With fans eager for baseball’s (possible) return, on Monday morning, Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich and manager Bud Black held a Zoom conference with media to answer questions about the coming season. In the course of the conversation, Bridich made a repeated point: “We are almost literally in a day-to-day operation right now. Details change daily.” They addressed a range of topics, including season strategy and roster construction, plans for keeping players safe, and racial justice issues.
Because of MLB health and safety guidelines as well as space limitations, the Rockies will be holding “Summer Camp” at Coors Field and Metropolitan State University, which they consider a “second field.” When the season begins, the Club Player Pool (CPP) will move to Isotopes Park in Albuquerque, an agreement that was reached last week.
“They’ve been an incredible partner with us over the years,” Bridich said. “They were excited to work with us if we could pull it off.”
An added plus is familiarity: “Our players, for the most part, know what Albuquerque is all about.” Bridich sees the arrangement as working for everyone.
All players will report at the same time, rather than the staggered arrivals of a typical spring training, and camp should last about 20 days. Intake testing has already begun, and Black anticipates practices will begin on Friday or Saturday.
Players will first undergo a physical assessment, though they have been in close contact with Black and his staff during quarantine.
“We feel pretty confident where they are physically,” Black said. They will then move from drills to intra-squad games.
“We’ve got to concentrate on getting into baseball shape,” he continued, “getting the spikes back on every day, getting on the infield, moving around, getting baseball pants on — all those things that you don’t do in a regular off-season.”
Black credits the players for taking responsibility for their own physical well being and staying ready to play baseball.
He added, “I like where the players are emotionally,” but cautioned that they will have to be careful during the first week at Summer Camp.
“The players are going to come in really, really excited, so we might have to have to temper that some on the physical part.”
Bridich commended both Denver and Colorado for the ways they handled the virus, pointing to state government, the healthcare system, and residents.
“I think we feel good about the safety and the state of Colorado,” he said.
On Sunday, the Rockies announced the 52-player roster they will take into Summer Camp, leaving the team with some flexibility in terms of roster development going forward.
“A lot went into the roster,” Bridich said. The Rockies knew Coors Field would not have sufficient space and also, initially, want a smaller group that “hopefully leads to a healthier group.”
He added, “After that, it’s just taking it day to day.”
In terms of adding to the roster, Bridich said that the Rockies anticipate eventually using all 60 spots. Pitchers Wes Parsons and Tommy Doyle have been told that they will be added to the roster and will join the CPP in Albuquerque. There are plans to add additional players as well.
However, the Rockies will not have their usual 162-game season in which to make those decisions. As Black put it: “In theory, you might have to make some hard decisions on performance because you can’t wait for a guy to come out of a slump. You might have to try a new player to see what he might bring. You don’t have the luxury of six months.” All of that makes familiarity key.
“You have to really know your players,” Black said.
Notably absent from the roster was Rockies fan favorite Ubaldo Jiménez. Bridich said, “At this time, he is not in the mix to be added.” (Jiménez did not having a strong spring training, earning an ERA of 8.44 in 5 1⁄3 innings after giving up nine runs on nine hits.)
Later, Bridich explained that while he was uncertain of Jiménez’s plans going forward, “It was not his decision. It was a call that I made.”
Bridich’s thinking had to do with the size of the team, the make-up of the team, and Jimenez’s absence from pitching.
“It was a hard decision to make,” he said, adding, “There are a few other players we had to make that decision on.”
For Bridich, the trade deadline — which is August 31 — will work in terms of the Rockies approach as it has any other year.
“What will be different is what we have in the toolbox to make decisions. We’re not going to have a lot of games. We’re not going to have a lot of at bats or pitching experience or whatever else,” he said. In addition, scouting will be limited, so teams will have to make decisions with less information.
Health and safety concerns
Bridich said that the Rockies have had some Tier 1 personnel test positive for COVID-19, but he did not provide any names or numbers. Moreover, players who choose not to participate in the 2020 season are not a topic the team can discuss publicly.
“At this point, we expect everybody to be there,” he said. (Author’s note: Since this availability, Ian Desmond has announced he will not play in 2020.)
Even with everything going on, Black is optimistic about players’ approach to health and safety.
“For me, we’re going to get a lot of education in the next week or so on the virus,” he said. “I’ve been encouraged by what the players have said amongst themselves about how important this is for the next couple of months to do the right things off the field. I’ve heard a number of players say that they’ve talked to each other about the commitment to each other to be safe and do things within those guidelines off the field, whether it’s here in Denver or when we travel. It’s that individual commitment to the group effort.”
He continued, “Guys are talking about wearing masks. Guys are talking about cleanliness. Guys are talking about social distancing.”
