Nick Castellanos is admittedly eager for things to get back to normal both on and off the baseball field, and the Reds took a significant step in that direction on Monday, when they announced they have reached the 85% vaccination threshold that allows for loosened COVID-19 protocols.
“Anything to get back to the good old days of 2019, I’m for," Castellanos said prior to the series opener against the Phillies at Great American Ball Park. "I’m ready to just put everything that has to do with COVID in the rearview mirror and never look back at it."
Clubs were informed just before Opening Day that MLB and the MLBPA have agreed to relax certain health and safety protocols contained in the 2021 Operations Manual for fully vaccinated Tier 1 Individuals and for clubs where 85% of their Tier 1 Individuals are fully vaccinated. This applies to all players and staff who are considered Tier 1. As part of that memo, players and staff were again strongly encouraged to receive one of the approved COVID-19 vaccines when eligible.
Among the loosened restrictions, Cincinnati players and coaches will no longer need to wear masks in the dugout or bullpen during games. They are also free to work out sans masks in the weight room. Players and coaches can also gather in hotel rooms and indoor spaces with other fully vaccinated individuals, and COVID-19 testing will be conducted less frequently.
Reaching the 85% milestone also comes just two days before Great American Ball Park is set to return to full capacity for Wednesday's series finale against the Phillies.
"You look at all the things that are happening with fans coming back, we're able to spend more time outside in summer months, less mask-wearing," manager David Bell said. " ... At this point, it's going to feel very normal, because what we've been dealing with has become almost normal anyway. Now, a lot more gets lifted and it's going to feel great. It's going to feel free and back to normal."
There are still rules and regulations in place to guard against the spread of COVID-19, but the Reds can now resume shared activities in the clubhouse like card games and video games; eat at restaurants both indoors and outdoors; and stop wearing electronic tracking devices necessary for contact tracing.
"I do think it'll help," Bell said. "I think everyone was tired of it. But at the same time, I think people were really respectful of it, also -- for good reason. This will be a nice boost, especially going into the summer. It's just one less thing to think about."
Castellanos echoed that sentiment, saying he's already in a much better mindset this season. After hitting .340 with seven homers and a 1.251 OPS in his first 14 games with the Reds last season, Castellanos hit just .190 with only seven more homers and a .644 OPS over the remaining 46 games. He finished Monday with an MLB-best .356 average and an NL-leading 1.051 OPS, extending his hit streak to 17 games in the Reds' 11-1 win over the Phillies.
“I’m a lot happier this year," Castellanos said. "Last year, with all of the restrictions and the state of the country and just the anger and everything, I was just an unhappy, depressed, trapped person. That usually is not a good remedy for success in anything you do.”
So will lifting some of those restrictions help a Reds club that has gone just 15-23 after getting off to a 9-5 start?
“I don’t know," Castellanos said. "We just got to 85% right now, so ask me that question in a month.”
• Jesse Winker was not in Monday's starting lineup, though Bell said it was just a planned off-day for the outfielder.
"It’s tough taking him out of the lineup, for sure, with the way he’s swinging the bat," Bell said. "It's just really important through the course of the year -- and coming off that road trip, I believed it was the right day. It was something he and I have talked about for a few days leading up to today."
• The Reds optioned left-hander Cionel Pérez to Triple-A Louisville to make room for Wade Miley, who was activated from the 10-day IL ahead of Monday's start against the Phillies.
• Cincinnati released Minor League infielders Cheslor Cuthbert and Nicky Delmonico on Monday. The club also promoted fellow infielder Michael De Leon to Louisville following Sunday's four-hit performance, including a home run, for Double-A Chattanooga.