There are so many unanswered questions right now, but it appears more and more that Minor League Baseball, at least in its current form, will become a thing of the past if the season is cancelled this year.
Jeff Luhnow and the Astros had been the major influencers of a proposed drastic overhaul of the minors. Time and his suspension appears to have softened some of those changes for now, but it’s a safe bet that MiLB will have a very different look in 2021.
In a paywalled article by Baseball America‘s J.J. Cooper, it appears that there is widespread consensus that a shortened draft is in baseball’s best interests. One front office admin Cooper contacted for the article pointed out that MLB is the only sport that doesn’t have a draft combine, and it appears such an event – where teams can medical, physical, and other assessment results in once place – will eventually take place. This should streamline the scouting process, which will likely lead to a reduction in the number of scouts, unfortunately.
Along with a compacted draft would be a reduced need for 200+ players in a team’s system, so a contracted MiLB appears to be headed toward reality. Some teams feel it’s not necessary to house so many farmhands, many of whom will not be MLBers. In the view of one director of baseball ops:
You only have so many pitching coaches, and only so many analysts. You’re not going to deny the 29-year-old throwing 87 (mph) in Double-A resources. He still wants to get better. So you commit resources to him when you have prospects shagging balls in the outfield.
One scouting director was more blunt, especially in his evaluation of one Short Season League’s value:
From a competitive lens, I think there’s far too many org players going around and I think that shrinking the draft and contracting minor league teams would help with the development of players. You go to a (Rookie-level) Pioneer League game and you’re in a sh– park and there’s one dude to focus on instead of 10 dudes. It’s just not a good environment to watch baseball. It’s not a good environment to scout baseball. It’s not a good developmental context. So I do think that there is some benefit to contraction.
Even though this reduction in the number of teams (42 was the number floated around prior to January) seems to almost universally agreed upon as being largely a cost-saving measure, it still appears to be a foregone conclusion. And that will lead to fewer opportunities, especially for international players, according to one scout:
It’s going to impact the Latin player, in my opinion. It’s going to impact the young high school guy who needs to play. You can look back at the Sammy Sosas of the world and many, many examples of guys who needed a chance to play. They needed an opportunity to fail, figure sh– out. And if you start taking away 40 opportunities, that’s going to shuffle the deck below it and maybe above it, and it’s going to impact, in my opinion, that demographic of player because there will be fewer opportunities for guys to go out there and compete and fail, figure it out and then get a little better and a little better.
Where does this leave the Blue Jays affiliates? No one knows for sure, but it seems like Short Season loops like the Pioneer and Appy Leagues may be a thing of the past. For Latin players, many of whom are behind their US peers in terms of game experience and skill development, that’s a huge disadvantage. As one scout Cooper spoke to said, “not every guy can jump from the Gulf Coast League to the Midwest League.” MLB seems intent on eliminating one level of play, and theirs appears to be the most logical candidate, at least from what has been said and written. Not every team feels this way – one farm director compared having more Short Season teams means “more lottery tickets.” Certainly, without an expanded draft and four teams at that level, the Blue Jays probably don’t have a lottery ticket like Kevin Pillar in their lineup. Yes, the cream will often rise to the top, but sometimes there are players who slip between the cracks, and just need time to develop.
We don’t know what the future holds, but every month that goes by during this crisis without baseball puts the minor league season in greater jeopardy. And if we reach a point where at least the MiLB season is postponed, the version of it that emerges when play does resume will be different from the 2019 model.