What Could Player Development Look Like As Baseball Navigates Coronavirus Pandemic?

Image credit: (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

On the Monday following the draft, Major League Baseball lifted its ban on scouting—though it did limit teams to three scouts per event—which meant amateur departments could begin covering the yearly showcase circuit in advance of the 2021 draft.

And in preparation for what looked like a severely shortened major league season—the negotiations between MLB and the players’ union look like they could result in a season between 60 and 70 games—the league instructed teams to begin selecting sites within 100 miles of their home parks where their taxi squads could train.

Though the number of players wasn’t official, the aims of the taxi squads were to provide a group of reinforcements for the big league team in case of injury or ineffectiveness, and to keep some of their higher-priority prospects in some semblance of game shape.

The taxi squads were also the first hints of in-person player development since the sport shut down on March 12 as a reaction to the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, it’s been the responsibility of the players to stay in game shape without access to team facilities or even local gyms, which had been shut down in most areas because of the pandemic.

Otherwise, MLB had banned all organized workouts at team facilities, and nobody was sure when the ban would be lifted. In the meantime, prospects were missing out on games, at-bats and innings of development.

At some point, though—probably after the negotiations in the major leagues reach their conclusion—things will resume as much as the virus will allow. The question is: What will player development look like in 2020?

“Honestly, I think all of us on the player development side—and I don’t want to speak for all the other minor league PD people—I think we’re just waiting to see what’s going to happen with the MLB season,” one National League farm director said. “Until the major league season is resolved, we’re not going to get any answers on the minor league side as far as what we can or can’t do. This uncertainty about when the major league season will start is causing us a lot of uncertainty on the player-development side as well.

“It just feels like once the MLB season gets resolved—how many games are they going to play?—and then as people start to do the numbers on the books and figure out how much that’s going to cost and how much is left over,” he continued, “then MLB is going to probably start to process, ‘What does (Arizona) Fall League look like? How many games is it? How many teams is it? What should we allow teams to do just for safety reasons?’ ”

Until then, just about all that teams are left to do is check in with players via phone calls and Zoom chats. Obviously, that is no substitute for in-person, on-field instruction or games during a regular minor league season.

“It’s tough. People just don’t want to hear your voice for very long over phones and calls,” the farm director said. “You definitely don’t want to burn the kids out or the staff out, but you try to create content and use it as a way from them to grow their minds and ask them to send video in so you can still stay connected to them and then just talk about questions they might have.

“It’s been tough. We started out doing some educational stuff online, but you could tell that the players just wanted to get out on the field and play baseball.”

Though a regular minor league season seemed very unlikely in the days following the draft, there had been no official announcement that it was going to be canceled.

Rises in cases of coronavirus across the country, plus continued bans on mass gatherings that would allow more than a few hundred fans in a ballpark at any given time, however, made it incredibly difficult to picture any minor league baseball played at affiliates until 2021.

Even without games, teams have been doing what they can to make sure their players are improving as much as possible given the circumstances. And while playing games is a critical element to player development, it’s not the only one.

Until the ban on team activities is lifted, players still have chances to get better while staying safely at home.

“If you go back to maybe three or four years ago, when we basically canceled our instructional league program,” Mariners farm director Andy McKay said, “we replaced it with a high performance-type program based on the body and the mind. And I’ve always believed this: playing games, in terms of development, while it does have value, it is overrated.

“What I mean by that is: There are huge opportunities for growth in this game that are completely possible without the element of playing baseball games. If I had a pitcher, for example, would I rather have him go out and throw 100 innings or would I rather have him show up with a brand-new pitch that he’s created on his own—with our help—and improved stuff, because he had an opportunity to do that without having to worry about getting hitters out?”

McKay stressed that playing games does have huge, obvious benefits—performing under pressure, pitchers learning to read hitters’ swings, hitters and pitchers battling one another to work themselves into advantageous counts—which cannot be replicated without actually stepping into the box or onto the mound.

The scenario we have now, however, makes that virtually impossible. But development doesn’t have to stagnate until the sport and the world returns to normal.

“Would I rather have somebody play every day and learn some lessons from the game, or would I rather have them put on 12 pounds of really good weight?” McKay said. “You have to look at the glass half-full, and there’s a plethora of opportunities that are presented to players right now that they normally wouldn’t have in terms of getting better.

“That’s really your only opportunity for growth, and I feel good that we’ve been able to take advantage of that. I feel good that we’ve kept our guys in that mindset. Rather than sitting around and waiting for the phone to ring to go play, let’s go get to work and get better. Because you don’t have to have games to get better in this sport.”
When teams can play again, the starting point will likely be instructional league. There have been rumors of some teams planning to start their version as soon as Aug. 1, but even that depends on the team-activity ban being lifted.

Once that happens, clubs are likely to enact the contingency plan (and teams have plenty of them) that makes the most sense for their first organized workouts and games since the shutdown, at which point teams had completed roughly a week of minor league spring training.

