Many species of shark, most commonly lemon sharks, give birth in shallow, nutrient-rich mangroves teeming with small sea life that can easily sustain their offspring while also insulating them from the predators typically found in deeper, open waters. Most young sharks spend years feasting in these hazy, sandy green mangroves until they’ve grown, then head out to sea. Some leave the safety of the roots and reeds early and enter the blue black depths at greater risk of a grisly fate. Many of them won’t make it. The ones that do will likely become the strongest of all the adult sharks.
Now that teams have announced their 60-player pools for the upcoming season, we can see how they’ve balanced rostering players who can help them compete this season with prospects for whom they’d like to ensure playing time, while avoiding prospects whose service time clocks they don’t want to risk winding. Below, I have analysis of the prospects in the player pools for the AL East clubs. I’ll be covering every division in the coming days, with some divisions requiring their own piece and others combined where appropriate.
Two of our site tools go hand-in-hand with this piece. The first is The Board, which is where you’ll want to go for scouting reports on all of these players (click the little clipboard), as this piece focuses on pathways to playing time and potential roles and strategic deployment rather than on scouting. Perhaps the more relevant visual aid are Jason Martinez’s RosterResource pages, which outline the player pools that have been dictated by all 30 teams in a depth chart format, and also include columns that indicate where the prospects in the pools rank within each club’s farm system.
A couple roster mechanics to keep in mind as you read: Teams are allowed a 60-player pool. They don’t have to roster 60 guys from the start; not doing so allows them to scoop up released or DFA’d players without cutting someone. Within those 60 players still exists the usual 40-man roster rules from which teams will field an active roster of 30 players, a number that will shrink to the usual 26 as the season moves along. Big league clubs are allowed a three-man taxi squad that can travel with the team but isn’t part of the active roster; that squad must include a catcher (this is clearly to mitigate the risk of some injury/COVID/travel-related catastrophe). Players not invited to big league camp, or who aren’t on the active roster (40-man players and beyond) when the season begins, will train at an alternate location, typically a nearby minor league affiliate. Lastly, only players in the 60-man pool (including prospects) may be traded during the season.
The Orioles are one of the teams that rival scouts, analysts, and executives think will assume a rigid tank/rebuild posture almost immediately. The club is in an even earlier stage of their rebuild than other, obviously uncompetitive clubs, and Baltimore is still showcasing and assessing what they have in younger, mid-20s big leaguers like Chance Sisco, Rio Ruiz, Pedro Severino, and Renato Núñez. As such, their player pool only has five “prospects” (as in, players who have rookie eligibility) and all of them are at least 25 years old. Of these, Austin Hays has the most exciting physical ability and a shot to be a good everyday player, while the rest — Hunter Harvey, Cody Carroll, (gap), Travis Lakins, and Dillon Tate — are middle relief prospects.
Baltimore’s initial announcement only included 44 of their possible 60-player allotment. It does not include Ryan Mountcastle (who is on the 40-man), Ryan McKenna, or Ramón Urías, nor several other potential long-term pieces. Jon Meoli outlines some reasons why in this Baltimore Sun article. The gist is that the Orioles are aiming to minimize the risk of some weird sequence of events occurring that would force them to expose a real prospect to the waiver wire (or crush their leverage in trade talks) or to the big leagues before they’re ready. Baltimore is incentivized to delay the start of their prospects’ service time clocks until the team is ready to compete, which at this stage means for as long as possible.
If Adley Rutschman or DL Hall look incredible at the offsite training facility and yet inferior veterans are promoted when big league injuries occur, it’s bad for optics and potentially for the team/player relationship. Not having Rutschman or Hall around yet avoids this possibility, though it might create animus of its own and is further evidence that the game’s current structure of compensation needs reform so situations like this are avoided. It also means the vets the club wants to promote will be more “game ready” than the prospects for several weeks after the youngsters finally report, since those players will need time to tune up.
Having fewer players in camp also hopefully reduces the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak and enables the Orioles plenty of player pool room to scoop up upgrades on the waiver wire, especially since their major league situation gives those sorts of players a more realistic path to big league playing time.
