Also, it’s tough luck that five other Nats are in quarantine because of close contacts with the infected four.
But it is important to note the limits of the problem the Nats face. It’s true this virus outbreak could be the start of a disastrous season, especially against a tough schedule in April. But it doesn’t have to be. At least if there are no more cases, which isn’t guaranteed.
The Nats got a tough break that may be nobody’s fault. But now they must avoid another potential problem: feeling sorry for themselves.
“We’ll see if we start fast or not,” said Rizzo, immediately rejecting the premise that they wouldn’t. Last season, the Nats lost star Juan Soto for the first eight games to a positive virus test. They went 5-3 without him. But this is an outbreak, not a one-off.
“That’s why you build depth,” Rizzo said.
Then, mentioning all the struggles of the first 50 games of 2019, Rizzo said that, when a roster takes hits, “Your stars have to be stars. And our depth has to shine.”
If this were the NFL, I’d dismiss this as “happy talk.” But baseball is fundamentally different. In small data samples, the difference between players is not large, and no one knows, for a week or two, who’ll be hot or not.
Nonetheless, the word “crisis,” which Rizzo used, is appropriate for a team that faces 17 of 22 games the rest of April against teams predicted to be winners.
Their first three-game series of the season has been canceled. Those games against the Mets were the first time the Nats could have played at home before their own fans — albeit just 5,000 of them — since winning the 2019 World Series. That is yet another psychological downer for this bunch that never seems to get to celebrate Washington’s best baseball moment since 1924.
Even more stunning to the Nats — they now may need to bring up about nine minor leaguers, some of whom probably will fill key roles, in the team’s first week or so.
We already know that a catcher (Tres Barrera), an infielder (Luis García), a left-handed hitting outfielder (Yadiel Hernandez) and a lefty pitcher (Sam Clay) have been summoned. There will be more, perhaps prospect Carter Kieboom and pitchers Kyle McGowin and Ryne Harper, who had good springs.
Playing with nine men who were sent to the minors is bad. But it is not as bad as it seems. And it is not as bad, in terms of losing games and burying a season before it has begun, as it would be in other sports.
This is counterintuitive. But the difference between one MLB player and another is not as great as many fans believe. That was proved to me in 2010, when the Nats tried to build a 110- to 120-loss team to get the No. 1 overall draft pick. That club became one of my favorite teams ever.
Their pitching leaders in games started were Livan Hernandez, John Lannan, Craig Stammen, Luis Atilano, Scott Olsen and Jason Marquis. Also, J.D. Martin and Yunesky Maya. The catcher, second baseman, shortstop and center fielder all had OPS numbers far below league average — thus defining “weakness up the middle.” Their only all-star, closer Matt Capps, was traded at the deadline.
In essence, they were a team with perhaps 20 “replacement players” — guys you can get at almost no cost with a phone call, probably to your minor leagues. Yet that team took pride in being disrespected, went 63-89 and avoided even 90 loses. If they could maximize their minimal talent for six months, why shouldn’t these Nats make do for a week or two?
Even the sacred stat of the moment, WAR (Wins Above Replacement), shows how little difference there is between a star and that “call-up” player in the short term.
If the value of the nine players the Nats must now subtract is huge — say a combined WAR of 20 over 162 games — that is still a difference of just two extra wins in 16.2 games.
Though nothing is certain, the Nats probably will not be losing their affected players for anything close to 16 days. A quarantined player could get out after as few as seven days under MLB protocols. And a player with a positive test can be eligible again after 10 days. Yes, there are hoops to jump through with local regulations and consecutive negative test and such. But that gives a ballpark range.
The first “positive” Nats player was testedMonday. The Nats discovered they had a positive test problem late Tuesday night, after flying to D.C. Monday evening, and have not had a team-together activity since.
So by the time the Nats open their season — at the earliest Monday — they will not have been together, and with many in quarantine, for all of Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. If they succeed in playing their three-game series with Atlanta next week, they’ll have another travel day Thursday. By the time they meet the Dodgers in L.A., the affected players, at last in theory, will have been isolated for nine days — while missing just three games.
Ironically, the Nats broke camp Monday in as close to perfect health as they have in their D.C. incarnation with only reliever Will Harris recovering from injury. And he was due to start throwing again soon.
The Nats will be tempted to think they have been hit by an avalanche. But they have depth, so long as too many of the missing nine aren’t all at the same position. Ryan Zimmerman can’t even get in the lineup after being the hottest hitter in Florida. Garcia and Kieboom are genuine prospects. As sixth and seventh starters go, Erick Fedde and Austin Voth are reassuring. Catchers Yan Gomes and Alex Avila are interchangeable. Outfielder Andrew Stephenson has hit .366 in limited call-ups the past two seasons. He’s dying for a chance.
Baseball never seems to stop giving us things we’ve never seen, and solutions we’ve never imagined. What would happen to an NFL team that had to replace 40 percent of its roster just as the season began?
Maybe the coronavirus will blow a hole in the hull of the Nats that leads to a rapidly sinking ship.
But in baseball, that isn’t how this story has to end.