Image credit: Julio Rodriguez (Photo by Tracy Profitt/Four Seam Images)
Planning for anything that’s three months away has to come with the understanding that it might never happen, or that it could look much different than originally planned.
But with teams looking for ways to get their prospects into competitive games with no minor league season, there is one option that could make a significant impact on prospect development.
The Dominican League announced its season will start on Nov. 15, with the regular season running through Dec. 19, followed by playoffs that could run until Jan. 15, 2021. According to sources with teams in the league and with major league clubs, more young Dominican prospects are expected to participate in the winter league than usual.
In a typical season, the six-team league does have young prospects. But major league clubs are often reluctant to let their best prospects participate or get much playing time after they just completed a 140-game minor league season and possibly instructional league as well. That’s especially true for pitching prospects to manage their workload and injury risk.
The rosters often center around older players and fringe big leaguers—Junior Lake, Jordany Valdespin, Cesar Puello, Juan Francisco. Teams also rely on imported players. Peter O’Brien led the league in home runs last year, while David Kubiak ranked first in strikeouts.
This season will be different. Due to COVID-19, there are likely to be fewer foreign players on rosters. That would open the door for more roster spaces and playing time for young Dominican prospects. And the usual concern that major league clubs have about managing workloads for their prospects is now flipped. With no minor league season and an alternate site that has significant limitations, teams are more open and eager to let their prospects participate, both hitters and pitchers.
Take Mariners 19-year-old outfielder Julio Rodriguez. He’s the No. 8 prospect in baseball and reached high Class A Modesto last year, the type of talent who could be ready to play in Seattle in 2021. Yet Rodriguez has been hurt not just by the loss of a minor league season but also with a broken wrist that has kept him out of action at the alternate site.
Rodriguez is the perfect candidate to benefit from playing a full season of winter ball in the Dominican Republic. The Rays could do the same with 19-year-old shortstop Wander Franco, who played just six games in the league last year, and is the No. 1 prospect in baseball who could be in the big leagues in 2021.
It’s a path that paid off for the Padres and Fernando Tatis Jr. He spent his age-19 year in 2018 with Double-A San Antonio, where he played 88 games interrupted by a broken thumb in July that ended his minor league season. That winter in the Dominican League, Tatis Jr. hit .263/.379/.488 in 23 regular season games, then played another 23 postseason games to lead the Estrellas to a championship. He was in San Diego’s Opening Day lineup the next year and emerged as a franchise cornerstone as a 20-year-old.
Rays second baseman Vidal Brujan, Mets shortstop Ronny Mauricio, Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz and D-backs shortstop Geraldo Perdomo are all Top 100 prospects who would benefit from playing in the league this winter. So would many other prospects lower down the rankings who could have more opportunities to play than they would in a typical year.
For 40-man roster players, it would get a bit more complicated, since it would require union approval. The league also canceled its annual draft, where teams typically select the Dominican players who made their full-season minor league debuts that year. So players such as Yankees outfielder Jasson Dominguez, Giants shortstop Marco Luciano, Mariners shortstop Noelvi Marte or Blue Jays shortstop Orelvis Martinez would not be eligible to play.
Three months is a long time for things to change. Major league clubs will want to see the protocols the league has in place to try to keep players safe. But it’s one door that’s open for prospects to continue their development in games in 2020.