Boston Red Sox
Another club with relatively few prospects in its pool, Boston’s sole rookie-eligible player is Rule 5 pick Jonathan Arauz, who projects to play a bench role and occasionally spell Michael Chavis at second base if he sticks on the roster. Third baseman/first baseman Bobby Dalbec is the best of the prospects likely to start the year at the alternative site camp, and if anything happens to either Rafael Devers or Mitch Moreland, Dalbec is the most likely candidate to replace them, leapfrogging the light-hitting utility types currently projected to be on the active roster’s bench. Recent minor league signee Yairo Muñoz, who left St. Louis on bad terms, is the dark horse to get hot in camp and threaten Dalbec’s primacy.
C.J. Chatham is less likely to make an impact this year since he’s competing with a bunch of other defense/versatility types for playing time. Instead, even though he doesn’t have to be on the 40-man until this winter, I think the newly-acquired Connor Wong is likelier to play a 2020 role since he can catch and play the infield, a skillset that might be especially handy once roster sizes shrink later in the season. Boston currently has 47 players in their pool.
New York Yankees
Contrast that with New York’s 58-player pool, which is so heavy on pitching that the Yankees may only have one full lineup of position players working out at their Triple-A facility near Scranton. And pity those position players because the pitching prospects likely to be in Scranton include about a half dozen guys who throw in the upper-90s (Luis Gil, Luis Medina, Alexander Vizcaino, Albert Abreu, Brooks Kriske, Nick Nelson).
Which of those many exciting pitching prospects debut for the Yankees this year could depend on who gets hurt, unfortunately falls sick, or underperforms, and which Scranton intrasquader is scheduled to pitch on the injured pitcher’s day to throw. Keep in mind the team could move a big league reliever with starting experience, like Jonathan Loaisiga or Luis Cessa, into the rotation rather than promote a starter from the campsite. Of New York’s prospects, there are some who clearly throw enough strikes to start should they need to (Deivi Garcia, Michael King, Miguel Yajure) and some who are bullpen-only guys, at least for now (basically all of the hard-throwers I just listed).
Then we have Estevan Florial, the lone player with real ceiling/variance in an offsite group that consists mostly of polished, upper-level depth. You know all about Florial’s physical ability and have just been waiting for him to stay healthy and stop striking out so much. If he does that, via an improvement in approach or a swing change, there will be virtually no way of knowing it because scouts won’t be permitted at the training sites to see it happening, and there won’t be minor league games generating stats that would point to a change or improvement having occurred or offer evidentiary support for it. Perhaps more than ever, teams will know more about their own players than their potential trading partners do.
Tampa Bay Rays
Wander Franco, the top prospect in baseball, turned 19 in March and is on the Rays’ player pool roster. For basically his whole life, he’s faced pitching that is older and more experienced than he is, and at every step he has performed superlatively. After facing Hi-A pitching the second half of last year, Franco will be up against Double- and Triple-A arms in camp this season. If the Rays are contending and it quickly becomes obvious that Franco is one of their best 10 hitters because of how he looks against those arms, he may be promoted. There are a few teenage debutantes every year, and this is the most talented teenager on the planet, so why shouldn’t one be him?
The Rays pool is already maxed out at 60. Of those, 18 players are on the team’s prospect list, most of them likely to be part of the position player contingent at Tampa’s training site. Perhaps no other team is as adept at platooning and playing matchups as Tampa Bay, and I think who they lose at the big league level due to injury will inform who comes up from the campsite. I think the expanded rosters and pitching staffs in the early part of the season will make that strategy less punishing since opponents will have the pitching ammunition to better deal with it, and starters won’t be facing a lineup tailored to crush them for five innings at a shot.
Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays are the team whose roster behavior might shift dramatically if they have a particularly strong first week or two of the season. If their core of young hitters appears to be actualizing as a group, and they can artificially patch their pitching-related holes because of the expanded early-season roster, then they could find themselvs in a position where they’re compelled to promote some of their big, young arms, specifically Nate Pearson, to upgrade their staff and compete within their division.
All but one of Toronto’s projected starting rotation arms is well into his 30s, and most of the near-future pitching staff is already on the 40-man (Anthony Kay, Thomas Hatch, T.J. Zeuch, Sean Reid-Foley, Elvis Luciano, Patrick Murphy, Julian Merryweather) and likely will play a lot this year. But the real big fish (Simeon Woods Richardson, Pearson, and Alek Manoah) will take the right situation and an uncommon act of competitive will to see most of the season. Much of the next good Blue Jays team is on this 60-man roster, though.
I worry the leap will be too big for Jordan Groshans, who has only played 23 games above rookie ball.
Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.