At the end of March, roughly 3,000 minor leaguers packed their equipment bags and left Florida and Arizona headed to their new homes throughout the minors.
At roughly the same time, another 400 or more players headed home with the gloves and cleats thrown into the back of their cars after being told that they were being released.
Some of those released were coming off of rough spring training performances where nothing seemed to go right. But others were feeling really good about how they were swinging the bat or pounding the strike zone.
But here’s the little secret that isn’t talked about all that much—whether a player hits .500 or .150 in minor league spring training isn’t likely to change whether he moves up or moves down for his next assignment. It also doesn’t make much difference on whether he moves on or moves out.
While big leaguers began playing games in late February this year, minor league spring training games didn’t begin until mid-March. No one is playing a whole lot of games before breaking camp and heading out.
“We have 12 to 16 (spring training) games,” Athletics farm director Keith Lieppman said. “Spring training tricks you. It’s all day games. You’re getting a very limited scope of who did the best job of preparing themselves for spring training. But you have to look at a bigger slice of their careers.”
Simple logic explains why spring training doesn’t weigh heavily in teams’ decisions. The minor league spring training season lasts roughly 15 games—three starts for most pitchers and less than 50 at-bats for many position players.
Teams don’t make decisions on who moves up or moves down during the regular season based on a good or bad two weeks. Similarly, they see the spring training games and they take note of them, but in many cases, the decisions were largely made before the players ever stepped onto the field for the first spring training minor league game.
So what does decide who gets cut? Largely it comes down to who gets hurt.
Most teams will bring roughly 10-20 “surplus” players to minor league camp. They’ll send roughly 100 players out at the end of spring training to fill the four full-season clubs. Another 25-35 will remain at the team’s spring training facility for the monotony that is extended spring training.
Those players will be supplemented by the new draftees before everyone breaks EST camp and heads to the short-season leagues.
And anyone who is seriously injured will remain at the spring training facility to work on rehabilitating their injury.
But with teams bringing anywhere from 140-170 players to camp, every team knows that it won’t be able to keep everyone it brings into spring training. The players on the bubble heading into spring training were largely determined by offseason meetings.
So why keep them around? There are a few reasons.
For one, if a player shows significant improvement in his tools or skills, he may be able to make a convincing case to stick around. The slow outfielder who improves his foot speed, the weak hitter who shows added raw power or the soft-tosser who suddenly develops an average fastball might make enough of a splash to earn a spot on a team heading out. It’s not nearly as much about putting up good stats as it is about showing improved tools or a big step towards refining those tools.
A catcher may be brought to spring training simply because every team needs a lot of backstops during spring training. Between catching bullpens, side sessions and games, every team needs more catchers during spring training than are needed come the regular season. After all, some of those pitchers in spring training will also be going home.
But most frequently, the reprieve comes because someone else went down with an injury. The extra players are largely insurance to make sure that there are plenty of options in case of a run of injuries at any position.
“It’s hard to really use spring training as your focus for making decisions. There are a few decisions that go down to that, which are usually prompted by an injury,” Leippman said.
Teams don’t want to be caught without enough healthy arms, shorstops, catchers or outfielders when spring training wraps up and the regular season begins, so some players are brought back for another spring as insurance policies.
If everyone stays healthy, those extras end up being released. In case of a rash of injuries, those players get another month or another year to prove they deserve to stick around.