What Does 2021 Have in Store? Pt 2

Parsing through the proposals for minor league's future

Perhaps my subject line for Monday’s post was ill-chosen, as we all sit patiently waiting to learn the answer to this same question in a very non-baseball way. But while we wait for greater clarity on that other subject, if you’re in need of a diversion, today I’ll continue Monday’s topic and see if we can take the scattered shards of information coming out regarding MLB’s plans for the minors and construct them into some recognizable whole. In Monday’s post, we looked at a potential plan for 2021 which would handcuff AAA players to the MLB schedule, giving major league teams a needed level of depth with which to operate, while lower levels of minor leaguers would attempt a delayed, staggered start (albeit with degraded health and safety protocols in place).

Today let’s look at some of the proposals that MLB is making to minor league owners that address MLB’s stated goals of improving the playing and living environments for their minor league players. Once again, Baseball America is the paper of record on this topic and they’ve posted two recent stories: one on MLB’s proposals for facilities upgrades and one on MLB’s proposals for travel conditions and game start times.

There’s lots to dive into here but starting from the 60,000 foot level, each and every one of these proposals does two things:

  1. they legitimately and significantly improve the life of minor leaguer players and staff

  2. they make it harder for minor league owners to avoid losing money

From the very beginning of the new PBA negotiations MLB has repeated insistently that their goals are: expanding, enhancing and modernizing minor league facilities; shortening and improving the long, arduous, travel schedule of minor leaguers; accommodating the increasing size and makeup of minor league staffs and the technology they use. The two articles above address all of these objectives pretty comprehensively.

Among the facilities demands we see:

  • expanded locker rooms for both home and away teams

  • modern weight lifting facilities for both teams

  • separate dedicated areas for meal preparation and dining

  • indoor/covered batting cages and pitching tunnels with WiFi connection

  • expanded coaching areas including accommodations for all genders

  • expanded dugout (again accommodating increased staff size)

  • improved field lighting

And in the travel demands we find:

  • two buses for all road trips including sleeper bus for any trip >250 miles

  • air travel or sleeper bus and off day for any trip >350 miles

  • air travel for any trip >550 miles

And, finally, in the game time demands (which are obviously connected to the above travel conditions) we see:

  • no games starting before 12:00 noon

  • last game of a series must start by 4 pm unless both teams have an off day following

  • MLB will set number of games for season for each level — possibly reducing some levels from the standard 140 game season to as low as 120 games

Ok, what to make of all this? Well let’s start by repeating a fundamental truth — each and every one of these proposals would bring a significant quality of life improvement for the players and coaching staffs. It’s pretty easy (and often justified) to bash MLB’s strong-arming, efficiency-seeking tactics, but these proposals address a lot of issues that minor leaguers and their families have complained about for years: lack of decent nutrition, lack of quality fitness facilities, lack of covered cages or pitching mounds to get work in when it’s raining. Players HATE 10:00 am start times and overnight bus trips on buses that have no place to stretch out and require sleeping with an arm rest jammed into your ribs. There’s nothing in here that doesn’t legitimately improve the quality of life for players.

Equally, the proposals focus on areas that will bring modern development techniques to minor league stadium life. The kind of technology we’ve frequently discussed here — blast jackets, rapsodo readings, biomechanical readouts, pitch design — all demand a technological infrastructure that very few minor league stadiums possess. Giants GM Scott Harris told The Athletic yesterday regarding the organization’s prospect development: “I’m really excited about some of the projects we’re working on under the hood.” He wasn’t inclined to share details on what those projects were, but we can presume that what ever is “under the hood” involves a high level of technological resources.

For organizations like the Giants to put information into players hands that can help them improve — as we saw on the big league club this year — they need that technological infrastructure in place everywhere the minor leaguers play and they need the space to get staff in there to work with the players and give them the power of information.

They also need to be able to do a better job of powering their bodies, which is why modern weight lifting and fitness facilities for both home and away clubs is essential (though minor league owners wryly note that major league teams don’t hold their own facilities to this same “home and away” standard). As for the importance of nutrition and sound sleep on growing bodies — I think the benefits of these long neglected areas is obvious and needs little amplification.

And once those players leave behind their locker-rooms, there may be nothing so important to helping them develop their game as improved condition of field lighting. You’ll recall that one of the major issues in Toronto’s efforts to secure a home field this summer was that Buffalo’s field lighting wasn’t up to major league standards. It met AAA standards which are far inferior to the big leagues. A ball facilities are equally far inferior to AAA. When the Augusta Greenjackets moved into their new park they moved from a horrible hitting environment into a slightly fairer one and the major factor in the improvement was improved lighting on the field. Makes it easier to hit when you can see a little bit!

