Minor League Baseball – though contracted – makes its triumphant return
By Jake Mintz and Jordan Shusterman
FOX Sports MLB Writers
It was 597 days ago that the Sacramento River Cats defeated the Columbus Clippers in the 2019 Triple-A Championship Game. Since then, a pandemic and some other stuff happened, but not a single game of Minor League Baseball was played.
Well, sports fans, that long wait is over.
After a monthlong delay, Minor League Baseball resumes Tuesday all across the country.
Well, not ALL across the country. During that nearly 600-day hiatus, Major League Baseball used its power and leverage to "streamline" the minor leagues, reducing the number of affiliated teams by 42. Gone forever are the short-season and rookie ball levels.
Some of those axed clubs have survived as summer college teams or independent clubs operating beyond the direct purview of MLB. Some are dust, wind and empty stadiums.
We, as longtime Minor League Baseball lovers, absolutely despise that MLB contracted those 42 teams. That’s 42 towns with less access to affiliated baseball and 42 communities who don’t get to fall in love with the game on a humblingly beautiful July night while watching future big-league stars. The crickets chirp to themselves now.
But the remaining 120 teams have baseball to play, dizzy bats to spin, bizarro promotions to promote and crowds to entertain. And we, as longtime Minor League Baseball lovers (did I already say that? Well, we really like it), are stoked for it all. If you gave us the choice between attending a random MLB game and attending a random MiLB game, we’d choose the latter every time.
Why? If an MLB game is a delicious dinner at a highly rated restaurant, a minor-league game is a hearty, home-cooked meal outside on the back porch. You can sit behind home plate for the price of a Yankee Stadium beer. You can see the game’s future superstars before they make it big. If you get bored or tired, you can just go lounge on a grassy berm down the left-field line. And if you get lucky, you might even run into the Zooperstars.
Minor League Baseball is a wonderfully weird place full of passionate people dedicated to growing the sport and putting on a show. It deserves our love, and it deserves yours, too.
Without further ado, here’s an assorted list of things we’re looking forward to in the 2021 minor-league season.
New shows in town
While we certainly feel for the towns across America that will no longer have easy access to affiliated ball, we are also excited for the communities that have added a minor-league connection to a big-league team.
A big focus of the overall re-org was improving the proximity from MLB teams to their affiliates, particularly at the higher levels. This worked out especially great for three teams: the St. Paul Saints (Twins Triple-A), Sugar Land Skeeters (Astros Triple-A) and Somerset Patriots (Yankees Double-A).
All three of these squads will be playing squarely in the geographic shadows of their big league affiliates, making it easy for local fans to get connected to players in the minors whom they could one day cheer for in the big leagues.
Another result of the re-org was the promotion of sorts for a bunch of teams that were short-season affiliates in leagues that played roughly 80 games a season from the end of June through August instead of the traditional, 140-game MiLB slate. It’s heartbreaking that short-season ball has been eliminated from the minor-league structure, but some of these teams are about to have way more baseball than ever — and access to talent that would never be sent to that level under the short-season structure.
Perhaps the most extreme example is a team such as the Everett Aquasox in the Northwest League, a six-team league that has been upgraded to a full-season, High-A League. Everett’s roster is slated to boast 13 of Seattle’s 30 top prospects, including outfield prospect Julio Rodriguez and the team’s two most recent first-round picks, right-handed pitchers George Kirby and Emerson Hancock.
The average short-season team was lucky to have one or two prospects. This is a whole new experience for Aquasox fans, and they’ve got to be thrilled. – JS
The Big Three
The wacky, off-beat promotions get the headlines (as they should), but the holy trinity of moneymakers for most minor-league franchises are (1) Camp Day, (2) Thirsty Thursday and (3) Friday Night Fireworks.
Camp Days happen maybe once or twice a month during the summer, and they’re exactly what they sound like: hundreds and hundreds of high-pitched elementary school kids packing the ballpark. Those games usually start at 11 a.m. and can be one of the more unique — and certainly youthful — atmospheres in all of baseball.
It depends on the stadium, but most spots will do dollar beer nights on Thirsty Thursdays. Sometimes those deals are restricted to a particular area of the park, usually in a secluded bar down the baseline, but generally, the crowd tends to be more focused on the company and the beverages than the ball on the field. Thursdays can make for some great people-watching in MiLB.
For scouts, Friday Night Fireworks is a chance to skedaddle and beat the traffic. For the rest of us, they can be a truly beautiful experience. For minor-league teams, the promise of bright explosions in the sky on a warm summer night can draw in locals who otherwise couldn’t give two hits about baseball.
