Answering Your Questions About Minor League Baseball In 2021
We’ve been reporting day-in and day-out on the talks between Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball for the past two years. But understandably, not everyone has been following every twist and turn of the talks that have been resolved with today’s announcement that MLB has agreements with the 120 teams that will make up affiliated baseball going forward.
With that in mind, here’s answers to the questions we’re hearing. If you have further questions, Tweet to @jjcoop36 and we’ll try to add to this list of Frequently Asked Questions.
1. When will the 2021 minor league season begin?
Triple-A is set to begin in April. Double-A and the Class A levels are set to begin May 4 (yes, May the Fourth be with you, the Star Wars promotion minor league teams teams love the most, is potentially safe).
Now, there are dozens of items that have to be checked off for those dates to go from being written in pencil to being inked in with a Sharpie. Figuring out player movement from Triple-A to the majors and vice versa is a major hurdle. Unless Triple-A teams are scheduled to repeatedly play nearby opponents (trips which can be taken by charter bus) Triple-A travel involves commercial airline travel. MLB’s health and safety rules strictly limit MLB players being exposed to the general public. Would MLB be comfortable with adding callups from Triple-A who had been on a few commercial flights in the past week? That seems unlikely.
Also, right now, a number of Triple-A teams play in cities that do not allow fans to attend games. The economics of minor league baseball do not work without fans in attendance, as unlike Major League Baseball, there are no other significant revenue streams (like TV contracts) to cover the costs of operating.
The hope is that by April or May the situation regarding the pandemic will have improved, much remains to be determined about the schedule.
2. If I’m a fan, can I go to a game?
If fans can’t go to games, it’s hard to imagine there being a 2021 minor league season. The short answer right now is it depends on where you live. There are a number of cities and states around the country with few restrictions on fans being able to attend games. There are currently other places where no fans would be allowed to attend.
What would happen if some teams can have fans and others cannot has yet to be determined. Putting on a fan-less game would mean minor league teams would incur thousands of dollars in costs per game with no revenue coming in. For teams who are already going into month 16 of minimal cash flow, that’s an impossibility unless MLB teams agree to subsidize those costs.
The hope across the minor leagues is as the year goes on and vaccination rates improve, there will be a steady opening up of the restrictions on attendance.
It is likely that health and safety rules for the minors will include a 25-foot buffer area to ensure players do not get too close to fans. That is likely to have a much larger effect on attendance at minor league games than MLB games because of the smaller stadiums. Multiple minor league operators have told Baseball America that the buffer rules will require them to block off the first four to six rows of their seating bowls.
3. What will roster rules look like?
As we have reported before, MLB teams will be allowed to have 180 minor league players during the season, expanding to 190 for the offseason. The rules on roster limits at the various levels will be loosened. Although the exact final details remain to be worked out, MLB teams will be given more flexibility to construct rosters as they wish. If a team wants to have a 27-player Triple-A roster with extra bullpen arms, they can. If a team wants to have a six-man rotation in Low-A and wants to carry an extra starting pitcher on a 26-to-28 man roster, they are likely to be allowed to do so.
The upper limit of team rosters has not been yet been determined, but the idea is to let MLB teams set the rosters as they see fit. Similarly, teams will be allowed two Arizona/Gulf Coast League clubs if they want, but if they do so, they still have to remain within the 180-player total limit.
4. What will minor league players be paid?
There will be fewer minor league players with each organization capped at 180 players for domestic leagues. The players that remain will be paid more than they were in the past. MLB has bumped the minimum salary for a Rookie-level player from $290 to $400 a week and Class A players from $290 to $500 a week. Double-A minimum salaries will increase from $350 to $600 a week and Triple-A will go from $502 to $700 a week. MLB teams can opt to pay their players more than that (as long as it is uniform across the board), but they cannot pay them less.
The uniformity of the pay scale is because teams are not allowed to offer extra inducements to draftees or international signees beyond their capped bonuses. But paying all players at a level above the minimum rate is not viewed as an extra inducement.
