MINORS: Rookie playing time, the draft and player progression in 2020

Photo: MacKenzie Gore (LHP, SDP)

For much of the last week, I haven’t felt like thinking about baseball or anything at all other than our immediate situation dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and how it affects my family, community and country. Even though games may not be played for months, fantasy baseball is a joyful release from the news of the day. Drafting a team, whether it be a redraft 5x5 league, a keeper league or a dynasty league, acts as therapy for most of us. My therapy isn’t drafting, it’s writing about prospects. So here it goes.

MLB announced Monday it wouldn’t start games before May 9. Realistically, it’s an optimistic start date given the growing severity of the pandemic. More than likely, we’re looking at a best-case scenario outcome of starting games sometime in June or even July. And even though MLB believes they can still play a 162-game season, a shortened campaign is more likely. How does this affect the 2020 rookie class? How about draft prospects? And how does this affect prospect progression? Let's dig in.

2020 Rookie Class

I hate to break this to you, but if you took a flyer on Rays prospect Wander Franco, hoping he’d play this season in the big leagues, the chances of him seeing the majors this season is less than nil. For starters, he only received seven spring training ABs. MiLB spring training games were slated to start this week, meaning a guy like Wander Franco received very limited in-game reps. So, if you’re a redraft owner wishing on the Franco star or any prospect receiving minimal AB in spring training, it’s best to cut bait.

The top projected rookie performers, guys like Orioles prospect Austin Hays, Mariners prospect Evan White and Athletics prospect Jesus Luzardo, are still expected to see about the same percentage of playing time once the season gets under way. For those owners carrying a prospect who was expected to start the season in the minors to avoid reaching free agency in six years instead of seven, those prospects will still likely start in the minors, despite a shortened schedule. In a normal season, we wait about 3-to-4 weeks before these players would debut. In a 100-game season, these players would need to be kept in the minors about 2 weeks to avoid free agency in year 6 since service time will be adjusted from the 100-game schedule. White Sox prospect Nick Madrigal is one possible target for service time manipulation once the season gets underway.

The biggest benefactor among rookies to a shortened season are rookie SPs. We are looking at pitchers on innings counts, like the Jesus Luzardo, White Sox prospect Michael Kopech and Padres prospect MacKenzie Gore. While Luzardo and Kopech are at different points in their post-TJS journey, each will from the extra rest and recovery the delayed start to the season will afford them. Gore's stock for 2020 is skyrocketing. According the Baseball America, scouts have been impressed with Gore this spring despite some struggles in a short MLB spring training sample. Having thrown just a 101 innings last season split between High-A and Double-A, the Padres were expected to ramp up Gore to about 140 innings, roughly what they got out of Chris Paddack last season. While Paddack was a bit further along in his develop last season than Gore is now, Gore owners shouldn’t worry about any innings cap once the Padres call Gore up to the show. Simply, in a shortened season, there isn’t enough innings to reach a innings cap.

2020 Draft Prospects

The draft is scheduled to commence on June 10. While teams were able to scout the summer prep showcase circuit, the collegiate summer leagues, college scout days and team-organized prep player workouts, their evaluation of the 2020 baseball season was incomplete. Scouts get a start on the amateurs in mid-January, checking off Junior College and NAIA players first, since most Junior College and NAIA seasons start in late January. Then, scouts move on to the Division 1 schools, who hold scrimmages around February 1 and started their season this year on Valentine’s Day. Depending on what area a scout is assigned, he or she may have never laid eyes on a prep player in game action in 2020, since seasons up North start later than they do in the South. What does this mean for the 2020 draft?

There is enough video out there on most of the Division 1, 2 and 3 college prospects for scouts to go through and make accurate evaluations on. I’ve heard teams were expected to have video access to over 97% of the games played at the Division 1, 2 and 3 levels coming into the season through various video services. Junior College and NAIA players of interest are usually covered by scouts early and will only be revisited if a prospect pops statistically or if their Trackman results suggests a prospect should warrant a second visit. A lot of times, scouts don’t have time to circle back late in the season since other college prospects and prep prospects take priority. More than likely, the scouting of these prospects is unaffected by the shortened scouting season.

Prep players are the subset of draft prospects most affected by the shortening of their seasons. In the Southeast, you’ll see scouts at big high school showcase events in February and early March. By the middle of March through April, scouts are hitting the preps hard during the week, mostly with the top arms going on Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays in region play. This evaluation time was missed because of the shortened season and it especially harms the evaluation of prep pitchers since they were just getting into their regular routine when the season was called. As I said earlier, in some states, scouts couldn’t see any 2020 games because the season never really got started. Expect draft position of prep players, especially pitchers, to be the most affected by the lack of season.

Another element to consider with this year’s draft is eligibility relief for college prospects. Say you are a senior at a Division 1 school and the NCAA decides to grant you another year of college eligibility because your senior season was shortened. Let’s say you are draft eligible and made enough impression to be considered for a higher signing bonus. The extra year of eligibility for the drafted prospect would create leverage for senior prospects, which could cause teams some heartburn since organizations rely on signing college seniors to low signing bonuses in rounds 4 through 10 to manipulate their draft pool money to offer underclassmen or prep prospects higher signing bonuses than slotted in the draft pool. This may also force some prep players, who could be missing out on playing time in college because of granted eligibility waivers, to ask for less to sign with a professional organization.

2020 Player Progression

Are you familiar with short-season baseball? When full season prospect break camp, short-season prospects play extended spring training games until they are joined by draft prospects in mid-June and break camp for Low-A and the Rookie leagues. These leagues are typically 76 games, with the season ending around Labor Day. Triple-A, Double-A, High-A and Single-A prospects, also known as full-season affiliates, typically play between 140-145 games a season with their season also ending around Labor Day. If you cut 60 games off the full-season schedule, their season will look more like a short-season schedule.

With less games available, there is a greater chance for prospects to ride out the season at one affiliate, instead of bumping up to the next level after 60-70 games. This means, a prospect like Wander Franco could remain at Double-A for the entire season, instead of testing the waters in Triple-A and/or the majors as he might have otherwise. A short season may also shorten ETAs of players expected to arrive in 2021, like Reds prospect Jose Garcia. However, the shorted season won’t have much impact on ETAs of prospect 2022 or greater.

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.