Which Kinds of Prospects Were Most Affected by the Year Off?

FanGraphs player pages are a wild thing to look at these days. While nearly 1,300 players accrued big league service time in 2020 and generated a stat line, thousands of minor leaguers saw their statistical record go from 2019 straight to a series of 2021 projections. It’s as if 2020 never happened, and wouldn’t that be great? But 2020 did happen, and these players didn’t play. Sure, there were alternate sites (and likely will be again this year) and some limited instructional leagues, but players didn’t have a real season of development or anything anywhere close to it. Every team had a plan and worked hard to mitigate the damage, but the effect on these players in terms of their professional progression is almost certainly negative across the board.

Figuring out just how much the lost year will hurt prospects is a fool’s errand and should be evaluated on a player-by-player basis, and there are plenty of arguments for those most impacted, ranging from 16-year-olds at complexes to players already on the big league 40-man roster. Different types of players needed a season for different reasons. There’s no real conclusion here as to who is the most affected, as the lost 2020 season is uncharted territory, so in an abundance of caution, here are the primary player groupings that teams are most worried about.

Teenagers With Zero Plate Appearances

There are a handful of 2019 draftees who haven’t played yet, but the focus of this group is the 2019 international class. Yankees phenom Jasson Dominguez is the most hyped Latin American signing in recent memory, but he’s suddenly 18 years old and has yet to have a pro at-bat. Instagram videos of him hitting bombs are great and all, but a year of DSL action would give the Yankees much more comfort in terms of bringing him stateside.

That concern doesn’t just apply to well-known members of the class like Dominguez, Rangers slugger Bayron Lora or toolsy Royals outfielder Erick Pena; the same worries are there for players who signed for $100,000, or even $10,000. Dominican complexes can get very crowded, and games are needed to figure out who might get off the island. With restricted overall roster sizes going into effect and a continuing flow of signed players coming in, many will not get the opportunity they had in the past to prove their signing scouts right.

The 2020 Draft Class

The first professional numbers put up by players in their draft year need to be taken with a grain of salt. Teams care about what players look like in their first exposure to professional hitting and pitching, but that’s not really what it’s all about. These players have spent years taking instruction that is often in direct conflict to what their new employers are trying to instill in them, and the sudden shock to the system in terms of lifestyle can be galling. While most are happy never to think about school again, they are suddenly away from home and adjusting to the grind that is baseball life at an affiliate, and that adjustment is what teams frequently value. It gets all of that stuff that isn’t between the lines out of the way so that draft picks can enter their first full season the following year with eyes wide open and no surprises. That won’t be the case this year, and early-season performances will have to be appraised with that in mind.

Pitchers Ready for a Workload Increase

Every team handles workload for young pitchers a little differently. Some do percentage increases (20–30%), while others ramp up by actual innings counts (100, 120, etc.), and there are always player-specific variables adjusting the target, mostly health related. No alternate site provided anywhere close to the innings of a regular season, as they didn’t open until July and were subject to pauses and delays due to the pandemic just like other sports.

A big question teams face this spring is not only how to make up for lost time but also how to ramp up arms, and many are adopting a make-it-up-as-you-go approach to begin the year. It will be something to keep an eye on as the the season goes on, but while a delay to the beginning of minor league camp and thus a shorter regular season would help with innings management, it would hurt in preparing future starters for taking the bump every five days 30-plus times.

Tools Dudes Who Need Reps

For most fans who pay attention to their team’s system, it’s the high-upside types that provide the most excitement. Big tools create high upside, and players with big tools are often raw. The most valuable development tool for players looking to refine their skills is taking in-game reps, and several players got none of those last year. Angels outfielder Jordyn Adams made strides in 2019, but now he’s suddenly 21 years old with just 604 minor league plate appearances under his belt, and the general sense in baseball is that these types of players need up to 1,500 to figure things out, if they ever do. And I can’t help but think about Astros 2019 third-rounder Jordan Brewer, another raw product who is suddenly 23 and has played only 16 games as a professional.

Just how far back did 2020 set these players? Do 1,500 plate appearances become 1,750 or 2,000? Are some of them starting from scratch again, or was the hands-on instruction at the alternate sites enough to keep them moving in the right direction?

Players Who Are Almost Ready

This might be the most frustrating group. A full season of minor league baseball in 2020 would have given teams much more and much better information about their players in terms of not only contributing last year, but also in making roster decisions for the upcoming campaign. While the myriad of roster moves created by COVID-19 last season forced some decisions, would the Angels have acted differently in regards to Jo Adell if he had been able to start the year in Salt Lake? Does Joey Bart’s season look different after 250–300 plate appearances in Triple-A? And what of the potential role players who need work at a new position to enhance their versatility, or potential bullpen arms on the verge of a callup if the command gets more consistent? Alternate sites provided limited and inferior looks and data in that regard, and many of these players are now a year older and a year closer to forcing roster decisions due to service time or option issues, with teams likely not confident in the choices they have to make.

None of this is immediately going away. While we are on pace for a somewhat normal season, many clubs still anticipate an alternate site structure to begin the season to keep their depth safe and close at hand. The issues that create that desire for an alternate site have also left some wondering if the minor league season can really start on time and/or maintain operations once it does.

The 2021 season will be a better one in terms of player development than 2020 was, but it will still be worse than what is gained from a normal year. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to answer questions as to how much worse, and what the real cost to players is, until the storm of COVID-19 passes through.

Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
3 years ago

On the other hand, the Pirates pitcher Quinn Priester took big steps forward in 2020. For him, it was not a lost year. There is something to be said about spending time in the woodshed.