MiLB’s Covid-19 protocols are not part of the package of alterations MLB made when they took over control of the minors, but they will have the greatest influence over the day-to-day operations of minor league teams. Ever mindful of how Covid can rip through a clubhouse, MLB has produced a thick manual for teams to follow, with the help of a compliance manager assigned to each team.
With play set to get underway in the new and revamped full season minor leagues tomorrow, here are some of the changes which will have the greatest impact.
For at least the start of 2021, the following are
-yesterday’s starter charting pitches in the stands (they’re encouraged to stay home);
-dugouts full of players and staff (a designated seating area will be used for players not in the lineup);
-players dressing in the clubhouse (they’ve been asked, where possible, to do so at home; same with umpires);
-on-field promotions, or anything that brings fans into close contact with players;
-sunflower seeds and the great expectorations they produce;
-on the road, leaving the hotel without the approval of the compliance officer;
-museum visits (that’s ok with compliance officers; trips to sports bars are not);
-golf, as long as it’s within walking distance, or can be reached by club-approved transportation;
-where possible, individual hotel rooms on the road (no gathering in other player’s rooms for any purpose)
Each MLB team will be allowed to have 245 individuals assigned to their system; this will include players, coaches, specialized staff, but not roving instructors. Each MiLB team will be limited to 46 individuals.
A new schedule,which will see teams play six-game series, will be in place. Mondays will be off days for everyone below AAA. No playoffs are scheduled at this point.
Triple A will use the MLB ball, AA/A will use the minor league ball.
The new and improved minor league alignment looks like this:
-AAA East will incorporate 14 former International League teams, plus six new clubs;
-AAA West will have the 10 former Pacific Coast League teams, including the former independent Sugar Land TX team.
-AA Northeast will have 11 of the 12 former Eastern League franchises, plus former Indy club Somerset, who replaces Trenton. Trenton, of course, will be the home away from home for the Buffalo Bisons to start the season.
-AA Central includes 8 former Texas League and 2 AAA teams (San Antonio and Wichita)
-AA South has 8 of the 10 former Southern League clubs
-A+ East is where MLB’s whole “saving costs by reducing distances” plan takes a stumble. There’s a 900 mile distance between the northernmost team (Hudson Valley, NY), and the southernmost (Rome, GA). The league includes 6 former Low A South Atlantic League teams, 3 from short season NY-Penn, 2 from High A Carolina, and one from the Low A Midwest League.
-A+ Central will be comprised of 12 of the former Midwest League.
-A+ West will be a cozy grouping of 6 former short season Northwest League franchises. As Vancouver Manager Donnie Murphy said in a zoom call last week, “we’re going to get to know each other really well.”
-Low A East will have 7 former Carolina plus 5 once-upon-a-time Sally League teams
-Low A Southeast is the former Florida State League, minus a couple of teams
-Low A West will be the former High A California League, minus Lancaster and their despised (by farm directors) launching pad of a ballpark
Several rule changes will be implemented at various levels as MLB continues to tinker with the game.
AAA – size of bases increased from 15 x 15 to 18 x 18 to see if that will bring the stolen base back into this game of longball
AA – a limit on shifting; four infielders with their feet on the infield dirt; if the first half of the season is deemed a success in this regard, the level may take that a step further by decreeing that two infielders must be on each side of 2nd Base (with their feet on the dirt) in the second half.
High A – in a rule first used in the Indy Atlantic League in 2019, pitchers will have to step off the rubber completely before making a pick off throw. This, again, is in the hopes of bringing back the stolen base.
Low A – pitchers are limited to only two pickoff attempts per runner; a 15 second pitch clock will also be instituted.
Complex Leagues – the Arizona and Gulf Coast rookie leagues appear to be a go in late June at this point, but the Dominican Summer league is very much up in the air.
One of the more positive developments of this takeover is the upgrading of video streams of team’s home games. MLB has dictated new minimum requirements, including at least 3 cameras to cover a game, instant replay, and a score bug/enhanced graphics. By 2022, games must be broadcast in High Def. Many teams have opted to outsource their TV production as a result. When you factor in new minimum field lighting requirements, viewers will have a vastly improved experience. MiLB’s app will also eventually get an incredibly overdue overhaul.
On the other hand, this season does not promise to be a banner one for team broadcasters, who often are the most visible face of a franchise and its brand. They won’t be part of a team’s 46 person allotment, so few will call out of town games in person, unless the franchise is willing to foot the bill for the broadcaster’s travel and (separate) hotel accommodation. Interviews with players will likely have to be conducted virtually, which will likely cut down on the number we see.
2021 will be a challenge for all minor league teams. Attendance will be limited, costs will be greater, and compliance with protocols will always be a factor. Having talked to several sources, it seems that player movement from level to level will not be as active as it has been in the past. On the one hand, because we’ll get to see players whose teams have video on a regular basis; on the other, Vancouver will not be streaming their games – only two NWL teams will be doing so. And there will be only one affiliate streaming Florida State – sorry Low A Southeast – games, so Blue Jays fans won’t get to see much of the younger players in the system.