes swings in his St. Petersburg garage, Kevin Kiermaier runs and does conditioning work in the neighborhood of his Tampa home, Ryan Yarbrough throws in his backyard, and Austin Meadows does jumps onto his truck and curls with his dog.
With owners and players negotiating for a potential resumption of play in July, and the need for a second phase of “spring” training starting several weeks before that, the Rays join other teams in allowing some access to team facilities. The Marlins opened their spring facility in Jupiter on Tuesday for limited workouts.
Spring training was suspended March 12, with the Rays (and Phillies) playing the last game, minor-leaguer Ruben Cardenas striking out to end it.
The Rays brought players in for a brief meeting the morning of March 13 and allowed them to use the facility for optional light workouts through March 17. Plans were abandoned to shift those workouts the next week to Tropicana Field, which was also locked down with all team offices closed.
“Based on CDC guidelines and baseball-specific social distancing recommendations we believe this is the best move for the health and safety of our players and staff,” general manager Erik Neander said at the time.
Though Major League Baseball eventually ordered teams to shut down operations, there was some gray area in the rules about workouts, allowing players who were receiving injury rehab treatment or living near the facilities to still report, and there has been some broad interpretation by other teams.
Some other teams have organized, or at least allowed, players to work out on the field at team facilities in the interim; the Padres and Rangers host batting practice at their home ballparks.
Teams that train in the Tampa Bay area have had players at their spring facilities.
At least a half-dozen Yankees players report to Steinbrenner Field in Tampa. Blue Jays players go to the Dunedin stadium, catcher Danny Jansen telling mlb.com that he has been catching quick throwing sessions with some of their pitchers: “We use the mound and we’re out of there.”
And Phillies players and staff work out in Clearwater, catcher J.P. Realmuto telling The Athletic that he goes over in the mornings, lifts weights, does defensive drills with a machine, takes batting practice and catches some of the half-dozen pitchers who have been throwing there.
The opening of the facilities for individual workouts is the first of several steps to getting the players back to game action. If and when the owners and union agree to a deal on the myriad health and safety rules and financial matters to start the season, players expect to have about two weeks to ramp up individual workouts before opening a roughly three-week second “spring” training.
The Rays plan to also conduct those sessions at Tropicana Field, with the potential to do some outdoor work at Al Lang Field, their former spring home currently used by the Rowdies soccer team, which they also own.
The Rays shouldn’t need long to get most of the team assembled, as more than half have stayed in town.
First baseman Ji-Man Choi went home to Korea and outfielder Yoshi Tsutsugo to Japan, so there may be logistical and potential governmental issues to navigate in getting them back.
But manager Kevin Cash said “the bulk” of the other foreign-born players are still in the United States, and that most players overall are in Tampa Bay or Port Charlotte.
“Three weeks ago, we were probably about 75 percent, 80 percent local," he said last Thursday. “I think that number has dropped a little bit as some guys said, ‘Hey, I’m going to go back home, see family, friends, whatever it is.’ And kind of taken the approach I can maybe get more stuff done and stay in shape a little bit wherever I go. And in a moment’s notice, they’re ready to get back here."