Braves aren’t only NL East contender dealing with COVID-19 attrition

Juan Soto of the Washington Nationals hits an RBI single against the Houston Astros during the eighth inning in Game Seven of the 2019 World Series at Minute Maid Park on October 30, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Credit: Elsa

Credit: Elsa

Juan Soto of the Washington Nationals hits an RBI single against the Houston Astros during the eighth inning in Game Seven of the 2019 World Series at Minute Maid Park on October 30, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The question for manager Brian Snitker was about how many pitchers the Braves would carry on the 30-man roster when the truncated season begins July 24.

“I’m hoping we’ve got (enough) healthy guys to take 30 right now,” Snitker said. “We are not sure yet.”

I think that was a bit of hyperbole from the skipper. The Braves are missing regulars now, but things aren't that dire, at least not yet. But Snitker's answer also was a nod to the unrelenting shadow that COVID-19 already is casting on this strange MLB season.

Freddie Freeman, the best Braves player since Chipper Jones said goodbye, is still out while recovering from COVID-19 symptoms. His return date is unknown. Reliever Will Smith, last winter’s big-ticket acquisition, has been on the COVID-19 injured list since July 9. The team reported Smith and right-hander Touki Toussaint are asymptomatic.

So far Freeman, a four-time All-Star, is the best MLB player known to be infected by the novel coronavirus. But the Braves' National League East rivals, meaning everyone except the Marlins, also are feeling the effects. Given that two-thirds of 60 games are against division foes, COVID-19 attrition within the East could be a big factor in the race.

The Nationals, expected to be Braves' main competition for the division title, have especially been hit hard. Ryan Zimmerman, whose Game 1 homer last fall sent the Nationals on the way to the championship, chose to sit out the season. Eight Nationals players have yet to join the team, including standout young outfielders Juan Soto and Victor Robles.

Washington already was going to have a tough task defending its World Series. Star slugger Anthony Rendon is gone, and there’s a lot of randomness in a 60-game season. Now the Nats are without old pro Zimmerman and facing the possibility of missing two key players at the start because, once cleared, they’ll still need time to get ready for the season.

“We’re in a difficult situation,” manager Dave Martinez told reporters. “You’re talking about some of our younger players, too. We don’t want to get them hurt. We’ve got to be smart. But we’re also talking about a shorter season where we need to win games right away.”

It’s not clear which of the missing Nats players are infected with COVID-19 and which are isolating because of exposure. Teams don’t have to say which injury list players are on and can’t disclose positive COVID-19 tests without the permission of the infected person. Add COVID-19 speculation to the oddness of this MLB season.

Mets second baseman Robinson Cano has been out for a week after working out with the team early in camp. Cano, an eight-time All-Star, looked washed up in 2019. But the Mets could use him in a lineup that’s a notch below the Nationals and Braves (with Freeman) and with their pitching staff diminished by Noah Syndergaard’s elbow surgery and Zack Wheeler signing with the Phillies.

The Phillies had a COVID-19 outbreak at their spring facility last month. Then four players began camp on the injured list: Scott Kingery, Hector Neris, Tommy Hunter and Ranger Suarez. Kingery projects as a lineup regular, and Neris is Philly’s top reliever.

Wheeler’s wife is to give birth soon. He’s expected to miss at least a couple of starts for paternity leave. Wheeler is getting ready for start of the season, but he could end up opting out once his child is born.

Neris and Kingery have rejoined the Phillies. Kingery told reporters he removed his mask during his first batting practice last weekend in part because “the shortness of breath is still kind of lingering.” He said he first experienced symptoms June 11.

“It’s been about a month-long thing, and that’s going to be half the season if you get it during the season,” Kingery said.

Freeman developed COVID-19 symptoms more than three weeks before the start of the season, so there's a chance he'll be back in time to make a difference. Without Freeman, and with Josh Donaldson in Minnesota, the Braves' Big Four from 2019 is down to two: Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies. Outfielder Nick Markakis and right-hander Felix Hernandez chose to sit out the season, chipping away at the depth of the lineup and pitching rotation.

“The guys that we have we know that we can do damage, we can score runs, we can play defense,” Braves outfielder Ender Inciarte said. “We’ve just got to focus and try to do our best with what we have here. We still have a pretty good team. We have good arms. The lineup that is going to be put (out) by ‘Snit’ is going to be the best of that day.”

Snitker is accustomed to uncertainty about the availability of injured players. His usual practice is to keep their status back of mind until he gets a report that they are close to returning. COVID-19 adds another element to that dynamic. In addition to testing negative twice, players must show no symptoms for 72 hours before being cleared to return.

“Until they are here, they are not,” Snitker said of Braves players on the list. “It’s weird. It’s something we are going to have to deal with on a daily basis.”

This is the new reality for baseball. It will take some getting used to. COVID-19 is going to have a lot to say about the season. One anonymous MLB veteran told ESPN: "The team that has the fewest positive cases is gonna win the World Series." Like Snitker's ruminations on the 30-man roster, that's probably only a slight exaggeration of the coming reality.

The possibility (inevitability?) of more positive tests has affected how the Braves are conducting their camp. The focus of their intrasquad scrimmages is getting as many innings as possible for as many pitchers as they can, just in case.

“I can get a call that ‘someone-so’ is positive and can’t start the game tonight,” Snitker said.

Inciarte said that some things about this preseason camp feel normal. Players are getting the same treatment from the training staff. They are getting in the same work as they do in spring training.

It’s everything else that’s different.

“The first few days was a little uncomfortable,” Inciarte said. “I think now everybody is on the same page. We are starting to have some fun in the practice and the scrimmage games. That’s a big thing. We are getting ready to start playing real games, and hopefully everything is going to be OK.”