Oriole pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to the Ed Smith Stadium complex in Sarasota, Florida six weeks from now, on February 16th.
Many have been skeptical, including yours truly, about spring training beginning on time and that a full regular season will be played in the face of ever-worsening Covid-19 numbers.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, Arizona, where half of the 30 major league teams train, has by far the most Covid-19 cases in the country, 121.8 per 100,000.
Florida, where the other 15 teams train, including the Orioles, is 25th with 60.5 cases per 100,000.
According to a report last weekend in The Athletic, Major League Baseball and the Players Association, which bitterly fought over financial terms and conditions for playing the 60-game season last year, have both said they expect the 2021 season to begin on time.
There’s still plenty of time for things to change, but if both sides are serious about playing a full season with a six-week long training period, they’ll take much from what they learned last year, and from watching other sports.
What would spring training look like?
Because the Orioles have four full back fields, Ed Smith Stadium and multiple pitching mounds, they probably could conduct a complete spring training.
As at summer camp, which was held at Oriole Park, they would probably have to stagger arrival and workout times to allow for social distancing in the clubhouse.
The Orioles have often had more than 60 players, including a number of non-roster invitees at the first week of spring training.
They could probably still do that. Despite different arrival times, their workouts on the multiple fields could probably proceed.
Grapefruit League games would be different. Dugouts are often cramped in Florida parks and substitute players could stay in the clubhouse or on the back fields until they were needed in the game. Players who weren’t scheduled to play could be excused.
The tents for extra players could still be used, but in small parks that would take up seating areas for fans. The Orioles are advertising spring training ticket packages and have announced promotions for Grapefruit League games.
Traveling squads for away games would have to be tighter.
What about the regular season?
The agreement to use the designated hitter in both leagues, the automatic runner on second to start extra innings and seven-inning doubleheaders didn’t come until late June, less than a month before the regular season began on July 23rd.
It’s assumed that the DH will be used in both leagues beginning next year when a new Collective Bargaining Agreement will be in effect. However, there’s no agreement now on the DH or any of the rules changes from last year.
Teams began the regular season with 30-player rosters. After two weeks, there was a 28-player limit, and after the first four weeks, the rosters were supposed to be limited to 26.
Because of health concerns, the 28-man limit stayed throughout the season, and it would seem likely that roster flexibility would be key for this year.
There’s no word on whether there will be alternate sites or 60-man pools, as there were last year. Minor league schedules have yet to be announced.
How about the schedule?
Last season, the Orioles played 60 games, 40 against the American League East and 20 against the National League East.
The Orioles’ 162-game schedule is a conventional one, playing each of the other four AL East teams 19 times, and home-and-away series with the AL Central and West teams. They’ll again play the NL East in interleague play.
Despite rampant Covid cases among the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals, 28 of the 30 teams were able to play 60 games in 2020. St. Louis and Detroit were the exceptions.
The NFL was able to complete its full regular-season schedule on Sunday despite some teams, including the Ravens, fielding less-than-ideal squads at times because of outbreaks.
Last year, the Orioles had only three known cases of Covid-19 — outfielders Anthony Santander and Dwight Smith Jr. and pitcher Bruce Zimmermann. All tested positive when they reported to summer camp.
Because of the team’s willingness to follow strict protocols, they were able to stay healthy last season. If 2021 is played with the protocols in place, the Orioles showed they could follow the rules and succeed.
What can they learn from other sports?
Just as the Marlins fielded a nearly new team during their four-game series in Baltimore last August after their outbreak, and the Ravens nearly beat the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers with a substitute-laden team, MLB teams could face that in 2021.
The NFL’s eagerness to complete its schedule is commendable, and their games have provided an enjoyable and necessary diversion in millions of homes in America this fall and winter.
The NBA, which resumed last July in a bubble in Disney World, began its 2021-22 season on December 21st, and they’re following MLB’s model.
They’ve added players to the active roster, streamlined travel and are playing in home arenas — some with fans, but most without.
Will I be able to see the Orioles in person in 2021?
The guess here is, yes. Owners don’t want to play games in empty stadiums, and even 10 percent capacity is better than nothing.
While you might not be excited about sitting far away from other fans, and not in your accustomed location, allowing fans in the stands could happen, and perhaps in time for the scheduled April 1st opening.
Vaccination is key, and if it’s widely available to the general public by then, perhaps the season can begin on time.
What moves will the Orioles make before spring training?
The team does need a starting shortstop and another starting pitcher or two. A report on Monday that the Orioles remain interested in free-agent outfielder Yasiel Puig remains baffling to me.
If there’s one position that the Orioles seem to have enough young talent to compete, it’s the outfield.
But it’s more fun to think about free agents who could be signed than another season of Covid-19 restrictions.