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The Royals are catching COVID

Kansas City has lost five different backstops to the pandemic.

Kansas City Royals v San Diego Padres Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

Major League Baseball is ostensibly going to return this Thursday, even as the coronavirus continues to spread unabated across the United States.

Teams, of course, have by no means been exempt from the pandemic, but the Kansas City Royals have been hit uniquely hard in a manner which bodes rather ill for the coming season.

Kansas City came into 2020 with a group of well-established, if slightly underwhelming, catchers. Salvador Perez looked poised to return from elbow reconstruction surgery to post his perennial 20 homers, good defense, and some of baseball’s worst plate discipline. Cam Gallagher is no one’s idea of a starting catcher, even on a bad team, but he’s a perfectly cromulent backup. But now, they both have COVID. Perez has since returned, though how the long-term effects of the disease might affect him aren’t well known. Gallagher is nowhere close to returning.

That’s okay, right? You have more than two catchers for a reason. Meibrys Viloria is the Royals’ future at the position, but the 23-year-old is out with an undisclosed illness. Then there’s Nick Dini, who showed a little power and a little speed in the minors, but now he, too, has COVID.

In all, the Royals lost their top four catchers before the season, three to COVID.

It’s gotten so bad that the Royals are now trying utility infielder Erick Mejia behind the plate, which would be fine except that Mejia had never played the position at any level before last week. Nevertheless, Mejia would be the backup catcher if the season started today, and would be Kansas City’s starter if Perez hasn’t recovered all the way. Welp.

This isn’t really Kansas City’s fault, to be sure. They had four perfectly serviceable catchers when camp started, and three of them caught the pandemic. But what this does show is how fragile this season is turning out to be. Kansas City was not a team which lacked depth at catcher, really, or at least in the context of 2020 baseball where decent catchers are rarer than gold-pressed latinum. The real question is what happens when this sort of positional domino effect starts across the game on other teams.

This is a significant issue, actually. Freddie Freeman should be ready to go for the season’s start, but behind him are Austin Riley and then Adeiny Hechevarria. The Yankees’ backup at both second base and shortstop is Tyler Wade, but D.J. LeMahieu is still recovering from COVID. The Marlins’ second base backup, Jonathan Villar, is also listed their starter at third base and backup in center field. In short, if teams start having COVID flare-ups during the season, positions could get very thin, very quickly.

It’s easy enough to say that a team could simply move another player, but that can be really problematic. First of all, despite the Royals’ glowing reviews of Mejia behind the plate, the reality is that he’s a utility infielder playing catcher and there are sure to be growing pains - just as there will be for any player forced to play out of position this year.

If COVID does start wreaking havoc on rosters, we could very well see a lot of players out of position, learning new roles on the fly. That will do a lot more than impact the outcome of games, it could expose those players to significant injury risks.

Take, for example, the San Diego Padres. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that star shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. caught COVID. His replacement would be either utilityman Jake Cronenworth or starting second baseman Jurickson Profar. But if one other infielder gets COVID, you’re playing Ty France in the middle infield. If two go down, you’re playing Wil Myers at third base.

Think this is unlikely? Remember: the Royals are already out of catchers because of COVID. It could be worse. The Pittsburgh Pirates’ third-string center fielder is shortstop JT Riddle. The Brewers’ third-string shortstop is Eric Sogard. The Twins’ backup at catcher and the corner spots is Willians Astudillo, who already has COVID. The Nationals’ third string outfielder at every outfield spot is second baseman Wilmer Difo. The Mets don’t have a third-string center fielder, unless they plan to stick Yoenis Cespedes out there.

In an ordinary season, this wouldn’t be that bad. You could call up reinforcements from the minor leagues to plug a hole. But not this year. This year, there are no minor leagues. Yes, there are minor league “camps,” but those are pretty limited. This year, teams will be patching contagious holes on the fly with players out of position, being exposed to a greater risk of injury as well as catching a contagious viral pandemic. What teams are asking players to do is not just to play baseball in the midst of a viral pandemic. They’re asking players to do so whilst shouldering a greater injury risk than they ever have before.