Two New York Yankees minor league players have tested positive for the coronavirus. Those are professional baseball’s only known cases. The Nationals have split up in the past week, as advised by Major League Baseball, and are running operations out of West Palm Beach, Fla., their spring training home, and Washington, their regular home.
Thirteen players remain in Florida, three are in the D.C. area, and the rest have traveled to where they live in the offseason. Rizzo and Manager Dave Martinez have stayed in West Palm Beach, along with a medical staff, parts of a strength and conditioning team, and a handful of minor leaguers who could not safely go home during this global pandemic. Native Venezuelans who were at the Nationals’ minor league camp are being put up in a hotel by the team.
Minor leaguers were otherwise sent home last Saturday with no immediate promise of their usual spring training stipends. That changed Thursday, when MLB announced, “Each player who is under a Minor League Uniform Player Contract will receive a lump sum equal to the allowances that would have been paid through April 8th.” Rizzo insisted Washington was ready to take that action without the league’s approval, but it didn’t come to that.
“We did want to wait to see what Major League Baseball would do for us to make our move,” he said. “These minor league players are not only of great importance to Major League Baseball and the Washington Nationals. These are the next star players for the Nationals. These are the next union members for the MLBPA.
“I feel very, very fortunate that we’re able to take care of these minor league players. They are near and dear to my heart.”
Rizzo acknowledged how hard their situations are, recalling when he made $850 a month playing for the Redwood Pioneers, a Class A affiliate of the California Angels, in 1984. Minor leaguers had expected to be provided with a weekly stipend, two meals a day and housing for the six weeks of spring training. The sport’s shutdown amid the coronavirus outbreak threw that plan into a spiral and left the players, who are not represented by a union, in limbo.
The Nationals were prepared to give $315 a week to players who are married, have at least one child or have experience above Class AA. The rest of the minor leaguers would have received $140 a week throughout spring training. In a memo to clubs Thursday, MLB set the base allowance at $400 a week through April 8, a day before the minor league season was supposed to begin.
Teams are allowed to increase that allowance if they wish. Beyond that, MLB and its 30 clubs are working on a solution for how minor leaguers will be compensated past the first week of April.
“It’s something that we’re going to be aggressive with here with the Nationals since it is so near and dear to my heart and to the Lerners,” Rizzo said, referring to the club’s ownership family. “We are going to work with MLB diligently to get that done. Hey, there are still a lot of unknowns, and our leadership team is working tirelessly to make sure our organization is handling this situation the best we can. It’s a very, very fluid situation.”
To combat the uncertainty, the Nationals have their players on set training plans, whether they are working out in West Palm Beach or from home. After keeping everyone healthy, the biggest priority is that pitchers stay healthy and sharp in the coming weeks. They have been told to approach this period as if it were the offseason, and Rizzo expects they will have time to “ramp up” once a start date is set.
No one knows when that will be or how long the season will last, further complicating this puzzle. But Rizzo is sure of one thing, and he made sure to mention it before the call with reporters ended.
“We will be very prepared to defend the world championship, which we hold right now. Can’t forget that. And that we are the defending world champions and we will go into the season, whenever that is, as the defending world champions,” Rizzo said. “We take it seriously, and we feel, again, we like the team that we have. We feel we are capable of repeating as the world champs, and we’re going to have a strategy in place for player health and player preparation to get us ready for Opening Day.
“And we, from Opening Day, it will be our goal to win another world title for D.C.”