FORT MYERS, FLA. – The Twins met Saturday morning in the clubhouse at Hammond Stadium — then went their separate ways.
Some players headed for the Twin Cities, others to their year-round homes. A few will remain in the area. Some were still deciding where to go. The fact is, they were scattering, which is something they do at the end of a season — not before a single pitch is thrown.
But that is what the Twins, and the rest of the sports world, have come to grips with as the nation deals with the spread of the coronavirus and the harsh realities it brings. Behaviors have to be modified. Sporting events have been canceled. Major League Baseball is shut down for at least the first two weeks of the regular season, but it seems likely games will be wiped out longer than that.
“I would say, based on what I’ve gathered, and I don’t have any specifics from Major League Baseball on this, but it’s feeling like it’s going to be a little bit of time,” said Derek Falvey, Twins president of baseball operations, “and at this stage I would expect to have more guidance on it in somewhere around when you just said, in a month.
“But I don’t have any specifics about when the return is. I would not anticipate us being back here in the next few weeks, so we told everybody with that in mind, it feels like it may take more time.”
Twins players were two weeks away from the March 26 season opener at Oakland but now don’t know when their defense of their AL Central championship can begin. The BombaSquad has been grounded.
Falvey, who conducted a conference call with reporters Saturday evening, informed minor leaguers Friday night that it would be best for them to go home. Simultaneously, he has been having conference calls and communicating what he can to the players and coaching staff.
In the next couple of days, the CenturyLink Sports Complex will be down to about 20 players — major and minor leaguers, most of them from foreign countries — and staff members who live in the area.
The two main entrances to the ballpark Saturday were guarded by ushers and police officers. Baseball is on lockdown because of COVID-19. As of Saturday, no Twins player, coach or staff member has shown enough symptoms to require a coronavirus test.
“The word that I was going to use and the feeling I think generally is probably a little bit of surreal,” Falvey said. “This has been very unique for all across the world, but speaking specifically about our current environment, a lot of people with many questions. A lot more questions than answers I think is the reality here and the more we could talk collectively and communicate with our players, our coaches, staff, support staff, anyone who has been around the complex and has been around our group, we just wanted to collectively put everyone’s mind at ease that we were going to do what we thought was in the best interest of every individual and their family.
“That was the primary.”
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With the industry grinding to a halt, more questions will arise. How should players train on their own? Can transactions be made? What will a modified schedule look like? Here are some things to consider:
• Players will be on their own to work out and stay ready. There likely will be another, shorter training camp, once baseball returns to operation. But the Twins don’t know yet what that will look like.
The Twins’ spring training roster sits at 57. Some nonroster invites in camp have clauses in their contracts that grant them free agency if they are not added to the roster by a certain date. That is on hold as MLB and its players’ association discuss adjustments.
“I anticipate within the next 24 to 48 hours, to come up with real plans as to what to do next around roster decisions,” Falvey said.
• For some players, the delay to the start of the season will provide them more time complete their recoveries from offseason surgeries.
Byron Buxton is the most noteworthy. The fleet-footed center fielder had his left labrum repaired in September, but he wasn’t a lock to be 100% by March 26. He just faced live pitching for the first time Tuesday — which ended up being his only live session of the week.
It was not clear if there was enough time in the spring training schedule for him to get enough at-bats to be ready for the opener anyway. And, because of everything that has happened to him in recent years — concussions, migraines, sprains, tears — he has sounded like someone who won’t return to games until he’s 100%.
“I want to make Opening Day, but if the situation isn’t here, it’s not here,” Buxton said Tuesday. “Keep doing what I’m doing, keep working hard, and go from there.”
He will have a better chance at that now.
Marwin Gonzalez had his right knee cleaned out during the offseason to treat an injury he played most of the season with. He didn’t appear in a spring training game until March 3 because of the plan the Twins put him on. Even then, he had only played second base, as Baldelli didn’t want him in the outfield during spring training and probably the opening weeks of the season.
Now Gonzalez will have time to get his knee ready for outfield duty once the games return. There is fallout from Buxton’s and Gonzalez’s cases. Jake Cave’s chances of making the team increase if Baldelli believes he needs protection in case Buxton breaks down or Gonzalez can’t play the outfield. If not, the Twins could keep Willians Astudillo as the 26th man. Then again, the league might allow teams to start the season with larger rosters in order to get as many games in as they can.
• Any delay in the start of the season will delay Michael Pineda’s debut. The veteran righthander has 39 games remaining on his 60-game suspension after testing positive for a banned substance last August. He could have debuted May 10, provided there were no weather-related postponements. His suspension won’t count down until the games resume.
• Veteran lefthander Rich Hill, who is recovering from primary repair surgery — an alternative procedure to treat ulnar collateral ligament tears — is throwing from 120 feet now and hoped to get on a mound early next month, with the possibility of starting for the Twins in July. The Twins might be just a month or two into a revised schedule when Hill becomes ready. The Twins could have all of their starters available for a larger percentage of the season.
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One issue, less in significance given the enormity of the moment, is that players across the league who have incentive clauses in their contracts based on appearances or innings pitched likely will miss hitting them. New Twins righthander Kenta Maeda is one of the players most affected by a shortened schedule, for his contract calls for a $3 million salary but another $10 million in bonuses for games started and innings pitched. That’s also expected to be a topic of discussion between the league and union.
It seems like weeks ago the Twins were just deciding to hand out autographs instead of coming into contact with fans. A lot has happened since then, as the sports world takes a back seat as the country and world battle a pandemic.
It’s been difficult to get the perspective from the clubhouse, but on Saturday manager Rocco Baldelli took to Twitter with his perspective.
“To all who are relying on facts and informed opinions, thank you,” Baldelli wrote. “Although viewpoints may differ on courses of action, we appreciate everyone, inside the game and out, who is considering the well-being of others with the utmost care.
“With that in mind — the @Twins have encouraged players and staff to return to home. Most have already thoughtfully dispersed, with a small group remaining in Ft Myers and one returning to Minn. We will stay vigilant. As the situation changes, so will the way we approach it.
“Thank you to all within our organization for handling the situation calmly, responsibly and thoughtfully. Baseball will return — when the time is right.”