5. Will robo-umps be used?
Probably in some form at some level. MLB and MiLB agreed to use an automated strike zone in the Florida State League for 2020. Now that MLB is running the minor leagues, they have the ability to decide which leagues and levels could use robo-umps. Nothing has been finalized, but it would be surprising if MLB didn’t continue to experiment with an automated zone.
6. Can 2021 draftees play in 2021 or will that have to wait until 2022?
Teams can decide whether to send players drafted in July to play in 2021 or send them to the complexes for a pro baseball orientation. With college players, it’s most likely they will be sent out to play in one of the Class A levels soon after they sign. The later draft date does mean that players will have less time to play their first season than they did when the draft was held in early June, but players can still get into official games in their draft year.
Technically teams could sign draftees to 2022 contracts, which would prevent them from being allowed to play in a game in 2021, but that is subject to negotiation between players (and their agents) and the teams.
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7. When will the Arizona and Gulf Coast League seasons begin?
That is still to be determined.
8. How will the draft and wood bat leagues fit into the new landscape?
Those leagues are for amateur players, so they will not be a part of affiliated baseball. Those leagues have been a landing spot for a number of formerly affiliated teams left out of the 120 teams that will operate in MLB’s new system. The entire Appalachian League has formed a summer wood bat league. Six teams (Frederick, Mahoning Valley, State College, West Virginia and Williamsport) have joined the new MLB Draft League.
9. Who will pay for the upgrades required by the new facility standards?
MLB teams have made clear they expect the minor league teams to figure out how to pay for the needed facility upgrades. In many cases, municipalities will end up paying for the improvements, and in some cases, the minor league teams will pay out of pocket to do so. After a three-year grace period that begins in 2021, any team that fails to meet the upgraded facility standards could be at risk of losing its PDL.
10. Under the new ballpark standards, is there any language saying all games must be covered on MiLB.TV with standards set for broadcast quality and style?
No. That is not covered in the ballpark standards.
That said, expect to see what was formerly known as MiLB.tv upgraded and enhanced over the upcoming years. MLB did run MiLB.tv in the past, but that was a contractual agreement between MLB and MiLB. As a result, MiLB.tv was often many years behind MLB.tv when it came to features, presentation and interfaces.
While fans could watch MLB games on either Apple or Android phones, MiLB.tv broadcasts were limited to Apple devices. MiLB.tv was stuck using an obsolete Flash-based system through 2018. High definition broadcasts did not come to MiLB.tv until 2019.
Now, MLB will be the one both running the distribution of the minor league broadcasts and the one selling and profiting from it. That makes it likely the interface and features of MLB.tv will more quickly filter down to the minors.
With just a couple of months until the 2021 season, it’s unlikely that all these tweaks will come in place for the upcoming season.
11. After the announcement today, is the old structure of the minor leagues still alive?
Technically yes. Minor League Baseball continues to operate as a corporate entity. Scott Poley is the current president, having replaced Stan Brand, who replaced the now-retired Pat O’Conner. The MiLB offices in St. Petersburg have been sold and will have to soon be vacated, but the remaining MiLB employees will be moving to a smaller, temporary office for the 2021 season. MLB has contracted to pay MiLB employees to help the transition to MLB control.
As of today the various affiliated leagues also remain in existence, but they are in the process of winding down with leagues closing up offices.
By the end of 2021, it’s unlikely that any of the old structure will remain active.
12. The Low-A East has three divisions. How will the playoffs work in that league?
There are no minor league playoffs in 2021. With a late start to the season, minor league teams and MLB clubs would rather have more dates for all minor league teams to play (and for teams to sell tickets) than to cut the season short and have a few teams play in the playoffs.
Whether minor league playoffs return for 2022 and beyond is yet to be determined. If they do, a structure where the division winner with the best record gets a first-round bye could handle a three-division structure.