Limbo is not a comfortable place for athletes to live, but that is where minor league baseball players find themselves as spring to summer fades.
Left-handed Ryan Rolison would likely start the 2020 season as a pitcher for the Hartford Yardgoats, the Rockies’ Double-A partner. First baseman Tyler Nevin hoped to climb the ladder to Triple-A Albuquerque and perhaps crack Colorado’s big league squad.
Now, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the uncertain future of minor league baseball, the two prospects are waiting for news, direction and a chance to play a ball.
“It was definitely an adjustment because we were down this time of year and couldn’t pitch,” Rolison said. “It’s kind of weird.”
He lives in his parents’ house in his native Jackson, Tennessee, plays with his father, catches in the backyard, and trains in his high school gym. All the while, the Rockies’ first round of the University of Mississippi is doing its best in 2018 to stay sober.
“I try to take it every day,” he said. “I’ve been in touch with my agent (Andrew Nacario) to find out what he hears. I’m trying to stay ready. When the time comes to get back on the field, I need to be ready.
“I know. But it’s really about determining what I can control, which keeps my body in the best shape possible and gets my arm moving.”
Negotiations on the long-term future of the minor leagues remain largely on hold until the fate of the 2020 major league season is resolved, but it is almost certain that this year’s minor league season will be canceled. Empty stadiums, TV-only games, and a lucrative post-season TV deal may work for the majors, but those aren’t viable options for the minors. There is not enough money to be made without fans and therefore there is no point in putting teams together and having them travel to cities.
“Many MiLB operators expect their season to be officially canceled after the MLB 2020 season plan has been completed,” said J.J. Cooper, the executive editor of Baseball America, considered the Bible of minor league baseball reporting. “If they can’t play games with fans in the stands, they’ll lose almost all of their earnings. It’s hard to see how those teams can play. Some MLB teams, like the Angels, have already started extending minor league- coaches. Many MiLB teams also have fired or fired employees. “
Minor League baseball faced major changes before the pandemic hit. The National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the governing body, is reportedly willing to agree in September with MLB’s proposal to reduce the number of memberships for the 2021 season from 162 to 120. MLB remains firm in its demand for a better manageable farm system with 120 teams that would get rid of rookie or short season A competitions.
However, Rolison and Nevin have more immediate concerns.
“We want to get back on the field, of course, but everyone’s health is paramount and that should always come first,” said Nevin, who joined the 40-strong Colorado team in November, but during his first practice delayed by a stomach injury big league camp this spring.
Nevin has attended Zoom meetings weekly with other Rockies position players and stays in touch with the club’s coaches, but hasn’t been told what the summer of 2020 could mean for him.
“It’s not that we don’t talk about it, but until decisions are made about the big league team, you really don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “I could drive myself crazy to do that, so I’m not trying to speculate.”
There are multiple reports that when the Major League season kicks off in July, the rosters expand to 50 players, almost twice the normal size. Thirty players would be on the active roster, while 20 would be on a so-called “taxi team”; a group of high-end prospects who can be put on the active roster in case of injuries or ineffectiveness of players. Nevin may be part of the ‘taxi team’.
Lots of details should be worked out, but taxi team players should probably try to stay sharp by practicing and possibly playing in custom intrasquad games.
It is also speculated that, instead of losing a full season of development, minor players would gather at the spring training locations of teams for extended development camps this summer or fall.
Cooper has proposed expanding the traditional Arizona Fall League so that each Major League team has its own club. Currently, the AFL has six teams, with multiple franchises filling each roster. For example, last year the Salt River Rafters were composed of top opportunities from the Rockies, Arizona Diamondbacks, Miami Marlins, Minnesota Twins and Tampa Bay Rays.
Zach Wilson, the farm director of the Rockies, said he couldn’t comment on how the Rockies would develop their players if there wasn’t a minor league season.
“I’m not ready to talk about things like this yet, because far too much is still unknown,” said Wilson. “Until things get clearer, I don’t want to speculate.”
Rolison is approaching an important step in his career. He dominated in low-A Asheville last season, earning only one earned run in 14 ⅔ innings. He was promoted to High-A Lancaster after three starts. Although he had some problems in Lancaster – 4.87 ERA and 22 homeruns in 116 innings – he made progress in a spot considered a hitters’ paradise.
A season at Double-A Hartford would be a big test for the left-handed.
“When I heard about all the prospects in Double-A, it could have been a big step in my career,” he said. “Start well there, who knows what could have happened? I was hoping to show everyone that I was ready for the next level. I was excited to go to Double-A and compete against those good hitters. ”
Now there is a chance that he will not participate at all, although he hopes to be included in the Rockies’ plans as part of their taxi team.
“I questioned my agent about this in these unprecedented times,” Rolison said. “When I look at it and have an idea of where I am within the organization, I feel I have the opportunity to join (the taxi team).”
If that doesn’t happen, and if there aren’t any minor league games, Rolison believes the Rockies will come up with a plan to face competition.
“If it turns out that there is no season, then at some point we will have to be in a situation where pitchers are fighting hitters,” he said. “You can’t take a full year off. You cannot have a wasted year of development. I think they will come up with something. “