Sources: MLB Considering Expanded Arizona, Florida Fall League
Although the possibility of a traditional minor league season grows slimmer by the day, there is good reason to believe every team’s prospects will get a chance to gain a large number of reps at some point this summer.
That’s because the Arizona Fall League, which typically runs from mid September until late October, could fill the void with a new, expanded format, according to multiple MLB officials who have been apprised of the potential plans.
In normal years, the AFL features six teams each with prospects from five organizations. Under a plan being developed, each of the 30 organizations would send a roster of their own prospects to play at spring training sites in both Arizona and Florida. There has been a discussion of even having a second lower level team for each club as well, although nothing has been finalized.
Rockies and D-backs prospects, for example, would play their home games at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale, Ariz., while Yankees prospects would play at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla.
The reason for this is simple: If there is no minor league season, there are going to be a whole lot of prospects who need to play games. Sending six or seven players to a traditional Fall League wouldn’t cut it, but an expanded format would allow a team to get as many of its highest-priority guys on the field for a long period.
Naturally, larger rosters would alleviate what has long been a bugaboo of the AFL: Diminished quality of pitching. By the end of a normal season, most pitchers will have reached their innings limits, leaving most of the Fall League roster slots to be populated by pitchers who missed significant time because of injuries or are new to their organization.
In 2020, however, everybody is fresh. Nobody has pitched in a game situation since the sport shut down on March 12, meaning pitchers still would have plenty of innings to make up. About the only top pitching prospects who wouldn’t have impetus to participate in a Fall League situation would be those who are on big league rosters.
That could set up a league that produces tantalizing pitching matchups like MacKenzie Gore vs. Logan Gilbert in Arizona, or Sixto Sanchez vs. Matt Manning in Florida. The AFL is traditionally loaded with top hitting talent and would be even more so under these theorized conditions.
Added talent, an altered, rivalry-friendly format and a fan base starved for minor league baseball will naturally add up to a greatly increased interest in the league or leagues. Attendance at AFL games is typically sparse anyway, but it could be even further reduced because of social-distancing regulations that would place a limit on the capacity of each stadium.
While it is unlikely many, or any, games would be on national TV, the amount of games streamed would likely rise in this scenario when compared to a normal AFL season.
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The AFL is always a bounty for prospect-watchers. Every fall, teams send some of their best and brightest for six weeks of finishing school. In recent vintage, fans have gotten early looks at young stars like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Ronald Acuña Jr., Gleyber Torres, Pete Alonso and many more. About the only negative is that the league lasts for just a month and a half.
If there is no standard minor league season this year, that might change. Even as the days have dwindled away and hope for normalcy faded, players have been told to stay ready. If and when Major League Baseball and the Players Association reach an agreement on a big league season, the AFL (and a Florida equivalent) might not be far behind.
The league is in constant contact with the potential host stadiums (after a hiatus in 2019, Surprise and Scottsdale will be back in the mix in 2020) to inquire about how quickly they could be available, and some version of the Fall League could start within weeks of Opening Day in the big leagues.
A bigger league means more reps for the players, which would help approximate something close to what they would have experienced in a normal minor league season. That’s especially helpful for pitchers, because every inning they pitch this year would narrow the gulf between their 2020 total and what they will throw in 2021, when things, hopefully, will have returned to normal.
A longer league with bigger rosters will be more costly for teams, which have seen the revenue spigot shut off over what would have been the first two-plus months of a normal season. Typically, an AFL player gets $2,250 per month, plus a $750 per month stipend for housing. There are some alterations here and there—occasionally, a team will pay for their players’ housing rather than giving them the stipend—but the usual total adds up to about $6,000 per player during a normal AFL.
For a typical seven-man group, that comes to $84,000 per Fall League (though the season is six weeks, clubs will often pay players for an even two months). If that number is bumped to, say, 40 players over four months, the cost of fielding an AFL club comes to $960,000.
That’s obviously not a big number for a sport that makes billions of dollars each year, but teams have already shown a willingness to make decisions that save them as much as possible.
Before any type of AFL can begin, the league and the players must reach an agreement on a big league season (the AFL can happen without a big league season, but would likely be limited to players not already on 40-man rosters). Then, a decision must be made about the regular minor league season. Playing games in Arizona or Florida during the time where regular season Minor League Baseball games would normally be played could run into Professional Baseball Agreement issues as well.
Once those roadblocks are navigated, there could be a very quick path to a Fall League (or Fall Leagues) unlike any in the sport’s history.
JJ Cooper contributed to this report.