McCosky: When MLB returns, what fate awaits Tigers' minor league players?

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit – It is expected, as first reported by ESPN, that a return-to-play proposal will be sent from Major League Baseball to the players’ association as early as next week, outlining a plan to begin a second spring training by the middle of June with the hopes of a season commencing in early July.

Clearly, though, this proposal is beholden to the dissipation and containment of the coronavirus and the approval of medical experts. So, in other words, this is mostly an exercise in preparedness and hope – both good things.

Tarik Skubal

The proposal lays out a plan for teams to hold spring camps at their home ballparks. It suggests rosters could be expanded to as many as 50 players and calls for an 80- to 100-game season with no fans.

What it doesn’t cover, though, is a contingency for minor league baseball. There is no plan yet to cancel a minor league season at any level. But, unlike the big leagues, MiLB clubs aren’t supported by revenue from television contracts. It relies on ticket and concessions sales for revenue.

For the most part, playing a season without fans would not be feasible. So what happens to the thousands of players from rookie ball, through Low-A, High-A, Double-A and Triple-A?

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“You have to be prepared for everything and you have to talk about everything,” said David Littlefield, the Tigers' vice president of player development. “We’ve had a variety of video calls with (general manager) Al Avila and the staff.

“We are going to be prepared for the what-ifs.”

Littlefield, per MLB’s instructions, didn’t want to go into specific scenarios whereby players might continue their development if there is no minor league baseball in 2020.

“Look, it’s not brain surgery, OK?” he said. “The simple part is, we are going to be guided and given direction as to what we can and cannot do – whether it’s medically or how MLB determines how we can go about our business.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen from the major leagues to the minor leagues. Obviously, there’s speculation. But we are going to be prepared for a major league season, a minor league season, fall leagues and winter ball – we’re not going to be the ones determining that, but we’re going to be ready to do everything within our parameters.”

How, though, might this all work for players in the Tigers' system if there is no minor-league season? Let’s do our own bit of speculating, shall we?

If teams can expand to 50-man rosters, that would essentially create a taxi squad that you could envision looking a lot like a Triple-A team. For the Tigers, it would almost certainly include their top pitching prospects – Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal and Alex Faedo – as well as position prospects like third baseman Isaac Paredes, shortstop Willi Castro and center fielder Daz Cameron.

Those players, though eligible to be called up to the big-league team presumably without restriction, would still need to play competitively somewhere, somehow.

One option would be to use the spring training facilities in Florida. The Grapefruit League could be used to facilitate a taxi squad league. The Cactus League set up in Arizona could also be used for teams that train there.

This would be a far less expensive method and require less travel than using the taxi squads as a sort of junior varsity league and have them travel to the same cities and play a similar schedule as the big-league club.

The Grapefruit League could be used to facilitate a taxi squad league. For the Tigers' minor league players, that would mean a return to Lakeland.

But what about players at the lower levels? The Tigers have infused their system with a sizable crop of high draft picks and international players in recent years – Riley Greene, Parker Meadows, Kody Clemens, Adinso Reyes, Roberto Campos and others. For those players to lose a full year of development would be damaging.

“Obviously, we are anxious to get our high-end starting pitchers to the big leagues and start to show that the plan is working,” Littlefield said. “And we’ve invested a lot of money in recent drafts and we would like to have them out there and advancing.

“You would really hate to see them miss a full season of baseball.”

Again, the spring training facilities will likely be teeming with players. All through a normal minor league spring training, players are divided up (generally by the level they are projected to start the season at) and games are played in Lakeland, Bradenton, Sarasota, Tampa, Clearwater and Dunedin.

Each complex has multiple fields and a stadium. 

Instructional leagues are set up the same way in the fall. There is a structure in place, with umpires. It could be modified to accommodate some form of developmental baseball competition.

More: Tigers' Jordan Zimmermann sees 2020 as a crossroad, not end of the road

Also, Littlefield mentioned fall and winter ball. Presently, there is only one fall league – the Arizona Fall League – which is set up primarily for elite prospects, Double-A and up. But in years past, there was a fall ball league in Maryland which was mostly for Class A-level players. And there was a fall league in Hawaii at one time.

Fall baseball leagues could again be set up around the country. 

You could envision, in the possible absence of a typical five-month minor league season, players competing in Florida or Arizona in July and August, and-or some combination of fall-winter ball through October or November. 

But alas, this is just one sportswriter pondering scenarios out loud. None of it is founded in actual organizational discussions or been formulated into any kind of working plan.

None of it is ideal and all of it is at the mercy of the insidious and stubborn virus.

Still, as with the league's return-to-play proposal, there's nothing wrong with a little preparedness and hope. 

Twitter @cmccosky