Butts in seats, people. Butts in seats. – JM
Prospects playing against prospects on other teams!
Well, duh! That’s what Minor League Baseball is!
Sure, it’s the very basic nature of the entity itself, but wow, it will be so refreshing to have this back in our lives. No more vague rumors coming out from teams about who is looking good at the alternate training site – all of our favorite prospects will be competing against one another and registering actual statistics along the way.
What a concept!
If you’re baseball freaks like us, there can never be enough box scores to comb through, and the return of MiLB provides literally dozens more to scour through on a nightly basis. If you want to follow along closely, we can’t recommend MiLB.tv enough.
Plus, as fun as it will be for us fans to observe, I can promise you the players are just as ecstatic to finally face guys wearing a different jersey than their own. Sure, the minors are primarily about development, but the dudes on the field just want to win and get better, and it’s very difficult to feel that when you’re playing an intrasquad game with the assistant hitting coach playing left field because you don’t have enough guys.
For all the work done at the alternate sites and even in spring training so far this season, there is no simulating the actual ups and downs of a full minor-league season. These next five months of game action will tell us infinitely more about these exciting, young talents than anything over the past 18 months possibly could. – JS
Those prospects have names!
... and speaking of those prospects, there are SO many we can’t wait to see this season.
The big names such as Wander Franco, Jarred Kelenic and MacKenzie Gore certainly come to mind, but for me, I’m most intrigued about the players we’ve spent the past 18 months desperately over-analyzing and building up, despite having little to no professional record on which to judge them. A huge portion of the 2019 draft class has yet to appear in full-season ball, and the 2020 class didn’t have that opportunity at all.
I have so many questions!
How quickly is Adley Rutschman going to remind us that he was one of the greatest draft prospects of all time? Will Hunter Greene throw a baseball 105 mph? Will Garrett Crochet ever pitch in the minors? Will the behind-the-scenes breakouts of guys such as Quinn Priester, Corbin Carroll and Matt Allan prove to be the real deal? Is former No. 1 overall pick Mark Appel going to save the Phillies bullpen? Is Jason Dominguez even a real person?
We’ll know soon enough! – JS
Will life actually be better for minor leaguers?
Part of the league’s justification for drastically reducing the minors was that teams could afford to drastically improve both stadium facilities and the overall standard of life for minor leaguers.
Now, obviously, clubs could have done that anyway. They didn’t need MLB to "Honey, I Shrunk The Minors" in order to pay their employees a living wage. But it will be worth watching this year how the new structure impacts the well-being of minor-league players.
Are the days of five dudes sharing a host family’s small extra bedroom over? Only time will tell, but hopefully, we will see some change. – JM
League names, please
When MLB reworked the whole operation and shuffled all the teams around, one of the outcomes was the dissolution of individual minor leagues that had existed for decades. Those super identifiable monikers such as The California League, The Pacific Coast League and The South Atlantic League are gone. In their place are a super white-bread hierarchy of geographic mumbo-jumbo.
Is this the best we can do? Really? Can we just call the league with all the teams in Florida the Florida State League, like we used to way back in 2019? For some of the new leagues, let’s name them after a regional baseball icon or something else fun. But this? This right now? This is shenanigans. – JM
The New Rules
A smattering of experimental rules are being implemented across the minors this season. Some of them are good (the pick-off rule), some of them are bad (robo-umps), and some of them don’t really move the needle for us (sliiiiiightly bigger bases).
We’ve got no problem with MLB trying out some weird stuff in the minors, as long as it doesn’t completely alter the game-watching experience. Speaking of altering the game-watching experience, you have to check out what the non-affiliated Pioneer League is doing instead of extra innings: Home Run Derby Showdown! – JM
The Daytona Exception
The Daytona Tortugas are an outlier. They're the only team in the Low-A Southeast (ugh, I hated typing that) that doesn’t play at a spring training complex, which means theirs will be the only stadium that relies on #HumanUmps when the Low-A Southeast (ugh!) tests out automated strike zones in the second half. The Tortugas play in an older (though very cool and historic) stadium that doesn’t have some of the more modern amenities and facilities. They aren’t owned by a large multiteam conglomerate like many minor-league clubs. They’re exactly the type of team that could have been on the chopping block.
But somehow, the Tortugas made it through. And baseball is better for it. The tapestry of Minor League Baseball is better when it’s woven with different threads. Fancy, new stadiums and flashy, weird team names are great, but there has to be some variety. The game shines more brightly when some of the stadiums are older and a little rickety and not every gimmick in the ballpark was concocted by a consulting firm.
The Tortugas are the realest, rawest, most organic and authentic part of Minor League Baseball. I wish we had more organizations like them. – JM