Given the unusual circumstances of living with and without certain things — like the minor-league baseball — during a global pandemic, and the uncertainty of times ahead due to the unpredictable nature of COVID-19, Andy McKay unintentionally summed up the fractured and incomplete 2020 season, including what was gained or lost, as he talked with measured hope about the 2021 season.
“I think most of us are confident that there will be something that is, I guess, better than what we had this year,” said McKay, the Mariners director of player development. “I think all of us would be surprised if it is normal as it was in 2019, probably somewhere in between.”
The Mariners recently wrapped up the Arizona Instructional League/High Performance Camp session a few days earlier than expected when two people at their spring training facility in Peoria, Arizona, tested positive for COVID-19.
“We had a bit of a scare, but it’s been handled and been dealt with,” McKay said.
The 40 players invited to participate in the workouts and games in Arizona are now done with that responsibility and head into their regular offseason, with the U.S.-based players already home, and players at the team’s Dominican Republic camp already there or en route.
Now that the instructional league is over, the earlier regulations and restrictions based on social distancing protocols and preventing further spread of COVID-19 for team’s facilities go into effect, meaning that only players on the 40-man roster or players rehabbing injuries can use the facility on a daily basis.
“My guess is you’re going to see the facility possibly open up to a larger group of players in January, but that’ll all be driven by MLB protocols,” he said. “And right now we don’t have those in place. My guess is that MLB is not going to do a lot, until there’s a little bit of clarity created kind of from the second wave we’re in right now, in terms of how bad this actually gets and what it looks like.”
Players will scatter to various parts of the country to rest and then resume their offseason work in hopes of having a 2021 season.
McKay must plan for a 2021 season that’s far from a guarantee. He has yet to hear of a plan or protocols in place to make it work.
“I think it’s completely up in the air,” he said. “My guess is that there’s quite a bit of conversation and that there are plans in place. I’m not aware of them. And I know internally with the Mariners, we’re working off the assumption that we will play. And we’ll obviously adjust.”
If there is a 2021 minor-league season, the Mariners will work with a reduced number of affiliates based on the plan by MLB and commissioner Rob Manfred to reduce the number of minor-league baseball teams. MLB is currently in negotiations with Minor League Baseball (MiLB) about a plan moving forward.
MLB sources have said that the Mariners would likely lose their team in West Virginia with the Low-A South Atlantic League not being affiliated with MiLB. Under the reported plan, the Northwest League, which had been a short-season summer league, would become a full-season league. The Mariners’ affiliate in Everett would then be the fourth team in their system, along with High-A Modesto, Double-A Arkansas and Triple-A Tacoma.
McKay wasn’t certain when this would be finalized.
“I know that there’s been teams that have released information,” he said. “I don’t know why. I don’t know where they’re getting that information from, because we certainly don’t have it. It’s a difficult thing for everybody involved — the affiliates, us, Major League Baseball as a whole, but I really don’t have any information as to when that will be announced officially and what it’ll end up looking like across the industry.”
Because of the canceled minor-league season and the financial issues surrounding COVID-19, the Mariners opted to not renew the contracts of Tacoma manager Daren Brown, Arkansas manager Dave Berg and Modesto manager Denny Hocking, along with a handful of other player development staff. McKay’s in the process of finalizing a player development staff based on the expected reduction of minor-league teams.
“I think we’re close, we just have some contingencies still going on,” he said. “ … But for the most part, everything is set, and there was a lot of I would say more just realigning than there was new hirings.”
While they have not participated in the instructional league the past few seasons, opting for their high performance camp instead, the Mariners savored the chance this time. The Mariners invited their six draft picks from the 2020 draft, but only right-handed pitcher Connor Phillips played in games. The other picks, including first-round pick Emerson Hancock, did the high performance camp, working on strength training and other aspects, not playing in games.
“I’m not sure one was necessarily better or worse,” McKay said of the alternate training site vs. the instructional league. “ … For example, Noelvi Marte’s experience in Peoria was much more beneficial for him to be playing more age-appropriate competition rather than taking him straight out of Dominican Republic and getting live at-bats against Marco Gonzales at T-Mobile, which I think was a bit of a mismatch.”
The Mariners’ proactive use of their own minicamp near Elon University in North Carolina was highly beneficial. Ten pitching prospects, including Phillips, Sam Carlson, Adam Macko and Levi Stoudt, worked out for two months with minor-league pitching coach Sean McGrath. Those 10 pitchers came to the instructional league ready to pitch in games like they were fresh out of spring training.
The organization is developing plans unique to each pitcher with a general cautiousness toward keeping them healthy in mind.
“As you saw across the industry this year, injuries were everywhere,” McKay said. “And my guess is that year two, meaning next year, is going to be just as bad. … We feel pretty safe that lack of pitching in one year doesn’t exactly equate to injury if they pitch a lot the next year.”
As part of the trade that sent closer Edwin Diaz and second baseman Robinson Cano to the Mets in exchange for a package of five players that featured prospects Jarred Kelenic and Justin Dunn, the Mariners also sent $20 million in cash — spread out over five seasons — to New York as salary relief for Cano’s contract. Seattle paid $5 million to the Mets in 2019 with $3.75 million owed from 2021-2024.
With the news of Cano being suspended for the 2021 season due to a second positive test for performance-enhancing drugs, there was some question as to whether Seattle wouldn’t have to pay the $3.75 million since he is forfeiting his 2021 salary.
Per Mariners sources, Seattle will still likely have to pay the money owed because the frame of trade was a cash sum that wasn’t specific to Cano’s yearly earnings. Though the organization is expected to inquire if there is a loophole to avoid paying the money, sources indicate the Mariners expect to pay the $3.75 million to New York.