The Angels and the other 29 teams are about to embark on a baseball season that will be about far more than baseball.
On Friday, pitchers and catchers will hit the field at Angel Stadium and begin formal workouts for Summer Camp, the sport’s three-week training period to prepare for a season amid a pandemic.
Unlike most seasons, in which the questions are about performance and avoiding injuries, this season all of those normal questions will also be beneath the overarching issue of whether the coronavirus will even allow them to make it to the end of the World Series.
Or the end of the regular season.
Or opening day.
In advance of the opening of Summer Camp, a list of the five most pressing issues starts with the obvious:
How many players will test positive?
Every player and staff member who has direct access to the players – a group of about 180 people – will be tested for the coronavirus before camp begins.
Angels general manager Billy Eppler said the team isn’t permitted to disclose who tests positive, because of privacy concerns. However, it’s going to be difficult to hide, from a practical standpoint.
Players who test positive will not be participating, and their absence is certain to be noted. If Manager Joe Maddon or Eppler are unable to explain a player’s absence, that will be telling.
Major League Baseball plans to periodically issue statistics on the number of positive tests, without identifying the individuals. No one is certain what number of positive tests MLB is willing to tolerate before suspending or cancelling the season.
How will the players handle the restrictions?
A team always relies on its members to be disciplined in order to succeed, but that will be taken to a much higher level this year.
Not only do all the players need to do their work on the field and in the weight room, but they will need to be disciplined about the way they go about their lives to prevent the spread of the virus.
Is everyone going to wear his mask in the clubhouse? Will they maintain social distance? Also, will they be disciplined about doing all of that when they are away from the ballpark?
This applies not only to the players, but to all of the support staff who have access to the players. If one person from the group is careless, it could lead to an outbreak within the team.
The document outlining the health and safety measures had no restrictions for behavior away from the ballpark, instead leaving it up to the players. The manual went so far as to suggest that each team produce its own written “code of conduct.”
How are Shohei Ohtani and Griffin Canning?
The Angels would love to have both pitchers in the rotation when the season begins, so they will be watched closely throughout camp.
So far, both have thrown about 50 pitches to hitters, so they aren’t far from passing the final tests before pitching in the regular season.
Ohtani isn’t really coming off an injury, since he completed his rehab from Tommy John surgery in December. The only reason he wasn’t pitching in spring training was because the Angels wanted to start him late to limit his innings.
Canning had an elbow issue in the spring and received a platelet-rich plasma injection.
What about development?
Players like Jo Adell and Brandon Marsh were on the cusp of the majors in spring training, and over the past three-plus months they haven’t had any games to take those final steps in their development.
In summer camp, they’ll get to work out and play in intrasquad games. Although intrasquad games don’t provide the same competition as a normal minor-league game, or even a major-league exhibition game, they do allow situations to be manipulated more. For example, the Angels could ensure that a hitter gets more at-bats against a certain type of pitcher.
How will the bullpen look?
Bullpen usage may be the element that is most different this season compared to a normal year. The starters will probably not be built up to their normal level out of the gate, leaving more innings for the relievers. Teams will also start with 30-man rosters, with relievers getting most of the extra spots.
Any team that has two or three reliable multi-inning relievers who can work two or three innings as a bridge to the late-inning relievers could have a huge advantage.
Felix Peña and Matt Andriese are the two pitchers who seem best suited for that role, but the Angels could also try some of their younger starters, like Jaime Barria, Jose Suarez or Patrick Sandoval.