Rocco Baldelli opened the Twins' major league staff meeting on Tuesday the way he usually does, with a few one-liners about his coaches, the clubhouse staff and himself.
"He does a good job of joking around, putting everyone in a good mood," president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said. "Rocco makes it fun for everybody."
When the laughs subsided, though, Baldelli and Falvey delivered a more serious message to the 40 or so employees connected on the Zoom call:
An unprecedented winter of uncertainty around Major League Baseball will soon give way to spring, and the normal start to on-field activities. And on Monday, MLB finally offered some guidance to its 30 outposts, announcing that its plans are to conduct spring training and the regular season as scheduled, and will later "determine whether any modifications should be considered."
With that direction, the Twins' countdown began. Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to Fort Myers on Feb. 18, the first Grapefruit League game is Feb. 27 in Port Charlotte, and Opening Day 2021 is supposed to take place on April 1 in Milwaukee. Whether any of that actually happens on those dates remains a matter of some skepticism around the league, in light of the ongoing pandemic and likelihood that most stadiums won't be admitting fans until summer.
"It's hard when you don't know what it's going to look like," said Nate Dammann, Baldelli's staff assistant. "It's a puzzle without a picture. You just try to fit the pieces together and hope it works out."
With that long-awaited green light from the commissioner's office, however, the Twins at least have target dates, to-do lists — and less time than usual to prepare for a season that could change at any moment.
"In a normal year, all the housing for those of us who are down there [in Fort Myers] the whole time is usually secured by September," said Mike Herman, the Twins' senior director of team travel. "I would have everyone's flights booked a month ago. Car rentals [reserved], too. But we couldn't do that this year because nobody can predict the pandemic."
They still can't, of course, but the experience of their 60-game season last summer, plus the example of the NFL and NBA forging ahead mostly successfully, gives the sport more confidence about its chances of conducting a normal 162-game season amid COVID-19.
It's widely believed that most owners would prefer to delay the start by a few weeks or months, reducing the number of games played in empty stadiums while vaccines are distributed, but the player's association is adamant, after receiving only 37 percent of salaries last year, that players earn full pay this year. That doesn't leave much middle ground, and no negotiations have been scheduled publicly
So full speed ahead, MLB is signaling. For now.
"It kind of clarified things for us. The key objectives for us in the next few weeks are really to make sure we're prepared in Fort Myers, to make sure we have our facilities set up and we have procedures in place like we had last summer in Target Field," Falvey said. "We've never utilized that facility in a social-distance way, so we have to think through the logistics, the food distribution, all that. We ran an instructional league there in the fall, had a successful month, so that was a good test run."
Plan in place
So was the Twins' three-week summer camp in Target Field last July, which taught the Twins that workouts can be staggered, that games can be played safely, that COVID testing can be done routinely. Having six diamonds at their disposal in Florida will make it all much easier, too. And once players are in uniform and on the field?
"Every day I wake up thinking about all the contingencies we have to have in place," said Dammann, whose responsibilities include developing, with bench coach Mike Bell, the team's minute-by-minute workout schedule in Fort Myers. "We put together a plan that we feel really good about for a normal camp. Now I want to be ready if, say, only half the team can be there at once. Or if things get pushed back and we only have a four-week camp. Or if we can't play [exhibition] games and are limited to intrasquad.
"We talk out a lot of possibilities."
Particularly important, Falvey said, is the plan to ramp up pitchers, a more delicate process than usual given that they threw so few innings in 2020.
"We plan, and I'm sure this is true around the game, to be really mindful of usage, especially early on," Falvey said. That could mean shortening games, or drawing upon more minor-leaguers to pick up innings — tricky, perhaps, since it's possible that limits will be placed on the number of players that can be invited.
Return to normalcy?
Speaking of limits, teams haven't been told officially whether regular-season rosters will be limited to 26, or last year's 28. Will the National League utilize the designated hitter again? Will doubleheaders be seven-inning games, and how many teams will qualify for the playoffs?
Things aren't as uncertain as they seem, Falvey said.
"I would argue that right now, we do know the answers. MLB says to plan for what we've always had," pre-COVID, he said. "Our focus is on 26-man rosters, the schedule is back to normal, and we're fortunate to know we'll have the DH in the American League. Big picture, if we play a normal spring training, the likelihood of significant changes goes way down."
The likelihood of changes to the Twins' roster is about to go way up, though — isn't it? More than 150 free agents are still unsigned, and more than a third of all teams have yet to pluck even one player from that ice-cold market. The Twins, who have only signed reliever Hansel Robles to a major league contract, need to more bullpen depth, an experienced utility player and a starting pitcher or two.
A hazy market
Falvey has made plenty of calls and a handful of offers, but the waiting goes on. Many teams figure to reduce their payrolls, especially if this season is played with greatly reduced ticket revenue, which may be preventing the priciest, market-setting players — Trevor Bauer, George Springer, J.T. Realmuto — from signing.
"What we're hearing from agents is, the market just isn't defined yet," Falvey said. "When the top-tier players are gone, history shows that will speed things up."Time is going fast enough for Herman, who is busy signing leases, transferring deposits and even dealing with homeowners associations in Fort Myers communities that require approval of tenants.
"I usually rent between 30 and 35 units each year for everybody ranging from the bullpen catcher to the president of baseball operations to the translator. Usually it's a pretty streamlined process," he said.
Landlords trust the Twins, who after all have a 31-year history in the city, which helps.
"But spring is their high season, so it's stressful. Places get snapped up by snowbirds and spring breakers," Herman said. "We've stayed in touch with everyone, told them we won't leave them hanging. But we couldn't do much without [firm] dates."