So everything’s good here? Let’s just adopt every point and get to scheduling! Well, not so fast. Because there’s not one single bullet point above that doesn’t take the razor-thin profit margin within which minor league owners live and slice a thick piece off the top. Facilities upgrades and expansions are costly. The PBA hasn’t made a significant change to facilities standards since 1990 and that’s the line most current stadiums adhere too — indeed, there are still some that are grandfathered in at even those standards. For almost 30 years, old Sam Lynn Ballpark in Bakersfield had to receive an exception waiver from Minor League Baseball because it didn’t meet 1990 standards. And in case you haven’t noticed, we’re not living in 1990 any more.

Ironically, one thing J.J. Cooper reports having heard from minor league owners is that this situation is most problematic for clubs with newer facilities. Teams with old stadiums might be able to bundle together one big upgrade and try to get some local help (although most localities have been crushed by COVID and don’t have revenue to share). But teams with relatively new facilities are having trouble just staying on top of their current debt load and don’t have any margin to take new debt on for major construction. A big story in the Augusta’s local news this summer, for instance, has been the Greenjackets falling into arrears on their payments owed to the county on their new stadium.

It keeps coming back to the same point of reference — minor league owners are hurting and every single point on the list above costs them more money that they don’t have, either in terms of added expenses (A ball teams can’t afford air travel and even buses can be an extra $2,500-$10,000 per night) or reduced revenues. The 12 pm start time proposal, for instance, eliminates the possibility of the very popular Education Day start times which bring in bus loads of school children to the games. Because those kids need to be back in their classrooms in the early afternoon (typically they leave around the 7th inning), a 12 pm start would eliminate this particular marketing opportunity. Packaged with that you have the “no later than 4 pm start time” proposal on getaway days, which would force teams to hold games before the end of a normal working day. That 12-4 pm range is a virtual kill zone for attendance — you couldn’t design a start time intended to reduce the gate and do a more effective job of it. Cooper has reported that multiple minor league owners have wondered aloud whether they can opt out of being one of the “lucky 120” because they just can’t afford the buy-in stakes for that particular poker table.

Of course, all of these facilities upgrades wouldn’t be demanded at once. Apparently MLB is proposing some sort of Scale of Egregiousness, where you get a check mark for every upgrade needed and a timeline for coming into compliance. Still, there will be owners who look at the cost estimates for these changes and say “No Thanks.” The conspiratorially-minded might be forgiven for wondering if this is all a plot for MLB owners to pick up distressed assets on the cheap and turn them into a new source of revenue.

I don’t necessarily believe that, but it’s possible that there are MLB executives looking at the overall situation who believe that in order to get to the level of upgrade that modern development requires, increased MLB investment will be necessary. Minor league owners, many of them families or small business owners, live in a “nickel and dime” sort of world and perhaps the economies of scale that MLB can bring to bear on the situation really is needed to move the whole minor league world into the 21st century. It’s also true that MLB has said all along that they can help minor league owners see greater profits — though it’s hard to see how that’s possible when making them spend more and then taking away their gate potential. There’s a reason why we keep hearing that the list of 120 surviving minor league teams could end up being far less than that — even as low as 90. Would major league teams really be willing to cut down to just three affiliates above the rookie complex level?

The crux of the issue will be finding ways to get these lifestyle improvements implemented within a sustainable economic model for minor league owners. When this story first broke more than a year ago, I made the point that if you were designing a development system from scratch, you probably wouldn’t come up with anything resembling the modern minor league system. Major League Baseball’s proposals suggest they are engaged upon something very like trying to create a new development system. And the lingering question has become: is there a business model that will support and sustain the system they’re designing?

MLB seems to believe they can make it all work. Minor league owners are much more skeptical. Perhaps, MLB doesn’t really care and is looking to socialize the benefits and privatize the costs (onto other parties than themselves).

Finally there’s still the lingering questions of who exactly is going to play where, against whom and for whom. And on this question, I need a dump-truck full of salt before I drop the following link. I know John Calvagno and he says the author of the following piece is a reliable source, but all of this sounds to me like a mish-mash of old proposals that may or may not still be in play, as opposed to legitimate current intelligence. Still, as John says this is one of the few pieces I’ve seen that takes a real stab at naming names when it comes to future alignment so I’ll include it.

For the life of me I can’t see the logic of making the California League a (potentially shortened) low A league and promoting the Northwest league to A+. The spring weather is obviously far superior in Central and Southern California and some of the best Northwest League facilities are shared with local universities which have first right of use (Eugene most notably).

That question of what the old Northwest League is going to become is probably the one that figures to impact the Giants most. It does feel likely that the California League (probably with the addition of Fresno) is going to end up being an A ball league of some stripe for the West Coast franchises and some reduced version of the Pacific Coast League will remain as AAA affiliates for those same franchises. That figures to keep Sacramento and San Jose in the fold for the Giants. But what is going to become of their other A ball level? I suspect the Giants would prefer to keep Augusta but if MLB wants to create an eight-team A ball league out of the NWL, the Giants might be forced to be a part of it. How such a league would function with the travel requirements above is an open question — Salem-Keizer is more than 350 miles from several of its NWL rivals and even exceeds the 550 mile barrier in one case (Vancouver, though there is a rumor they could join the PCL in this new configuration).

