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Rays planning for a spring of unknowns

Camps, for now, are set to open next month in Florida and Arizona, though plenty of questions remain.
As of now, Major League Baseball plans for camps to open in mid-February, the season to start on April 1 and a full 162-game schedule to be played.
As of now, Major League Baseball plans for camps to open in mid-February, the season to start on April 1 and a full 162-game schedule to be played. [ MARC TOPKIN | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Jan. 16

ST. PETERSBURG — Major League Baseball told teams and players this week to be ready to report to spring training as planned next month in camps across Florida and Arizona.

Unless they tell them not to.

As of now, the league plans for camps to open in mid-February, the season to start on time on April 1 and a full 162-game schedule to be played.

But as with everything else during the coronavirus pandemic, that is subject to change — especially if positive tests continue to spike.

Related: Rays planning for limited fans at start of season

In the meantime, players are scrambling to book spring training housing, with instructions from their teams to seek refundable deposits or out clauses in the leases. Coaches are setting up practice schedules without knowing how many players will be in camp. Team officials are anticipating how to implement COVID-19 protocols expected to be more restrictive than during the 2020 season.

And there are still whispers that the league is hoping to push the whole thing back a month or so, figuring it will be better for health and safety, as well as business.

“We’re preparing,” Rays travel and logistics director Chris Westmoreland said. “And we’ve got to be prepared for anything.”

With just over 30 days until Rays pitchers and catchers are slated for their Feb. 18 opening workout in Port Charlotte, there is a lot they — and those with the other 29 teams — don’t know, much to their frustration. Here are some questions, and a few answers.

How different will this spring be?

We’ll know more in the next few weeks as rules are set on things like camp roster size and distancing requirements on the fields.

But it’s definitely going to be different.

And right from the start, as players — with a few exceptions, such as injury rehabs — are not allowed to show up in Port Charlotte or Tropicana Field for the usual weeks of early workouts.

Also, the lower-level minor-leaguers, from Double-A down, won’t be there. To have more space on the fields and in the buildings, only major-league and Triple-A players will report to camp.

“Minor-league” spring training won’t start until the big-league Triple-A teams break camp at the end of March. As a result, the start of the Double-A and Class A seasons will be delayed. (Unclear is whether this will prevent young prospects — such as, say, Wander Franco — to be invited to big-league camp if they are likely headed to Double-A.)

Caps on how many players, as well as coaches and team executives, camp be in camp will impact the Rays’ plans. Limits on how many players can work out together — such as eight pitchers throwing side by side as usual, or six players taking turns in the batting cages — would change daily work schedules. How lockers have to be spaced can alter daily meetings, as well as the team-building that occurs in the spring.

And that’s the small stuff. What if MLB decides teams only will play three to four exhibitions a week, as has been kicked around? Or games being reduced to seven innings, since they won’t have low-level minor-leaguers to fill in?

What about fans?

Though the Rays are making plans to host fans (in limited numbers and distanced seating pods) for the regular season that starts in April, they have not decided about spring games in Port Charlotte.

The first game is set for Feb. 27, but they may not make a decision for awhile. The coronavirus numbers in the area, the health of their players and the setup for camp all could be factors in their decision.

MLB has told teams they are allowed to have a limited number of mask-wearing fans at exhibitions if permitted to do so under governmental rules at their spring sites. Under a similar pods-seating plan and using the berm and boardwalk, the Rays could probably accommodate around 2,000 fans at Charlotte Sports Park.

Charlotte County would seem okay with that, spokesman Brian Gleason saying Friday the county plans to follow CDC guidelines on distancing and mask usage and is “ready to welcome the Rays and their fans to enjoy a safe and wonderful baseball experience.”

Also to be determined is whether fans will be allowed to watch workouts on the complex fields during the first nine days of camp and mornings before games. Per MLB guidelines, the only option may to allow fans into the stadium if any workouts are held there.

How will the protocols work?

Head athletic trainer Joe Benge checks Brendan McKay's temperature before a voluntary workout in May at Tropicana Field.
Head athletic trainer Joe Benge checks Brendan McKay's temperature before a voluntary workout in May at Tropicana Field. [ WILL VRAGOVIC | Tampa Bay Rays ]

Exact details on COVID-19 testing, mask-wearing and social-distancing requirements and other protocols are still being discussed with the players union. Early word is they are likely to be stricter than during the regular season last year.

Spring training, where players typically rent condos or houses and have many afternoons and evenings off, presents its own challenges. And questions, such as, can players room together? What about coaches and staff? Can they go out to restaurants? How will food be provided and consumed at the facilities? How many players will be allowed on a bus to spring road games, almost all of which are more than 45 minutes away?

What’s the biggest concern?

Rays players stretch on the field in advance of the opening of spring training in February in Port Charlotte.
Rays players stretch on the field in advance of the opening of spring training in February in Port Charlotte. [ MARC TOPKIN | Tampa Bay Times ]

The pitchers. It’s always the pitchers. After all the injuries they sustained during the accelerated restart to the abbreviated 2020 season, the Rays are planning to be especially careful this spring.

Pitching coach Kyle Snyder has provided individual workout programs and been in constant communication with the pitchers, having them throw now and build to around six bullpen sessions before they leave for camp. That’s based on the current schedule, so a delayed camp or limits on workouts will cause changes and maybe concerns.

“I hope we don’t live in this world of uncertainty on some level much longer,” Snyder said, “because it definitely makes a pitching coach’s job a little bit more challenging.”

Why not push everything back a month?

League officials don’t say this out loud, but there are reasons they’d rather wait, figuring vaccines will be more available and coronavirus cases reduced in May compared to April, making it safer for players to stay on the field and more likely for fans to be in the stands.

But to do so, they would need to work out a deal with the union. And that’s the tricky part.

The sides don’t exactly trust each other, as evidenced by negotiations to get last season started. While the union understands the health and safety part, it feels players showed in 2020 they could play under the protocols, and the NFL, NBA and NHL are playing now (albeit with some issues).

So players see the delay as a way for the owners, who claimed massive losses playing without fans in 2020, to shorten the season and cut their pay again, having played for only 37 percent of their salaries last year.

The owners already have asked once about a delay, and the players made it clear that the missed games will have to be tacked onto the back end of the schedule to make it a full season or they will have to be paid for 162 games even if they only play 140. (In addition to these points of negotiation, the league and union are also discussing rules changes, such as the universal designated hitter and seven-inning doubleheaders.)

Another scenario that could lead to a delay is governmental restrictions preventing teams from working out or playing games. Though that seems unlikely at the state level, given Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ pro-business stance, it’s not inconceivable it could be done at some county or city levels.

Unless something changes, the plan is to start playing ball in a few weeks. For now.