Bridich sees this attitude as permeating the organization.
“I think it’s on the entire organization to remember that this is not business as usual,” he said. “It’s going to be easy to fall into our normal rhythms and habits as we get back into practicing and paying games. But this isn’t business as usual. We need to do a good job of holding each other accountable for the protocols that have been put in place.”
The notion of players spitting was raised, to which Black said, “I’m not sure how that’s going to play out. I have not at the present time heard of any consequences if someone does spit, and I don’t know how it will be monitored.”
Black was also asked about his own concerns, given that he is over 60.
“I plan on going everywhere,” he said. He has discussed it with other coaches, as well.
“It comes down to practicing the guidelines that have been put in front of us,” Black said, “mask wearing, distancing, washing our hands, watching where we go on a daily basis, being protective of our health.”
He added, “It’s an effort by all of us. If I’m safe, then I’m going to be fine. I think that’s the case for most people.”
While the Rockies’ schedule remains unknown, they hope to play a few exhibition games, and, according to Bridich, have made “some inroads” in realizing this goal.
Of the schedule itself, Bridich said, “I’m not sure there’s going to be a whole lot of symmetry to them,” given that MLB is attempting to minimize team travel while navigating COVID-19 hotspots and local regulations.
For Black, the shorter season provides no real advantage.
“Any benefit to us is a benefit to another club as well,” he said. Then he added, “I like our team. I think we’ve got a good team. There’s been a group of players that have gotten off to great starts. This is so hard to predict. I think we could be good in 60 games; I think we could be good in 162 games.”
Playing and strategy in a strange time
Both Bridich and Black acknowledged that the abbreviated season would require a different approach to the season.
“I think you have to look at the season and realize that it isn’t the long haul that we’re used to, and there might have to be times where it looks as though we’re managing with urgency,” Black said. “The real trick is with pitching.”
He continued, “Pitching will be highly monitored as we start. But also we know that every game’s important, so playing the hot hand a little bit out of the bullpen may come into play.” But where players are physically will guide Black’s choices.
He also acknowledged that he won’t be able to use his patient teaching strategy that he prefers.
“You might have to make some hard decision on performance because you can’t wait for a guy to potentially come out of a slump. You might have to try a new player to see what he might bring,” Black added, “You don’t have the luxury of six months. You have to really know your players.”
“Players and coaches know that 60 games is not 162, and there’ll be an intensity level that’s out there at a pretty high level for two months,” he said.
While both Bridich and Black can see position players wanting to play in every game, it’s too early to know whether that will happen.
“They are built that way — mentally, emotionally, physically. I can see them wanting to play all the time because they love to play, and they love to be out there, and that’s their expectation of themselves as professionals.” Bridich said. However, that flexibility will be key.
Black and Bridich agreed that the designated hitter will probably be a rotating job, given to players to allow them a day off their feet. But they do not see the National League at a disadvantage when using the DH.
“I like our team. I think we’ve got a good team,” Black reiterated, “I think we can be good in 60 games. I think we can be good in 162 games.”
The Rockies and social justice
Both were asked about kneeling during the National Anthem — a practice that promises to be more common in all sports during the 2020 season. Black and Bridich are supportive of players making that choice.
“I don’t know,” Black said. “I just want to play baseball. When we get there, we’ll see. I have no problem with a player doing what they feel is right for them. I think that’s an individual thing.”
He continued, “There’s a lot of emotion, a lot of things that are coming out that are very positive. I love the fact that we’re talking about this, that people are listening, that people are getting educated, that people are being honest and emotional, speaking from the heart. I want to be a part of that as well. I hope what’s going on currently continues because I do think it’s a good thing.”
Bridich is uncertain of players’ plans, saying that although he has not spoken with any players about this, “I would welcome those conversations.”
The Rockies are still working out a system of player development given the uncertainty that permeates baseball.
They are hoping for a late-summer program, possibly involving Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in Scottsdale. Bridich said that they would be providing information in the next 24-48 hours about paying minor league players in the Rockies system.
He is also optimistic about signing catcher Drew Romo. “We are quite hopeful that that will happen,” Bridich added.
Jeff Bridich and Bud Black agree that it would be good to have baseball return.
“I think it would be great for the country, for us to play,” Black said. But Bridich stressed that if they are allowed to play, “The virus is allowing us to play,” which he hopes means the country is doing well in terms of handling COVID-19.
Both stressed that flexibility is key.
“We have to accept to a certain degree that we’re not truly in control of this entire situation,” Bridich said. “We are wanting to make this happen. We’re optimistic that we can. But we don’t know for sure. We have to take it day to day. You’re going to get sick and tired of hearing us say we have to take it day to day, but it’s the literal truth right now.”