The announcement wasn’t unexpected — logic and reality of the situation made the eventual outcome seem inevitable.
Despite premature or erroneous reports, there had been no official communication or disclosure from Major League Baseball that the minor-league season was going to be canceled before Tuesday’s official announcement made by Minor League Baseball. Although few people were surprised, it brought finality.
Given the continued spread of coronavirus, the increased wave of people testing positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks and the extensive and costly safety requirements to operate the shortened 60-game MLB season, there was no way minor-league teams could operate under similar conditions. It was logistically impossible.
“Internally, we knew that this was a real, I would even say, probability,” said Andy McKay, the Mariners’ director of player development. “Once you realized what it was going to take to play Major League Baseball in terms of no fans, and the medical protocols that none of us could have ever imagined, you just knew right away there’s no way we can replicate this through the minor leagues.”
Minor-league players operate in a more confined situation than MLB, whether it’s smaller stadiums and clubhouses, living situations and traveling mostly on a bus (Class AAA fly commercially).
The required social distancing would be difficult to impossible. And the amount of testing and support staff needed wasn’t plausible from a personnel or a financial standpoint. When the MLB operations manual was released and the safety protocols were outlined a week ago, the last remaining speck of hope of having a traditional minor-league season dissipated.
“Personally, at that point, I felt like, well, we’re probably not going to play minor-league baseball, if we can’t protect the players in the same way we’re protecting the major-league players,” McKay said. “I think for most of us, this was kind of a foregone conclusion for quite a while now that there was just no feasible way to safely play minor-league baseball, and even economically play it without fans.”
Indeed, the safety requirements would take a vast financial commitment that minor-league affiliates could never handle without fan attendance. Most minor-league teams are heavily reliant on game attendance and the concessions and merchandise purchased during games to generate their revenue. There are no massive TV contracts for other revenue.
“Until there would be some dramatic changes in the structure, it’s impossible to play minor-league baseball without fans,” McKay said. “Those affiliates can’t survive. In minor-league baseball, it’s a tricky business and every market is different. You have some minor-league markets that know their entire season is dependent upon six or seven Saturday night home games with fireworks where they’ll pack the place. Their entire business model is based on those handful of events.
“It’s a tough time for everybody. It’s kind of heartbreaking, but also very understandable. It is the right thing to do to not be playing right now.”
So without a season, what’s next for minor-league players in the system?
Well, continue what they’ve been doing since baseball was shut down in mid-March: working out on their own.
“I wouldn’t say, it’s like, ‘What’s next?’ because it’s kind of like what we have been doing,” McKay said. “That’s what will continue. We have a very built-out structure, where our players and coaches are all connected and communicating through phone calls, group calls and zoom calls. We check in on them constantly. We know who’s doing what, where they’re doing it and who they’re doing it with. Overall, our players are doing a great job of continuing to work within the environment that they’re allowed to.”
General manager Jerry Dipoto recently mentioned the possibility of some regional meet-ups with minor-league players and coaches or coordinators in player development, with players working out for a handful of days while practicing safety protocols.
“We are hopeful that we’re going to be able to do something as we get into the fall months, but as you know, this is something that is evolving in different ways, every day,” Dipoto said last week. “So we don’t have answers to that. We have started looking at the potential for small regional gatherings, where we have a small group of players that move to a location to work with a specific positional coach for a period of time, and that’s it.”
It would be like a minicamp for players without having to fly to the team’s complex in Arizona.
“Maybe a situation where if they’re in the southeast, they could join forces with a coach who lives in the southeast and we can effectively house them in a hotel space and work out in an open area in the effort to give them some sensitive coaching reps. We’re not going to be able to replicate minor-league innings and at-bats. And, we’re not entirely sure that type of group gathering en masse has the kind of safety we’re looking for.”
If that isn’t possible, then it’s virtual coaching and workouts on their own.
“The mass of the minor-league pool players are going to continue to operate virtually,” Dipoto said. “We’ve gotten a lot done as far as player education and engagement. The guys have been great about how diligent they’ve been in the weight room, throwing their bullpens and going through swing maintenance, but we’re not going to have the ability to have a pitcher see 400 hitters this year. We’re not going to have the ability for a position player to get 500 plate appearances. That’s just not possible, so we’re going to do the best we can.”
There has been discussion about an extended spring training league or instructional league at the spring training sites with a more wide-ranging Arizona Fall League. But that isn’t an option now due to the spike in positive tests in Arizona and Florida.
Many of the Mariners’ top prospects were invited to be a part of the 60-man list to attend the restart of spring training, now being called “Summer Camp” by MLB and be on the team’s taxi squad for the season. Seattle felt it was important for their continued development.
“At the same time, we have guys in our system that will play in the big leagues that aren’t going to be involved in this process,” McKay said. “We have to be aware of that as well. This isn’t a top-60 camp by any means. We identified players that for all different reasons we thought we could get the most out of in this. But as an organization, we understand that the players who aren’t here, we have to continue to try to help them as much as we can, because there are absolutely players who will play in the big leagues that are not in this group of 60.”