PEORIA, Ariz. — The long-term effects of Major League Baseball assuming governance over Minor League Baseball this past offseason are starting to add up.
The latest example comes months after the culling of 40 minor-league franchises in a restructuring that was as much about saving money, if not more, than player health and development.
On Tuesday, ESPN, citing multiple league sources, reported that Major League Baseball is going to announce a plan that will delay the start of the Triple-A season by one month.
Originally, the two new restructured leagues at baseball’s highest minor-league level were going to start their seasons on April 6 and April 8. This was an important development for MLB teams because they wanted to have their typical cache of players participating in real games on a daily basis.
Instead, MLB plans to revert to using what have now become the three most depressing words in baseball — alternate training sites.
From the story: “Even then, some executives told ESPN they believe the alternate site could last longer into the season. The reason for rekindling sites — which serve as training facilities for players who are likeliest to be called up to the major leagues — is the proximity to teams’ home stadiums and easier oversight of testing and coronavirus protocols, according to sources. Further, AAA teams travel via commercial airline, whereas major league teams can go from hotel to stadium to private flights on getaway days.”
According to a minor-league source, Triple-A teams, including the Tacoma Rainiers, were unaware of such a plan being developed or agreed upon to implement it. The ESPN story was their first notification of the possibility. MLB had not communicated any concerns.
The Rainiers later tweeted saying their season would now start on May 6 and to check back for further updates.
All 120 remaining minor-league teams had announced their 2021 schedules in mid-February. The Rainiers were in the process of working with Pierce County and other local health agencies on a plan to eventually bring a limited number of fans to games at Cheney Stadium. Now, they have other concerns.
Perhaps no player despises the concept of the alternate training site more than Jarred Kelenic, the Mariners’ prized outfield prospect. He spent all last summer in that purgatory. And according to former Mariners CEO Kevin Mather’s infamous Zoom call, there was no chance for Kelenic to escape regardless of his performance or the circumstances surrounding the big league team.
Given Mather’s revelations on that situation and the direct mention of service time, there was expected fallout beyond his own resignation. Kelenic’s agent, Brodie Scoffield, told USA Today that the Mariners’ long-term contract extension offer made in January 2020 came with the quid pro quo of making the MLB team if he signed it. The Mariners rebuffed that claim, saying that Kelenic was only guaranteed a spot on the 40-man roster, which comes with any MLB contract.
Even before the news of this delay to the Triple-A season, the Mariners were facing intense scrutiny in how they would handle Kelenic this spring and what they would do with him as the MLB season approaches. If he plays reasonably well and doesn’t make the opening-day roster, there will almost certainly be claims of service time manipulation and a possible grievance filed by the MLB Players Association.
But since last season, when they faced backlash for not putting Kelenic on the 2020 opening-day roster, the Mariners pointed to his lack of experience at the Double-A level — 21 games, 92 plate appearances — and the need for more development with games against a higher level of competition. It would have been the expressed reason for starting him out at Tacoma for at least the month of April instead of the opening day roster.
Now, they can’t claim development or preparation as their reasoning for not putting Kelenic on the opening-day roster. The alternate training site offers minimal in the way of either.
It would be a fair and an expected argument to say that Kelenic would be better off going to the big leagues, prepared or not, to play in real games to further his development than have it remained stalled at the alternate site. If he were to start the season at the alternate training site, it might only delay his debut until after the Triple-A season resumes.
Much of this could be determined by how Kelenic performs this spring. He went 0 for 2 with a strikeout Tuesday vs. Cleveland while playing four innings. If he plays anywhere near above average, the Mariners might have to consider keeping him on the opening-day roster, regardless if it means they may lose him a year early in free agency. At some point, they can’t keep waiting for development to come from a situation that doesn’t offer any.
This delay shouldn’t come as a surprise given the situation.
MLB owners and commissioner Rob Manfred lobbied to delay the start of spring training and the start of the 2021 regular season by one month, claiming it would allow for more vaccinations, possibly field staff and players, and reduce the number of cases in Arizona and Florida. But that proposal wasn’t agreed upon in negotiations with the MLB Players Association.
With unilateral control over the minor-league franchises, Manfred and the owners can impose the delay on the Triple-A teams without pushback or consequences. The Double-A and Class A seasons were already delayed by a month to the first week in May to allow players to report to spring training after the MLB and Triple-A seasons started.
The improved rates of vaccination and the recent approval of the vaccine from Johnson & Johnson has offered some hope that all players and staff might be vaccinated by the end of May.
The reported plan would allow Triple-A franchises to make up for the lost games in April by extending the season into September. Traditionally, the minor-league seasons are done by Sept. 1.
As for the makeup of the alternate sites, there have been no details on player limits. Most teams had their projected Triple-A rosters report to MLB spring training to prepare for the April 6 start date. Last season, MLB limited teams to 60 players total for eligibility for the active roster or alternate training sites.
With a five-man taxi squad staying with the team on road trips and increased roster size early in the season, it meant there were roughly 25 players at the alternate training site. It didn’t allow for teams to play intrasquad games on a daily basis. Instead, they played three- and four-inning games three times a week at most with coaches filling in at some positions.
While it was better than nothing, most players admitted it did little for their development or preparedness other than provide volume and something more than working out on their own.
Teams were allowed to invite 75 players to MLB camp this season, but it’s unlikely MLB will allow teams to take 40-plus players to the alternate training sites. Most teams won’t want do that based on either costs or logistics.