Minor League Realignment Should Lead To Unorthodox Prospect Returns
By now, everybody is aware that the minor leagues were drastically aligned in advance of the 2021 season. The league as a whole was reduced from 160 to 120 ticket-selling teams, and the teams that remained were redistributed in terms of both league and classification.
As a quirk of those changes, several teams at the lower levels flipped their classification. The Hillsboro Hops, for example, were formerly of the short-season Northwest League. Now, they’re part of the six-team High-A West, which includes five other teams that were in the NWL in 2019.
That 2019 Hops team, which won what turned out to be the final Northwest League championship, was stacked to the brim with prospects. Initially, the group was led by outfielder Kristian Robinson and righthander Luis Frias, who dominated the league before earning late-season promotions to Low-A Kane County.
If 2020 had happened, both players would have gone back to Low-A before matriculating to High-A, which would have been Visalia of the California League. The 2020 season, of course, was lost to the coronavirus pandemic, and Frias and Robinson spent their time at Arizona’s alternate training site and instructional league.
With the 2021 season just weeks away, Hillsboro is now Arizona’s High-A affiliate, which means some of those stars from 2019 will likely become Hops once more. Given the team’s success in 2019, the thought of a repeat performance should be mighty enticing for denizens of Ron Tonkin Field.
In total, 44 teams changed their classification while keeping the same affiliation. Here, we list the changes, arranged by parent club:
ARIZONA: Hillsboro (short-season to High-A), Visalia (High-A to Low-A)
ATLANTA: Rome (Low-A to High-A)
BALTIMORE: Aberdeen (short-season to High-A)
BOSTON: Greenville (Low-A to High-A), Salem (High-A to Low-A)
CHICAGO NL: Myrtle Beach (High-A to Low-A), South Bend (Low-A to High-A)
CINCINNATI: Dayton (Low-A to High-A), Daytona (High-A to Low-A)
CLEVELAND: Lynchburg (High-A to Low-A), Lake County (Low-A to High-A)
DETROIT: Lakeland (High-A to Low-A), West Michigan (Low-A to High-A)
HOUSTON: Fayetteville (High-A to Low-A)
LOS ANGELES NL: Great Lakes (Low-A to High-A), Rancho Cucamonga (High-A to Low-A)
LOS ANGELES AL: Inland Empire (High-A to Low-A)
MIAMI: Jacksonville (Double-A to Triple-A), Jupiter (High-A to Low-A)
MILWAUKEE: Wisconsin (Low-A to High-A), Carolina (High-A to Low-A)
MINNESOTA: Cedar Rapids (Low-A to High-A), Fort Myers (High-A to Low-A)
NEW YORK NL: Brooklyn (short-season to High-A), St. Lucie (High-A to Low-A)
NEW YORK AL: Tampa (High-A to Low-A)
OAKLAND: Stockton (High-A to Low-A)
PHILADELPHIA: Jersey Shore (Low-A to High-A), Clearwater (High-A to Low-A)
PITTSBURGH: Greensboro (Low-A to High-A), Bradenton (High-A to Low-A)
ST. LOUIS: Peoria (Low-A to High-A), Palm Beach (High-A to Low-A)
SAN DIEGO: Fort Wayne (Low-A to High-A), Lake Elsinore (High-A to Low-A)
SAN FRANCISCO: San Jose (High-A to Low-A)
SEATTLE: Everett (short-season to High-A), Modesto (High-A to Low-A)
TAMPA BAY: Bowling Green (Low-A to High-A)
TEXAS: Hickory (Low-A to High-A), Down East (High-A to Low-A)
TORONTO: Vancouver (short-season to High-A), Dunedin (High-A to Low-A)
WASHINGTON: Fredericksburg (High-A to Low-A)
With all those changes in mind, here are six teams we believe could welcome back multiple prospects this summer. This list is by no means exhaustive and by no means final; most prospects’ assignments won’t be determined until the end of minor league spring training, which won’t begin until the big league camp clears out toward the end of March.
Instead, these are our best guesses based on each player’s respective, age, experience, final stop in 2019 and activity during the muddled 2020 campaign. Until then, we’re left to count down the days until May 4, when the minor leagues are slated to return for the first time in 595 days.
Possible Returners: OF Kristian Robinson, OF Corbin Carroll, LHP Blake Walston, RHP Drey Jameson, RHP Luis Frias
In addition to standouts like Robinson and Frias, Hillsboro should welcome back members of the later portion of its championship club. Led by outfielder Corbin Carroll (who ranks No. 42 on this year’s preseason Top 100 Prospects list), as well as powerful arms like Blake Walston and Drey Jameson, the Hops should have plenty of firepower for 2021.
Vancouver (Blue Jays)
Possible Returners: RHP Alek Manoah, RHP Adam Kloffenstein
Manoah has dazzled in spring training, including a dominant outing against the Yankees in which he struck out seven over three perfect innings. The big-bodied righthander ended the 2019 season in the short-season Northwest League but spent 2020 at the team’s alternate training site. Kloffenstein spent his summer playing in a summer league in his home state of Texas and could wind up beginning 2021 in High-A.
Possible Returners: RHP George Kirby, 3B Austin Shenton
Kirby showed up with the Aquasox with a reputation for high-end control and did not disappoint. The Mariners’ 2019 first-rounder out of Elon did not walk a batter during his time with Everett, then spent the 2020 season at the alternate training site. Shenton was intriguing in 2019 with Everett and also spent time during 2020 at the alternate training site, where he hit a ball over the batter’s eye at Tacoma’s Cheney field. The pitcher for that homer? Kirby.
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Possible Returners: 3B Brett Baty, RHP Matt Allan
At this point Baty and Allan might well run for local office in the Coney Island area. Both players ended their 2019 season with the Cyclones in the New York-Penn League and then spent time at the team’s alternate training site in Brooklyn. Allan checks in at No. 98 on BA’s preseason Top 100 Prospects list on the strength of an arsenal with three potentially plus or better pitches. Baty is a classically powerful third baseman who’s made progress with his hitting mechanics.
Jersey Shore (Phillies)
Possible Returners: RHP Francisco Morales, SS Luis Garcia, LHP Erik Miller
In 2021, the team formerly known as Lakewood could look a lot like it did before the world shut down. Morales is the team’s second-best pitching prospect behind only 2020 first-rounder Mick Abel and features an enigmatic but devastating combination of fastball and slider. Garcia was one of the league’s youngest players when he started 2019 at Low-A and will play all of 2021 as a 20-year-old as he attempts to improve on a lackluster full-season debut two years ago.
Possible Returners: RHP Cole Winn, RHP Hans Crouse
Winn, the Rangers’ first-rounder in 2018, had an inconsistent year at Low-A in 2019 but looked much improved at the alternate training site last season. He still has plenty of upside, which he’ll look to capitalize upon at High-A to begin the season. Crouse dealt with injuries in 2019 and did not appear at either the alternate training site or instructional league, so the 2017 second-rounder will likely open the year back at Hickory.