“There is no plan right now because we have to wait and see what we’re allowed to do,” Royals director of hitting performance and player development Alec Zumwalt said, “but we are going to be as creative as possible and make sure we can make the absolute most out of the time we’re given.

“Pitchers need to get their innings. Hitters need to get their at-bats. Bottom line: we’re going to do everything we can for the minor league players to maximize the amount of time they may have . . . Whenever we’re given the green light, we’re going to do everything we’re capable of doing for our minor league players.”

There also remains the intriguing possibility of a souped-up version of the Arizona Fall League (and a companion league in Florida) that would allow teams to get their high-priority prospects (who are not on big league taxi squads) back into a competitive environment, possibly for a long enough time that it could make up much of the lost spring and summer.

Unlike a normal AFL, each organization would provide a team—or in some cases, teams—of players solely from their system. Everybody needs at-bats and innings, so a typical AFL—in which each club shares a team with five other organizations—wouldn’t make a whole lot of difference.

But a team filled solely with one organization’s prospects could make a bigger impact, especially if teams can rotate pitchers in and out depending on who’s pitched on what day and who needs innings.

That plan, like just about everything else, won’t be finalized until MLB and the MLB Players Association resolve all the questions surrounding their season. And, like everything else, there is a financial element in place that could determine how willing a club is to participate.

“Obviously, the budget’s still going to be an issue,” the NL farm director said. “I think probably some teams will be ready to allocate money and start up camps, but some are probably going to put a limited number depending on the money and the cost. It’s not cheap running camps and development and instructional leagues and stuff of that nature.

“I think once MLB does give us the go-ahead, we’re confident our ownership would give us whatever resources we need to pull off what we think is best,” the farm director continued, “but we just don’t know if that’s going to be August or if that’s going to be January of next year. We just don’t know.”

Even if there is an instructional league and fall leagues in Arizona and Florida, there’s still a possibility some players could get left out of both of those avenues entirely. Another option is winter ball.

The Dominican Winter League is planning an Opening Day on Oct. 30, but there’s no world on what the Venezuelan, Mexican Pacific and Puerto Rican leagues will look like, but given that players of all nationalities have been losing valuable development time during the shutdown, spots on rosters might be much more difficult to come by than usual.

“If those are going on, obviously they’re resources we’re going to look into. But I imagine competition for those roster spots is going to be intense,” the NL farm director said. “I’ve heard rumors that they’re not going to allow as many foreign spots—you have so many natives and then you can only allow so many foreign players into those leagues.

“I’m sure that a lot of the native Dominicans and Puerto Ricans and Venezuelans, for example, they’re going to want to use as many roster spots as they can for their home-country players, which might limit opportunities for non-natives.

“And you’re subject to the teams picking the players, too. It’s not like we can just tell them to go play in the Dominican Winter League,” he continued. “The Dominican Winter League front office has to want the player as well, and competition for those roster spots is intense. If they had their choice between a 32-year-old, Triple-A veteran or a 23-year-old young prospect in A-ball, they’re picking the 32-year-old. They need to win.”

The harsh reality is that with no minor league season and limited spots in potential fall and winter leagues, some players might not get to play at all this year. Even if there is an instructional league, teams are going to have to balance how many players they can safely afford to have at their complex at one time, as well as how much money they’re willing to spend on player development with streams of major league revenue reduced to drips and drops.

While the shutdown harms everyone, it’s especially frustrating for players who have just now gotten healthy and were looking toward 2020 as a chance to reestablish themselves in their organizations.

In his system, McKay points to righthander Sam Carlson, Seattle’s 2017 second-rounder out of high school in Minnesota who has missed the last two seasons due to injury and has just three official innings in his career. After two seasons spent mostly in the trainer’s room, Carlson looked ready to go in 2020.

On the Padres’ side of the Peoria, Ariz., minor league complex, righthander Anderson Espinoza has waited even longer. The centerpiece of the 2016 Drew Pomeranz trade with the Red Sox, Espinoza has missed the last three seasons with injury. He’s pitched just 32.1 innings as a Padres prospect, and holds a spot on the team’s 40-man roster. This season was shaping up to be monumentally important for his future.

Similarly, because players haven’t been in a game since March, ramping back up too quickly might put players at greater risk of injury. The desire to make up as much time as possible is going to be a balancing act between speed and safety.

“The injury concern is very real,” McKay said. “Players are going to come back after an extended layoff and their bodies, while they might have kept themselves in shape, the stress of playing and playing in competitive environments all takes a toll. That’s a concern of mine.”

Player development in 2020 is going to be a complex equation, with so many factors out of a department’s control. What happens in the big leagues, the status of the coronavirus and each team’s financial situation will all play parts.

It’s a difficult question with a simple answer: Nobody knows.

“I just think it’s going to be pieced together, and I think we’re just waiting to see what we can do, both from MLB and from a budgetary standpoint,” the NL farm director said. “And then once that happens, teams are just going to have to react and just do the best they can, to be honest. I don’t think there’s a perfect picture. I think we’re going to try to take an imperfect scenario and make it the best we possibly can.”

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