In Expected Move, MLB Delays Triple-A Season

On a day when the COVID-19 headlines in the U.S. ranged from very good to very bad, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that Major League Baseball plans to delay the start of the Triple-A season by at least four weeks, and perhaps longer. Though it’s a bummer to at least some degree, the move — which does not affect MLB’s scheduled opening on April 1 — was anticipated within the industry. It addresses significant safety and economic concerns that come with operating the sport amid the ongoing pandemic, in part by reestablishing alternate training sites for each team to draw players from if and when roster moves are made.

The Triple-A season was scheduled to begin on April 6 — that’s for the Triple-A East teams (ugh on the generic league names), with Triple-A West teams starting on April 8 — but with the change, teams at that level are tentatively slated to open on May 4 (East) and May 6 (West), about the same time that Double-A and Single-A classifications open (the delay to their seasons was reported at Baseball America in January). The Triple-A schedule will be shortened from 142 games to 120, the planned length of the lower levels, with the season running until September 19 for East teams and September 21 for West teams.

MLB’s executive vice president of baseball operations Morgan Sword said in a statement, “This is a prudent step to complete the Major League and Minor League seasons as safely as possible, and we look forward to having fans back in ballparks across the country very soon.” The league sent a memo notifying teams of the delay, and many minor league affiliates relayed the message to the public via their social media accounts. For example:

The alternate sites, each located within 100 miles of the associated major league team’s home ballpark, will allow for the easier monitoring of testing and adherence to COVID-19-related health and safety protocols for the players most likely to see time in the majors in 2021. Instead of traveling by commercial airlines as they play out the Triple-A schedule, they’ll be staying in place for a series of intrasquad games in an environment closed off to paying fans, as they did last summer. As Baseball America’s JJ Cooper explained via Twitter, “Pretty much zero chance MLB was going to risk MLB games with an outbreak caused by calling up [a] non vaccinated AAA player who just flew commercial.”

In delaying the start of the Triple-A season — a delay that some executives believe could last longer than the first four weeks, according to ESPN’s report — the hope is that those players will be vaccinated before they are sent out to their minor league affiliates. That hope suddenly appears more realistic with Tuesday’s announcement from President Joe Biden that the country’s production of vaccines has increased enough to project that the supply will cover enough doses for every adult American by the end of May. Aided by last week’s emergency use authorization of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine alongside the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, as well as a White House-brokered agreement between Johnson & Johnson and Merck & Co to accelerate production of the new vaccine, that timeline is two months shorter than the one President Biden projected in mid-February, though distribution bottlenecks and personnel shortages may delay vaccinations beyond May 31. Within MLB and the affiliates over which it now has unilateral control, vaccination of players and other personnel is voluntary but “strongly encourage[d]” under the health and safety protocols agreement that MLB and the players union hammered out last month.

Exactly how many players will be at the alternate sites hasn’t been announced, but ESPN’s sources estimated about two dozen, the equivalent of a Triple-A roster in both size and function. According to Cooper, players at alternate sites will be paid their normal in-season salaries, so players on minor league or split minor league/major league contracts will be paid as if they were in Triple-A. Unclear at this writing is whether there are players who would be on Triple-A rosters but won’t be at alternate sites, and thus won’t be paid for that period before the season actually starts.

Last year, teams’ 60-man player pools included a selection of lower level prospects who otherwise would have gone unsupervised during the summer in addition to losing out on a full season of competition. This year, those prospects will instead report for spring training in late March, after major league teams have vacated their Arizona or Florida facilities. Based upon what Cooper reported in January, the Double-A and Single-A seasons could extend as late as October 3 in an effort to prevent such players from losing even more developmental time and salary.

With vaccine capacity increasing, the upside to MLB’s decision to delay the Triple-A season is that once those teams start play, they’ll be able to host larger crowds, albeit still at reduced capacity, the rules for which will still vary according to local regulations. As Cooper explained last month in a lengthy piece about the realities of minor league economics under the current conditions, minor league operators could lose more money by playing in front of crowds capped at 10% capacity (the current maximum in New York state, for example) than in front of empty houses because of the need to staff the ballparks to accept fans:

The minute fans are allowed in the stadium, game day staffing goes up significantly. There would be a need for concession stand workers, ushers, and customer service workers as well as cleaning crews to make sure the stadium is well cleaned every night (in the midst of a pandemic, a crew with leaf blowers blowing away peanut shells and wrappers post-game is not sufficient).

According to Cooper, operators at different levels of the minors say 20% to 40% capacity is “is where the equation begins to shift,” with the losses either minimized or profitability possible.

In all, while news of a delay to the Triple-A season may be unsettling — and while there’s a whole lot more to be said about the contraction and streamlining of minor league baseball under MLB’s thumb — the latest developments should help both major and minor league baseball proceed with the coming season with greater safety for both players and fans, lowering the chances for COVID-19 outbreaks and increasing the possibility of bringing customers back into ballparks in substantial numbers.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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