As for AA, it’s always felt likely to me that Richmond would remain in the Giants’ organization. There’s no obvious way to create a new AA league west of the Rockies and many Texas League franchises are currently co-owned by major league teams, which makes that grouping of teams less flexible. While MLB is encouraging greater regional ties for affiliates, the only two major league teams close to Richmond already have nearby AA affiliates. Bowie is just a 30 minute drive from Camden Yards and the Nats’ AA affiliates in Harrisburg are only about 10 miles further away than The Diamond in Richmond — and at many times of day the drive from Harrisburg to DC is much easier to make than the slog up I-95 from Richmond.

It might be that my hopes of getting to watch the Giants’ AA kids is distorting my perception, but from here the most likely 2021 lineup for the Giants seems to be Sacramento, Richmond, San Jose, Salem. With any luck and some advances on the medical front, perhaps we see Heliot Ramos, Joey Bart, and Sean Hjelle suiting up in Sacramento in April, with the rest of the kids spreading across Richmond, San Jose and Salem in time for a Memorial Day Opening. The way 2020 has gone, we’ll take that and call it a win! And if all of the above improvements start being put in place, maybe we come out of all of this with an organization ready to take advantage of the developmental improvements that Farhan Zaidi and Scott Harris envision. Maybe the short-term pain will lead to long-term gain, at least for those who are still around and part of the minor league ecosphere.

JJ Cooper recently guesstimated that we may hear something more conclusive on this topic the week of November 16, so hopefully the suspense won’t last too much longer. For this story at least. Can’t promise anything on the other one.


More From Instrux

Jim Callis of MLB dropped his Instructional League wrap up on the Giants yesterday:

Among the nuggets Kyle Haines gives Callis in the piece:

  • On Seth Corry: "Seth is doing a great job of working on the mental game and he's able to regroup a lot better. He's doing a really good job of commanding his pitches well.” This captures something the Giants have often talked about with Corry (but prospect watchers seldom do): that emotional maturity plays a big part of his development. As it does with everyone! Learning how to fail is one of the biggest separators in the game between guys who make it and guys who don’t.

  • On Patrick Bailey: "We might look back and think that Patrick's personal development accelerated because of this [year.]" Reading between the lines I’d guess Bailey is looking at a debut in A+ with the potential for a rapid move up to AA in 2021?

  • On Luis Toribio: "I think there's a lot more raw power than he's shown…He's a good left-handed hitter with huge walk rates who will hit for power and plays third base. There's a lot to like there." Does that sound like an ideal Zaidi player or what? I can’t imagine the Giants dropping a quote on a hitting prospect in years past that highlighted the player’s walk rates.

  • On Will Wilson: "He's just so steady in all areas of the game. He consistently gives you something good every game."

  • On Luis Matos: "The big thing Luis is working on is his angles on defense. He's a good runner. A lot of times, young players just rely on their speed in center field, so he's working on his jumps, reads and angles. At the plate, it's just don't screw him up." Yeah, Giants, don’t screw him up!

Camp is breaking up on Saturday but the Giants are reportedly preparing several more video highlights to drop on twitter. Meanwhile, proud big brother Braden Bishop gave us this highlight of Hunter roping a 119 mph triple.

As the domestic Instructional League breaks up, the Giants might be planning a similar exercise in their Dominican camp. The Giants do have a Instagram feed specifically for their DSL kids so I’ll be monitoring that to see if we get any video from that camp. It should include all of the DSL kids who did not come to Scottsdale as well as the newest signees (potentially even the ones whose signings aren’t official yet)? It’s an open question whether younger Dominican or other Latino players who are part of the Scottsdale camp will travel back down to the Felipe Alou complex for a second camp — guys like Adrian Sugastey, Esmerlin Vinicio, Manuel Mercedes, etc. Unfortunately, a couple of the Giants biggest recent investments probably continue to be locked out of these development opportunities because they can’t leave their homes in Venezuela. That group would appear to include the two big shortstop signings of 2019: Aeverson Arteaga and Anthony Rodriguez. It’s a tough hit keeping those two kids away from instruction for this long.

Lastly, a little housekeeping. My current plan is to keep on my three-times weekly production schedule through November 20. I’m going to take a two-week break the week of Thanksgiving and the following week, picking up the publication schedule on December 7. I’ll likely take another break at the Christmas and New Year’s holidays and then pick up in 2021 and go through spring training camp and hopefully into a regular season. If all goes well I’ll start moving most of my posts into subscriber only phase once we get into spring training.

For now though, I’m going to start rolling out my Top 50 prospects rankings for the system between now and Thanksgiving. First up is the just-missed group and then I’ll take the Top 50, ten at a time. See you in the lists!

Stay well and sane everybody!


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