Start of Minor League Season At Double-A And Class A To Be Delayed
Major League Baseball sent a memo to minor league teams on Monday informing them that the 2021 minor league season at Double-A and the Class A levels will be delayed.
MLB told minor league teams that spring training for Double-A and Class A players will not begin until MLB and Triple-A players have departed from spring training. The delay will allow for more social distancing during a time when the coronavirus pandemic continues to affect the world.
Even if MLB spring training begins on time, many minor leaguers would not report to spring training until late March or early April.
Because minor league players usually spend three or four weeks at spring training, the delay would push the start of those leagues to May if MLB spring training operates on its regular schedule.
Additionally, the memo told minor league teams to expect their schedules to run until as late as Oct. 3, a full month after regular season games normally end in early September. It is also expected there will be no minor league playoffs in 2021. With a delayed start, those playoff dates will be exchanged for more dates for all teams.
Such a move has long been expected and openly speculated around the minor leagues for weeks, but the memo made the expected news official.
The move might mean that Triple-A teams could be set to play a somewhat normal schedule with an early April start date, but there are several issues that could keep that from happening.
Most notably, Triple-A schedules will depend on whether MLB teams are still operating in strictly controlled, limited-access “bubbles.” While MLB teams travel on charter flights, Triple-A teams travel on commercial flights. If there are concerns about the risk of Covid-19 transmission on those flights, MLB could return to the alternate site model for the early part of the season until the coronavirus vaccines are more widely distributed and outbreaks around the country are diminished.
The news was received by many in the minor leagues as more of a relief than a concern. Teams want their 2021 schedules, but as coronavirus cases continue to spike all around the country, operators at Class A, Double-A and Triple-A told Baseball America they would prefer to start the season later than normal and push the end of the season later as well.
The preferred start dates depend somewhat on local conditions and the restrictions that teams will face because of the coronavirus. Some teams would not be able to play right now because of restrictions on gatherings in their cities and states. The hope is the pandemic will have improved by the start of the season, but there are plenty of unknowns.
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Some operators said they would like to wait until late May or Memorial Day weekend to begin their seasons, figuring the spread of the vaccine and warmer weather would give them a better chance at playing in front of crowds. Others said they would prefer an early May start date, but no one Baseball America spoke with wanted to start on time in early April.
The 120 teams MLB has invited to be part of its new minor league system have not received their Professional Development Licenses yet, either. Once they do, they will have 30 days to decide whether to sign. Schedules will not be released until MLB has everyone in a league’s signed PDLs, which means it’s possible that schedules for 2021 will not be released until February.
Once they get their schedules, teams will have something more concrete to pitch when selling tickets and sponsorships. A later start date gives teams much-needed leeway. Normally, teams have announced the next year’s schedule by August of the preceding year.
Minor league teams also learned that MLB is looking at adopting a six-days on and one-day off schedule for 2021, under which leagues would have a set off-day once a week. Such a move would reduce travel significantly—for Triple-A teams, going from three- and four-day trips to six days could nearly halve airline travel costs. Teams would either host a team for six days or be on the road at one site for six days, then have one off day every week to travel before playing a six-game stint against their next opponent.
This is one issue where everyone seems happy. For players, having one day off a week—even with some travel—is vastly better from a quality of life standpoint as opposed to the one day off a month under the old system. It also will cut their travel.
For operators, this system ensures an equitable spread of weekends between all teams if teams are home one week and on the road the next. It also ensures that teams will have homestands of reasonable length.