On June 29th, CBS Sports’ Katherine Acquavella reported that the first MLB player to voluntarily opt out of playing in 2020 was Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Mike Leake. As of July 10, at least seven other players have joined Leake in choosing to forgo play in the pandemic-shortened 60-game season.
As the New York Times reported, “Anyone with a pre-existing medical condition can petition to sit out and still get paid; anyone merely fearful of the virus can also sit, too, but will not get paid.”
The return to play agreement struck between the league and the Players’ Association allows for “high-risk” players to opt out at any time and still receive their prorated salaries and accrue major league service time as though they participated in the season. According to Acquavella, high-risk would mean heart or lung disease, diabetes, cancer, or high blood pressure.
it’s up to individual clubs to decide whether players with high-risk families will still receive pay if they choose not to play
The “merely fearful” appears to be the elephant in the room. Players must petition the league to determine high-risk eligibility, and there appear to be few protections for cases where players can’t prove explicit personal risk, other than those inherent to the virus. In cases of opt-outs based on family health status, it’s up to individual clubs to decide whether players with high-risk families will still receive pay if they choose not to play. It’s unclear what criteria players’ families would need to meet in order for teams to grant payroll protection.
Opt-out protections are not all equal
Even more dubious is whether all players have equal opportunity to opt out of the season for financial reasons. Journeyman players and young, pre-arbitration players who live on fractions of what their teammates do are not in a position to turn down their salary if they don’t qualify as high-risk, forcing them to play in a potentially dangerous situation based on how the league responds to rising positive COVID-19 tests in players and staff.
Particularly the new crop of talent bursting onto the scene like the Dodgers’ Gavin Lux, Toronto’s Nate Pearson, and likely Rookie of the Year candidate Luis Robert (pictured above) of the White Sox could all be putting their entire careers at risk if they contract the virus. It has been linked to long-term lung, heart, and cognitive problems, as well as months-long rehabilitation with unknown outcomes.
Some players who have already opted out to this point have made millions in salary and endorsements over their careers, like star pitchers David Price and Félix Hernández. Others like brothers Joe and Tyson Ross, and catcher Welington Castillo have bounced between teams with lower-value contracts than bigger stars (the former Ross made just above the league minimum in 2016 and ’18, while Castillo is currently on a minor league contract after five seasons of making at or above the league average).
With all of that in mind, read on for a list of MLB players who have opted out of the 2020 season so far, plus a few notable unknowns.
Leake released a statement through his agent, citing personal reasons for opting out of the season and wishing his teammates well. He would likely have secured a starting spot with Arizona after a winning season with the Mariners in 2019 (12-11, 4.29 ERA and 1.289 WHIP in 197 innings). The 32-year-old has an option remaining on his contract worth $18 million and will become a free agent after 2020 if the Diamondbacks decline.
Washington down a leader and a young gun
Ryan “Mr. National” Zimmerman, 35, was the Washington Nationals’ first ever draft pick in 2005 after relocating from Montréal. He has played his entire career with Washington, earning over $136 million over 15 seasons and winning the World Series with the club in 2019.
In his statement to the media, Zimmerman named his wife, children, and his mother as beneficiaries of missing the season. “After a great deal of thought and given my family circumstances — three young children, including a newborn, and a mother at high risk — I have decided not to participate in the 2020 season,” he said. “I cannot speak for anyone else, but given the unusual nature of the season, this is the best decision for my family, and I truly appreciate the (Nationals’) understanding and support.”
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Howie Kendrick and Eric Thames are slated to take over at first base, likely in a platoon role. Since returning from a stint in the Korean League in 2017, the fan favourite Thames has put up solid power numbers with the bat (.247/.346/.505 with 25 home runs and 61 RBI in 2019) and Kendrick showed his resilience in the 2019 World Series with a clutch comeback performance following fielding errors early in the series.
Zimmerman’s Nationals teammate Joe Ross, a 27-year-old starting pitcher, only registered over 100 innings pitched in one of his five active seasons in the majors (2016). If he had chosen to play, he would likely have been fighting for a spot in the 2020 rotation. He would have made roughly the league minimum of $555,556 and his free agency eligibility will be pushed to 2022 as a result of lost service time.
The veteran catcher, who seemed to have a chance at making the 2020 Nationals squad after a decent spring and the expanded roster rules, also opted out in early July. Castillo has been in the league since 2010 and was coming off a shoulder injury that slowed his progress before the season was postponed in March. Castillo batted a career-low .209/.267/.417 in 2019 and was a non-roster invitee with Washington during Spring Training.
The free agent announced on July 2 that he would join his brother Joe in opting out of the 2020 season. He was released by the Giants at the end of June and had made seven starts for Detroit in his injury-shortened 2019 season.
