Will Depleted Pitching Staffs Be a Common Theme This Season?

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The Astros started their week with a pitching injury: Justin Verlander, out indefinitely with forearm soreness. It seemed to set an unfortunate theme.

On Monday night, Dusty Baker announced that set-up man Ryan Pressly was day-to-day with elbow soreness. Soon after, he said the same about another reliever, Chris Devenski, and then announced a full shutdown for swingman Austin Pruitt, who had previously been placed on the 10-day IL. Finally, on Tuesday, he announced one more bullpen injury: Joe Biagini, who would be sidelined with shoulder soreness. Add in Brad Peacock’s issues from last week, and the team was left in the unenviable position of having just one pitcher in the ‘pen, Roberto Osuna, with more than a year of big-league experience. As Houston tried to paper over the situation with a final emergency call-up, the headlines nodded toward the problem: Houston Select Scrubb for Roster. (That would be Andre Scrubb, a 25-year-old righty who previously had not pitched above Double-A.)

Of course, pitching injuries are part of every season. But in 2020, an entire relief corps struck down at once does not feel like bad luck or the result of bad choices so much as it does like a realistic potential outcome for every team.

This season was set up to be a nightmare for pitching health: After pitchers had carefully ramped up for the spring, they were shut down in mid-March, and sent home with varying resources and restrictions. They had to get ready and stay ready for a season whose start date was unknown. And when that start date was known, they had minimal time to adjust and make final preparations. Of course, players were not on their own here; for the shutdown, teams coordinated workout schedules from afar, and considerable thought went into those decisions for a deeply analytical club such as the Astros. But there was no way to handle this situation perfectly. These were uncharted waters, and pitchers, no matter their preparation, were going to get injured.

All that points to a season with more pitchers hurt. But it’s also an especially bad season to be hurt. The shortened season means that each individual health issue can have an outsize effect on a team. With so few days off, the calendar is even more grueling than it is typically, with very little room built in for recovery. (And, for some teams, you’ll be looking at even less flexibility after manipulating the schedule on the fly to accommodate an outbreak.) There are expanded rosters to assist with these problems. But that’s not enough to handle all of it. And that’s without even acknowledging the other health threat weighing on all of this: A COVID-19 IL stint can be far riskier and more difficult to navigate than, say, forearm soreness.

So a situation like this was bound to hit at least one team, and less than a week into the season, it’s the Astros. In just five days, they have needed to call on seven rookie relievers to make their major-league debut. (There were two who did so on Tuesday—the aforementioned Scrubb and Nivaldo Rodriguez.) As you’d expect, that’s far from ideal, especially given the fact that the team is unable to lean on its thinned-out rotation. Of course, Houston’s offense is powerful enough that this doesn’t have to spell automatic doom, and some of these injuries may be resolved sooner rather than later. But it’s remarkable that this could happen at all—a competitive team like the Astros, cut down with so many injuries at once, left with a situation where every single one of their relief options was a rookie.

In any other year, that would be a bizarre one-off fueled by bad fortune. In 2020, however, you’re almost guaranteed to see it again.

Quick Hits

• Speaking of the Astros, they were part of the first major bench clearing of the season Tuesday night, after some, er, provocative facial expressions from Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly. If you were wondering if the bullpens would still clear out for potential brawls in the age of social distancing, we now have our answer: Yes.

• The Red Sox scored a run on a 4-6-5-4 inning-ending double play. Just the usual! 

• Please enjoy Albert Pujols’s first dinger of the season, off a mind-bendingly slow delivery from Nestor Cortes, Jr.

• Finally, MLB’s biggest storyline—the coronavirus outbreak on the Miami Marlins—may not have shown up in the game action, but it hung over everything. The Yankees practiced in Baltimore instead of playing in Philadelphia. The Marlins remain in their hotel in Philly, with half of their roster having tested positive for the virus. Four teams have had their schedules scrambled. And the biggest question—how can the league prevent this situation from happening again this season?—remains unanswered.