Monday, April 8, 2013

How the Minor Leagues Work

Bowen Field
Home of the Bluefield (Appy)
Blue Jays

   If you’re a hard-core fan, move along, there’s nothing to see here….you should know this.
  If you’re not, here’s a primer on how baseball’s minor leagues work.

  Perhaps no other sport has a development system that is so extensive as baseball's.  One could argue that football, at least the European version, with its series of leagues and promotions is, but that system is not an amalgamated collection of affiliated clubs – it more resembles minor league baseball in the first half of the last century (more on that one in a future post). 
   Baseball’s system of development is a pyramid in shape, with the majority of players in the lowest reaches of the system.  A major league team typically has between 5 and 7 farm clubs, often with several teams on the lower rungs of the ladder, and one at each of the top two levels.  A player right out of high school (or an international free agent, most of whom are signed between the ages of 16 – 18) will typically take 4 to 5 years to make it to the major leagues, whereas a college graduate may only require half  that time.  Most of the lowest levels, of course, are stocked with players who will never progress to the next level.  Teams draft and sign many players who they know will likely not advance, but are needed to fill out rosters.  These players are know as “org” (short for organization) guys.
   The minors are separated into 4 main levels, with a couple of sub-levels in the lowest league.  AAA is the top of the heap, followed by AA and A, and rookie ball.
   Rookie ball is mostly comprised of high school grads and international free agents, with the odd low college draft choice completing the roster. After spring training ends, these players will be kept at the clubs’ minor league complex, where they will take part in drills and practice games – this is referred to as extended spring training. Depending on the location of the minor league complex, teams are entered in the (Florida) Gulf Coast or Arizona Leagues.  This level is  known as short-season league, with a 60 game schedule which begins in late June, and finishes on Labour Day . A number of teams have also opened complexes for top Caribbean prospects in the Dominican Republic (including the Jays).  There is an advanced rookie ball level above this, with teams playing a 72 game schedule.  The Appalachian League (based in West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia), Pioneer League (most teams in and  around where the boundaries of Utah, Idaho, and Montana meet) are the leagues which make up this level. Rookies who have advanced quickly, plus lower-round drafted college seniors play in these leagues.  Most teams have a team in at least one of those the levels.  The Blue Jays will field both a Gulf Coast team and an Appalachian League team in Bluefield, West Virginia
   The next step up is the more advanced short season leagues, which play a similar schedule.. These leagues are stocked with higher round draft choices, players who played in the complex leagues the season before, or players who received an in-season promotion from that lower level.  The Northwest League (teams based in the Pacific Northwest),  and the New York-Penn League make up this level. One of my favourite baseball books is Roger Kahn’s Good Enough to Dream, which chronicles the famed author’s travails as an owner for a season in the early 80s in the NY-Penn league. The Jays’ affiliate at this level is Vancouver of the Northwest League, who have won two consecutive league titles.

   The next rung on the development ladder are the full-season leagues.  Prospects in these leagues get a chance to experience the day-to-day grind and travel that more closely approximates the major leagues. Starting with Class A ball, there are low level and high level leagues.  The Midwest and South Atlantic League make up the former, and the Carolina, Florida State and California Leagues making up the latter.  Most major league clubs have a team at each of the two levels.  Jays prospects play for Lansing, Michigan, of the Midwest League, and the Dunedin Blue Jays of the FSL.
  AA ball is the next stop.  Many teams will group their top prospects at this level, to get them used to one day playing together for the parent club. It’s not unusual for a player to make the jump to the majors from AA. There is no distinction between the AA leagues, which include the Eastern League, Southern League, and Texas League.  The Blue Jays are rumoured to be interested in re-locating their AA team to Ottawa, but for now they are housed at New Hampshire of the EL.

   AAA is one step away from the minors.  Many parent teams use this level more for keeping injury replacements on hand than they do for development, but sometimes players who appear major-league ready but have not had success there make return trips to AAA to further hone their skills. AAA players tend to be older (the median age of this year’s IL is just over 27), and many have had some major league experience.  The International and Pacific Coast Leagues make up this level.  After several years of basing their AAA team in the hitter friendly confines of Cashman Field at Las Vegas of the PCL, where the ball tends to travel further in the thinner mountain air (and the Blue Jays were very hesitant to promote a pitcher there, as a result) , the Jays’ AAA affiliate is now just down the QEW at Buffalo of the IL. This is a much better situation for injury call-ups, who can be in Toronto in an hour and a half, instead of half a day.
   Players in do not necessarily move in lock step from one level to the other.  It depends more on their rate of development.  Some need to repeat at least a half a season with their previous club before moving on.  Pitchers who come to the minors directly from high school tend to be placed on strict pitch counts, so it can take several seasons at Class A before they advance.  Once a high profile prospect shows signs of being ready, they can easily skip a level.  It’s not unusual for a player to be in High A ball, and then in the majors a year and a half later if their development takes off.

   When a player is signed, if he does not advance high enough to be placed on the major league 40-man roster by the end of their fourth year of minor league service (5 years if they were younger than 19 on the June 5 immediately before they signed), he is either eligible for the Rule 5 draft (which is a huge gamble for most clubs – such players cost $50 000, and must be kept on the 25-man major league roster for the whole season – of offer him back to the club they drafted him from for half that price), or may become a minor league free agent.

   Once a player is placed on the 40-man roster, the team has options on him for three seasons.  This means that the major league club can either keep him on the major league roster, or send him back to the minors without having to expose the player to waivers for three seasons.  After those three years, the team is out of options on that player, and he is eligible to be chosen by any other major league team through the waiver process.  From time to time, clubs like the Jays risk losing players like Adam Lind, who is struggling at the big league level and could use some time to get themselves back together in the minors, but has long since run out of options.  All other teams were scared off by Lind’s salary, and he was able to be sent to the minors.
   And development doesn’t necessarily end when the regular season ends.  The top prospects (usually AA or High A players) are invited to play in the Arizona Fall League, which runs from early October to late November.  Other prospects are invited to attend Instructional League camps, which usually last from late September to mid October.  Players who are converting from position player to pitching (or the opposite) are often invited as well, and so are top international prospects who signed after July 2nd, in order to get a taste to the different culture and language.  Arizona Fall League prospects benefit from playing at a high level of competition, while Instructional League players are exposed to some of the best coaching the organization can offer.  From there, some players go on to play Winter Ball in Mexico, the Caribbean, or Australia.

   The Blue Jays have been considered to be among the top farm systems in baseball for the past several years.  This year, with the trade of several of their top prospects, the club has fallen to 22nd in Baseball America’s rankings. This is not to say that there is a dearth of talent in the system, because most experts agree that the Jays have a wealth of talent, but given the deals they made to bolster the big league club, most of the top prospects are considered to be several years away from the minors.  The Blue Jays were one of the most aggressive teams in the most recent player draft, and have one of the largest scouting staffs in baseball.
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