Colorado Rockies utility man Ian Desmond announced he would be opting out of the season on June 29 via Instagram. Desmond is career .263 hitter, a two-time All-Star, three-time Silver Slugger award winner, with 20 or more homers in six of the last eight seasons. Desmond played 121 games for the Rockies in 2019. He was expected to play a platoon role with the Rockies’ outfield, likely getting starts against left-handed pitchers.
Desmond cited the health of his family and his desire to be present with his children during the widespread push for Black liberation in the United States
In a personal statement, Desmond cited the health of his family and his desire to be present with his children during the widespread push for Black liberation in the United States: “With a pregnant wife and four young children who have lots of questions about what’s going on in the world, home is where I need to be right now,” Desmond wrote. “Home for my wife, Chelsey. Home to help. Home to guide. Home to answer my older three boys’ questions about Coronavirus and Civil Rights and life. Home to be their Dad.”
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The Braves lose two veterans
Former Cy Young award winner Félix Hernández and outfielder Nick Markakis both announced their withdrawal from the Atlanta Braves’ 2020 season this week.
Hernández was competing for the fifth starting spot after recording career lows in 2019 with the Seattle Mariners and expressed through his agent that concerns about COVID-19 led to his decision.
“Just hearing him, the way he sounded on the phone, it was tough,” Markakis said. “It was kind of eye-opening…”
Per ESPN, Markakis recently spoke with All-Star first baseman Freddie Freeman, who tested positive for COVID-19 and is exhibiting symptoms: “Just hearing him, the way he sounded on the phone, it was tough,” Markakis said. “It was kind of eye-opening. With everything that’s going on, not just with baseball but all over the world, it makes you open your eyes.”
Markakis was left fighting for a starting spot after Atlanta signed outfielder/DH Marcell Ozuna and had presumed starters in CF Ender Inciarte and RF Ronald Acuña Jr., even as utility man Adam Duvall was slated to replace Freeman at first base.
The Braves have a young, talented core that will continue to rise in the MLB power rankings despite the loss of the two veterans.
Price, the former Cy Young award winner and Dodgers’ starter, announced his decision to opt out of the season on July 4 via social media. He wrote directly to Dodger fans: “After considerable thought and discussion with my family and the Dodgers, I have decided it is in the best interest of my health and my family’s health for me to not play this season. I will miss my teammates and will be cheering for them throughout the season and on to a World Series victory. I’m sorry I won’t be playing for you this year, but look forward to representing you next year.”
Price would have been third in the Los Angeles starting rotation. His withdrawal will spark a battle for the final spot behind Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Julio Urias, and Alex Wood. And despite losing a big name, the Dodgers remain tied with the Yankees as favourites to win the World Series, according to Caesars Sportsbook. Price has two years and $32 million remaining on his contract.
After missing time from Giants camp in July without disclosing why, the six-time All-Star catcher announced on July 10 that he and his wife Kristen adopted twin girls who were born prematurely. Per Andrew Baggarly of The Athletic, their daughters will be spending time in NICU and Posey will be opting out of the season.
The 33-year-old All-Star will likely be replaced by Aramis Garcia as San Francisco’s everyday catcher with Joey Bart backing up. Posey is highly decorated, winning the 2010 NL Rookie of the Year, a batting title, a Gold Glove, four Silver Sluggers, a league MVP, and three World Series titles.
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Mike Trout, the reigning American League MVP and arguably the best player in the game, has said he’s still not “[feeling] that comfortable” playing in 2020 since his wife, Jessica, is expecting their first child in August.
CBS Sports reported that two Angels players tested positive for COVID-19 in June, according to GM Billy Eppler. Team representatives described one of the unnamed players as showing “mild” symptoms, while the other was said to be asymptomatic. Perhaps the in-house cases hit too close to home for Trout.
While he has not officially opted out, Trout has said he and Jessica have nightly conversations that could lead to his situation changing. Angels manager Joe Maddon has expressed his support for the eight-time All-Star, but he would certainly miss the spark in his lineup even with the return of two-way phenomenon Shohei Ohtani and pitcher Griffin Canning. Trout has been reported to be wearing a mask during on-field activities.
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Washington closer Sean Doolittle has also made public statements about his decision to play. Doolittle’s wife Eireann Dolan lives with a chronic lung condition. He spoke to the media about how they are approaching their safety and the upcoming season and has said they will be living separately in order to protect her from the virus.
“I think I’m planning on playing,” Doolittle said. “But if at any point I start to feel unsafe, if it starts to take a toll on my mental health with all these things we have to worry about, and just of this kind of this cloud of uncertainty hanging over everything, then I’ll opt out. But for now, I’ve prepared for the last three months like I’m going to play. I feel ready to go.”
Like much of the 2020 season, it’s all systems go until it’s not.