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Marlins COVID-19 Outbreak Puts MLB's Competitive Integrity To The Test

Major League Baseball hoped its health and safety protocols, along with responsible behavior by players away from the park, would be enough to prevent an outbreak of the novel coronavirus in a major league clubhouse this season.

It took five days for that illusion to be shattered.

Seventeen members of the Marlins have tested positive for COVID-19 since Miami’s season opener five days ago, including 15 players. Four tested positive prior to Sunday’s game against the Phillies. The Marlins proceeded to play anyway. Seven more positive tests were reported Monday following the game. Another four positive tests were reported Tuesday.

The Marlins remain quarantined in Philadelphia as they undergo further testing. After MLB planned to have the healthy Marlins' players bus to Baltimore to play Wednesday—a plan lambasted by an epidemiologist at Emory University as “absolutely insane” and the “literal stupidest possible plan”—the league announced all Marlins games through Aug. 2 have been postponed. The Phillies, who hosted the Marlins during opening weekend, had all of their games until Friday postponed as they undergo further testing. USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reported no Phillies players have tested positive so far, but a visiting clubhouse attendant has.

The identity of the Marlins' players who tested positive isn’t fully known, but catcher Jorge Alfaro, first baseman Garrett Cooper, righthander Jose Ureña and outfielder Harold Ramirez were all placed on the 10-day injured list for undisclosed reasons during opening weekend. Shortstop Miguel Rojas reportedly was among the players to test positive in the latest round of testing.

Alfaro, Cooper, Ramirez and Rojas are starters and four of the Marlins' most productive hitters. Ureña is their most experienced starting pitcher.

MLB’s health and safety protocols do not establish a threshold for how many positive tests would cause a team, or the season, to shut down. The only standard for a team or league-wide shutdown, Manfred said during a radio interview on the Dan Patrick Show on July 1, is “if we have a team or two that’s really decimated with the number of people who had the virus or can’t play for any significant period of time. It could have a real impact on the competition and we’d have to think very, very hard about what we’re doing.”

In the eyes of scouts who have Marlins organization coverage, Manfred's stated desire to maintain competitive integrity is directly at odds with MLB's plan to have the Marlins resume playing Aug. 4 independent of whether the players who have tested positive are able to return.

"We’re talking about half the team and pretty much all their veterans that they need to compete,” said a veteran scout who has had Marlins' organization coverage for years. “It kind of takes away (competitive integrity).”

The Marlins have baseball's No. 9 farm system and six BA Top 100 prospects, all of whom are part of Miami's player pool and are currently at the club's alternate site camp.

That does not, however, mean they are ready to rise to the majors en masse.

The Marlins, like most rebuilding teams, filled the non-major league spots in their 60-man player pool with players who hold promise but need more development.

The Marlins included 14 of their top 16 prospects entering the season in their player pool. Only three have played even one game at Triple-A.

“They’re guys that are one year away,” another scout said. “Sixto Sanchez, Jesus Sanchez, Edward Cabrera and Jazz Chisholm, that top group wouldn’t be completely lost because they’ve had enough experience at Double-A at least, but all four of those guys have their warts too where they could fall flat on their face. They’re all guys who really are a year away.”

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The Marlins have few veterans at their alternate training site they can call upon in their stead. Catcher Ryan Lavarnway, righthanded starter Jordan Yamamoto, righthanded relievers Nick Vincent and Josh A. Smith and outfielder Travis Snider are the only non-injured players in the Marlins player pool with major league experience who aren’t already on the active roster. Infielder Eddy Alvarez, outfielder Monte Harrison and reliever Tommy Eveld are the only other active players at the alternate site camp who spent even 40 percent of their seasons last year in Triple-A.

The Marlins claimed pitchers Josh D. Smith and Justin Shafer off waivers from the Reds on Monday and righthander Mike Morin off waivers from the Brewers on Tuesday to help bridge the gap and give them more major-league ready players. Outfielder Lewis Brinson is expected to be activated from the injured list prior to Miami's next game.

But with 15 players testing positive, those four looming additions plus only five players at their alternate site with major league experience still leaves the Marlins with a shortage of healthy, major league-ready players in their organization.

“I don’t think its necessarily fair in this situation where it’s no fault of their own they’ve lost 15 players and then you have to be like 'Hey, go get them' to a bunch of non-roster veterans and a bunch of guys who haven’t played above Double-A,” the first scout said.

Another scout noted the Marlins are not unique in this situation. If any team were to suddenly have 15 players become unavailable, including their starting catcher, first baseman, shortstop and right fielder and most experienced starting pitcher, they would all be hard-pressed to have enough major league-caliber players at their disposal.

"I think the Marlins will have trouble withstanding this from a depth standpoint, but I don’t know if it’s any less so than any other major league team," the scout said. "When I look at 60-man rosters, they’re kind of thin. A lot of teams go two or three (players) deep and you’re looking at going with A-ball players, guys just drafted, just some really raw players, and some of them with less upside than the Marlins guys."

The Marlins’ best hope at this point is for their veterans who have tested positive to pass MLB’s return to play protocols—two negative tests taken at least 24 hours apart and no fever for at least 72 hours, among other requirements—in time to take the field Aug. 4, when they are scheduled to play the Phillies again.

If they’re not, and the Marlins have to dig deep into their player pool, the overwhelming opinion is Manfred’s words about maintaining competitive integrity will ring hollow.

“In terms of competitive integrity, is it even worth it for them in that situation?” the first scout said. “It seems like you’re putting them in a lose-lose-situation.”

(Editor's Note: This story has been updated with additional quotes and details.)

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