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How MLB’s new COVID protocols could affect the rebuilding Orioles in 2021 | ANALYSIS

Less than a week before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, MLB released its 2021 health and safety protocols designed to help players and staff navigate through a full season in a pandemic.

Some features, such as the shortened doubleheaders with seven-inning games and a runner beginning extra innings on second base, are holdovers from 2020 and don’t favor or harm any one team.

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Other aspects might be of particular interest to the Orioles, who in 2020 at the major league level had only outfielders Anthony Santander and Dwight Smith Jr. test positive for COVID-19 upon reporting to summer camp and also had right-hander Alex Cobb and first baseman Chris Davis miss time out of precaution.

There are plenty of new restrictions, such as mandatory at-home quarantining for players and their families for the entire season, strict restrictions on leaving the team hotel when traveling and Kinexon contact-tracing devices required during all team activities.

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But from a pure baseball standpoint, two things in particular could be pertinent to an Orioles team that’s in the bottom of a rebuilding cycle entering 2021.

One new stipulation is that nonroster players can be activated as COVID replacements without formal addition to the 40-man roster.

Under this provision, a player doesn’t need to go through waivers or be designated for assignment once he’s no longer needed and returns to the minors. The player will presumably earn service time, but otherwise, important roster mechanisms such as option clocks won’t begin when the impacted player or players are able to play again.

This could allow the Orioles to do a few things. One is protect their young group of starting pitchers on the roster in Michael Baumann, Alexander Wells and Zac Lowther. If the Orioles had to choose between using one of them in a pinch before he’s ready or add someone else to the 40-man roster and risk losing another player in the process, that might be a tough call. Now, the Orioles can use a nonroster pitcher as a COVID replacement and simply return him to the minors or alternate training site instead of having to outright him off the roster.

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The Orioles’ 40-man roster doesn’t have as many fringe players as it has had in the past, so it might make sense for a team still trying to hoard players not to risk losing any. MLB’s announcement, however, says this is allowed for clubs that experience a COVID outbreak. What the threshold of that is in practice could make all of this moot.

Where those nonroster players, or anyone not on the 26-man roster on Opening Day, will be playing is also hinted at in MLB’s regulations.

The announcement references alternate training sites again, which clubs used for their extra players to stay sharp in 2020. For Orioles players who went back and forth, it was a launching pad to success. The club is hopeful the development work for their prospects there took hold, but nothing replaces real game action.

It seems as if MLB is at least preparing for that to be the case again. The common thought has been that minor leaguers would report to spring training once the big leaguers leave and begin their season near the beginning of summer after a full ramp-up period, but there’s uncertainty as to whether players who will supplement big league rosters will have a normal Triple-A season or be back an at alternate site. At the latter, it at least cuts out travel and keeps the players in one place under the same major league protocols. Unless MLB wants to foot the bill for safe travel at the Triple-A level, it might wait to start that season until things open up in the summer.

From a development standpoint, the Orioles will surely want games to begin again. But alternate site work essentially replaced a Triple-A season last year for Dean Kremer, who made his major league debut in September. The Orioles will be left to determine whether any of that trio of young pitchers, or anyone else who missed their chance at the high minors in 2019, are ready based on simulated games yet again.

SPRING TRAINING

Key dates for the Orioles’ preseason preparations in Sarasota, Florida:

Feb. 16: Pitchers and catchers report

Feb. 21: Position players report

Feb. 27: First exhibition game vs. Atlanta Braves

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