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Carlos Rodriguez: Rays prepared for 2021 with lessons learned from COVID-19

Rays VP Carlos Rodriguez opens up about the behind-the-scenes activities that allow players to take the field.

ARLINGTON, TX - OCTOBER 21: World Series Game 2 between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays at Globe Life Stadium in Arlington, TX on October 21, 2020.
Will Vragovic / Tampa Bay Rays

Tampa Bay Rays Vice President of Player Development and International Scouting Carlos Rodriguez has not had a lot of time to reflect on the great run the 2020 team completed with the second World Series appearance in franchise history. A lot of this is due to the never-ending hard work behind the scenes by various members of the front office.

There were many unknowns this time last year. For a while it looked like there would be no 2020 baseball. But the Rays navigated the uncertainty and even managed to earn a World Series appearance. The execution came from the players on the field, but to get those players to that field takes the hard work of scouts and player development staff who seldom get to share in the glory.

I had a chance to talk with Carlos to discuss some of the behind the scenes lessons learned over the past year as we all prepare for the 2021 season.

Getting to Spring Training

Pitchers and catchers reporting and all of the Spring Training traditions we take for granted require a lot of moving elements that are rarely noticed.

For example, international players have immigration processes to complete in order to travel to Port Charlotte for the spring. The responsibility is split between the team, which provides the dates and support, and the players, who must coordinate with immigration officials for their visas.

Coaches, players, and staff are masked this Spring.
Will Vragovic / Tampa Bay Rays

“For the players themselves, they need to fill out all the paperwork,” Rodriguez said. “They need to show up to the consulate to handle stuff there. And while we help, we provide support, a lot of people have no familiarity with the process, and we try to provide frameworks and guidelines to support, and education to streamline working with a lot of the agencies to make it as efficient as possible. That way we have fewer delays and higher levels of compliance.”

If you’ve ever traveled to a country that requires a visa you know this can be complicated. Throw in a global pandemic? It’s that much harder. Each country has its own COVID-19 guidelines, restrictions, and testing requirements for travel. When you consider that US consulate offices across the world are working with reduced staff, the risks of player delays are that much higher.

“In the Dominican they haven’t been really allowing a lot of in-person approvals. And so that presents massive delays and there’s a pretty large volume of players. A lot of the processing is by mail, or you drop off your passport but that’s delayed just because of the sheer volume of people,” Rodriguez explained.

“The airspace in Venezuela was completely closed for a good while, including during a good chunk of the season and even beyond the postseason. Trying to get players flights back home is part of the reason why there are some hardship cases in which MLB allowed some of the Venezuelan players to stay back in some of the alternate training sites, or the spring training complexes. There was no way to get a player a flight back home, because the airspace was was completely closed.”

The Rays delay-related impact had been limited to Diego Castillo and Francisco Mejia, according to Kevin Cash in a Spring Training Zoom call, but other teams have had some impacted players thanks to visa issues.

Of course, the work is not completed just because the players have arrived safely since there are the required quarantine periods before the players are cleared for further activity, which impacts the timelines for players and teams.

Not your standard injury protocol

Once the players are cleared for activity, the real fun — keeping players healthy and eligible — begins. That is if your definition of fun includes the potential to randomly lose a player for a period of time because they have either tested positive or been in the vicinity of a confirmed COVID case. The 2021 MLB health and safety protocol includes a mandatory quarantine of seven days and a negative test on day five or later for a player to rejoin the team’s facilities.

These challenges created real concerns in 2020. Rodriguez talked about how the COVID protocols and challenges compare with managing the standard injury lists.

“Just between the infection and the contact tracing, that provides a real challenge to try to forecast and anticipate. This really highlights the importance of all the protocols that we put in place,” he said.

“One of the notable differences had been trying to forecast players coming back from injury. Not every player responds the same to COVID and not every player responds the same to an ankle injury or arm injury or bicep. Those are definitely similarities, we have a much broader catalogue of the standard injuries to baseball players to have a much better sense of timeline and the rehab process. COVID may affect the player very little to none at all, or affect the player from a cardiovascular standpoint or physical standpoint. I think there were some players last year that reported even fatigue and just overall weakness, even after they were asymptomatic and returned to play.”

Will Vragovic / Tampa Bay Rays

“Not knowing how each player is going to respond is certainly a challenge. Some you may forecast to come back and will be down for the standard protocol time, and then go do a rehab assignment, and he’s good to go. Other players require as much time as possible to really manage the workload. This is incredibly difficult with pitchers, especially, with regards to workload management, building up innings, and depending on the time of the season, it can present some unique challenges as well,” he said.

Aside from the difference in recovery times, COVID has the potential to develop into an outbreak that can wipe out a third of the team in a matter of days, not something you need to worry about with an ankle injury. Teams normally only have to worry about losing multiple players to a single incident if two defenders collide while attempting to field a fly ball.

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” certainly could be the motto of the Tampa Bay Rays. One of the recurring themes in my conversation with Carlos Rodriguez was the wear and tear daily baseball exerts on players.

In any given season you can expect to have injuries and rely on utilizing the 40-man roster, Triple-A roster, and even players on the Double-A roster to get through 162 games. Throw in an on-going pandemic, questions about player durability (after a shortened 2020 season)? We really don’t know what to expect for players in 2021.

Carlos Rodriguez will need to determined whether the lessons of 2020 are transferrable, and to keep up with changing protocols and health challenges. With 2021 baseball around the corner, let’s remember, whenever we watch a healthy pitcher locate a curve ball or see a runner slide into second, that behind those players are a staff of unheralded professionals like Rodriguez, making sure our baseball heroes can take the field each day.