As soon as the baseball season was shut down by the coronavirus, it was clear that there could be at least one silver lining for the Angels if they ended up playing a shortened season.
They’ll have Shohei Ohtani as a two-way player from the start.
Just about a week before the opening of camp to prepare for the 60-game sprint of a season, Joe Maddon said Ohtani has been throwing live batting practice and is expected to be good to go as a pitcher when the season starts around July 23.
“It’s a difference maker for us,” Maddon said via conference call on Wednesday. “But there are a lot of other teams in the same category, with guys they anticipated not being able to play the preponderance of the season and now they are able to play.”
Ohtani was set to start the season as a hitter, but not pitch until mid-May. He hadn’t pitched a full season since 2016, and he had Tommy John surgery in October 2018, so the Angels wanted to start him late to limit his innings in 2020. Now, the coronavirus took care of that for them.
Although Ohtani should be available from the start, Maddon said he has no plans to use him any differently than the way he was used when he was a two-way player in 2018. That means pitching once a week, with a day off before and after he starts. He’d be available to DH the days in between. That could work out to up to 10 starts and about 150 plate appearances.
“I haven’t really thought about a more aggressive stance with him,” Maddon said, adding that it would be an organizational decision, including input from general manager Billy Eppler and Ohtani.
“I don’t think it’ll happen right now,” Maddon said of using Ohtani more. “But it’s something I would love to see happen at some point.”
Besides Ohtani, the Angels also figure to start with a healthy Griffin Canning. Canning was shut down in March because of an elbow issue. No structural damage was discovered, so Canning got a platelet-rich plasma injection and rested. He’s now been throwing also.
Barring further injuries between now and the start of the season, the Angels figure to open with Ohtani and Canning in a rotation with Andrew Heaney, Julio Teheran and Dylan Bundy. Maddon said they would use a sixth starter to fill in the gaps, with Ohtani pitching once a week. The candidates for that spot would be Matt Andriese, Dillon Peters, Felix Peña, Patrick Sandoval and Jose Suarez.
They’ll be sorting through it all in a three-week training camp — can’t call it “spring” training — which will be held mostly at Angel Stadium. Maddon said they are exploring alternate sites in the area to supplement the work for a 60-player group. He said they’ll have intrasquad games to help prep for the season. Teams are permitted to play each other in a limited number of exhibition games. That limit is to be determined.
Maddon said he and his staff have been planning for months how this would all work logistically, and he’s confident that they “have a solid plan.”
Of course, the best laid plans of any baseball team are subject to change because of COVID-19. A 101-page operations manual was distributed that included all of the ways that Major League Baseball is seeking to prevent too many of its players and staff from contracting the virus. So far two Angels players have tested positive, although it’s unknown if they were major leaguers or minor leaguers. All major league players will be tested before reporting to camp.
In order to reduce the chance of an outbreak, there are limits on everything from how many players can be together, who can be sitting in the dugout and how many can be in the shower. There are restrictions on spitting and handshakes and mound visits.
“As of right now I don’t see anything as being too difficult,” Maddon said. “It’s inconvenient and uncomfortable. Just know that. Accept it. Wear it every day and you’ll be able to deal with it. If you come in expecting the norms, you’ll be frustrated constantly. We won’t permit that.”
The virus is a particular threat to people over 65, so the 66-year-old Maddon said he has been taking precautions since the shutdown began. He has been working out regularly and eating foods to boost his immune system.
“I am aware,” he said. “You can never think you are invulnerable or bulletproof. What I’ve done is tried to prepare mentally and physically. I’ve been diligent in my personal workouts. I can’t even say back when I played I was this diligent. In my mind’s eye, I am prepared from that perspective.”
Maddon said he has not heard from anyone in the organization so far that there is any reluctance to get back to work amid the pandemic.
Players who are at high risk of complications from COVID-19 have the right to opt-out of playing, while still receiving the salary and service time they would get from playing. Players can even opt-out if they live with someone who is high risk. Mike Trout, whose wife is pregnant, could qualify under that provision. Maddon said he has no reason to believe so far that anyone is considering opting out.
“None has been brought to my attention yet,” he said. “If it were to occur, I would understand. We would all understand. If it were to happen, I’m sure it would happen in the next couple days.”