The lack of a big league season in 2020 probably hurts the Mariners less than some other teams. Seattle doesn’t currently have any aging stars approaching free agency, and they’re not spending big on the prime years of any current players.
But the Mariners have a sizable problem of their own on their hands. No big league season means no minor league season, and thus, the loss of precious development time for their lauded farm system. Hell, even if there is an abbreviated big league season, it seems every day that goes by, the likelihood of a minor league season happening grows less and less plausible.
Major League Baseball has tossed around the idea of playing every big league game this year at spring training sites. While this is an alternative for big league teams, albeit a flawed one, there’s only so many ballfields teams can play on. At last count there were 14 usable fields that Major League Baseball could employ as game sites. With 30 teams and the sweltering Arizona heat, that solution might not work, and even if it did, that would leave no fields for the minor leaguers to play on.
Even is MLB was able to find suitable fields for minor leaguers to play their games at, they’d be playing in front of empty stands. Minor league baseball lives and dies on gate revenue. Owners haven’t shown much inclination to sponsor baseball without the promise of revenue coming through the door, and without a players union representing prospects, they’re largely the casualty in all of this.
It’s pretty simple — owners aren’t simply going to pay for the unmeasurable promise of development time on dusty backfields. At this point, it remains to be seen whether organizations will even continue paying minor leaguers past May. Whether they decide to or not will say a lot about how they’re valued in the grand scheme of things during this crisis.
The quarantining of big leaguers in Arizona (and possibly Florida) is already a pretty controversial idea. Taking upwards of 1500 people and quarantining them from their families is a tough pill to swallow. Emotion totally aside, it’s a logistical nightmare in terms of lodging, transportation and oversight. Minor leaguers would only exacerbate the problem...
Major League Baseball would have to find room for an additional 3000+ people if minor leaguers were to join their organizations for workouts and training time — and that’s if only Triple-A, Double-A and High-A were included. This is assuming guys expected to report to Everett and West Virginia would be left to their own devices at home for all of 2020.
The cost and security for an operation of this magnitude just doesn’t make sense. In all likelihood, minor leaguer baseball just won’t be a thing in 2020.
That being said, teams like Seattle desperately need the time and resources this summer to develop their farm systems. So the question begs: If Major League Baseball takes place in 2020, do the Mariners immediately call-up guys like Logan Gilbert and Jarred Kelenic? Sure, they’d probably be playing in big league games before they’re ready, but if it’s the only option to keep them engaged in live baseball in 2020, is it worth it? One might argue leaving them out of competitive baseball for 17 months is a bigger detriment to their growth than pitting them against big league competition too soon.
It’s a very tough question Jerry Dipoto and his player development staff are going to have to answer.
There’s one more aspect to this work stoppage that might affect minor leaguers as well. Once drafted minor leaguers are required to play four minor league seasons (five for high school draftees) before being Rule 5 eligible. While unverified, there have been zero indications publicly that will change this season and for the future.
Guys like Sam Delaplane, Juan Then and Wyatt Mills will all be Rule 5 eligible in December this year. So what does Seattle do? Whether there’s minor league baseball or not, the Mariners will be forced to add Delaplane and Then to their 40-man rosters this winter to protect them. That, coupled with the idea of Seattle adding guys like Kelenic and Gilbert to their 40-man roster this season, could mean a few 40-man casualties the organization wasn’t planning for. It’s tough on the front office, but far tougher on fringe 40-man guys that may never get their shot; the Yohan Ramirez’s, Sam Haggerty’s and Nestor Cortes’ of the world.
The trickle down ramifications in the baseball industry of this global crisis will be felt for several years after we’ve all recovered from this. Whether it’s an abbreviated draft, minor leaguers not being able to play or get paid, or accelerated Rule 5 eligibility, the affects of this crisis will be far-reaching. The Mariners may have it easier than most teams in 2020, but they’ll be reeling from it in 2021 and beyond, possibly more than some other teams. It’s a delicate exercise the front office will have to navigate, one that may very well decide the success of the rebuild at-hand.