Just about every baseball fan knows the scene in “Major League” when Jake Taylor explains that if a player has been red tagged in their locker during spring training they have just “died and went to the minors”.
While the Major League reassignment phase in spring training is not nearly the same as the minor league release process – and the movie’s version of how players are informed of being sent to the minors is not exactly how it is done at all – the release process in the minors is a simple process that is tough for all parties involved.
Over the course of a year, a Major League team will release close to 50 or more players from their organization. This includes players from the big league team all the way down to rookie level, though it does not even include the tons of releases that occur in Latin American for players in a club’s Dominican academy that never even come stateside.
Last year, the Indians released 45 players and the year before they released a whopping 58 players. All of these were players that at one time that season or the year before played stateside from rookie level Arizona to the big league team in Cleveland.
With over 200 players in the organization, and rosters limited to 25 players at the full season levels for Cleveland, Triple-A Columbus, Double-A Akron, High-A Carolina, and Low-A Lake County, the organization is limited to just 125 spots to assign players at the five highest levels of the organization. The roster sizes for short season Single-A Mahoning Valley (30) and rookie level Arizona (35) are a little larger, but it still only allows them a total of 190 spots throughout the organization to assign some 230 or so players when you include those on the big league roster.
Each year the Indians acquire close to 25-30 players in the MLB Draft in June, and they also sign another 15-20 players on the international front. With all of these new players coming in every year, there is no place to put and develop them unless space is created in the system. This is where the unfortunate reality of the release process in the minors comes into play.
“It really is just a limited number of spots and having to make those difficult decisions,” Indians Assistant Director of Player Development Carter Hawkins said. “There are always a multitude of reasons behind [the releases], but they are never easy.”
Hawkins sits in on every release discussion that he and Vice President of Player Development Ross Atkins have with released players during spring training. On Saturday, the Indians released nine players, and another dozen or so releases are expected before camp breaks this Saturday.
The release process is tough for everyone involved, and is the hardest part of spring training. Released players have to deal with the tough reality that their dream very well could be over, and sometimes it comes as a complete shock to them. The player development staff has to be the bearer of bad news, which is something that can wear on them.
Close to 90% of all minor league players will likely be released at some point in their career.
As far as the process itself goes, there are all kinds of different ways a player is notified that they are released. No one simply grabs the player and sends them to the director’s office, but often times a players’ laundry is held that morning and they are told to go visit with Atkins and Hawkins. At this point the player knows what is coming.
“We have a meeting in Ross’s office,” Hawkins explained. “We just want to be respectful for the work the player has put in. Almost every person that we release has put in a lot of sacrifice into their career, and it is a difficult time for them. It is also a difficult time for us, so we try to be as respectful as possible.”
Atkins and Hawkins will discuss the outlook of the rosters up and down the system with their coordinators. A lot of this is planned before spring training, but they also continue to discuss and make or adjust some decisions over the course of spring training as well.
“Those decisions are made over careers,” Hawkins said. “Unfortunately we only have so many spots, and we have to make those tough decisions. It is the real part of the game.”
Once a player is released, and had his meeting with Atkins and Hawkins, the Indians send out a mass communication to other teams and people connected to Major League Baseball. The communication informs people that the player has been released but that they have a desire to continue playing and includes contact information to get in touch with the player.
The player than packs up their belongings, says good-bye to a few friends, and then departs the complex for the hotel to pack up and board a plane later that day. The team provides the player transportation to the hotel and airport if they don’t have it, and they provide airfare back home. After that, the player is on their own and what they do from there is up to them. From then on, the connection with the Indians is pretty much severed for good.
“We provide them travel home and wish them the best,” Hawkins said. “We obviously don’t have the manpower to stay in contact with those guys throughout, but if there is ever a time when someone needs something we are right there and that does happen a lot.”
Most players that are released from the minor leagues do not latch on with another affiliated team right away. In fact, if a player is released from the lower levels they very rarely get back into affiliated ball. There are a few exceptions, such as Yankees lefty Vidal Nuno who was cut in spring training by the Indians two years ago, but they are very rare.
A great majority of players try to continue their careers by latching on with an independent ball team, but many are unable to do so and others simply retire and get on with their non-baseball lives. But whether or not a player gets back into affiliated ball or not, the Indians never tell a kid that he can’t play and are open to helping them latch on somewhere else.
“We never tell a kid that he can’t play, it is just that we have to make a difficult decision and it is just not going to be with us at that time,” Hawkins said. “There is story after story of guys that have been released and made it to the big leagues or continued to have great professional careers. I think that is the message we want to send to these guys is that we will do whatever we can to get them on a team and continue their career. Just because they are no longer on our roster does not mean they are not part of the Indians family.”
The minor league release process is no doubt one of the toughest and most cruel aspects of the game of baseball, oftentimes leaving a player and their family wondering why they were cut and why someone else was not.
It is yet another example of how hard the game of baseball can be. And how hard it is to get to the top and become a Major Leaguer.