WASHINGTON - There is perhaps only one thing for certain about the 2021 minor league baseball season at this point – there is a lot of uncertainty.
The contract between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball ran out at the end of September.
Throw in the pandemic and what that could mean to attendance in the minors next year and there are more questions than answers.
“I think right now it is just hearsay,” Nationals’ pitching coordinator in player development Brad Holman told Federal Baseball this week. “Things are going to change (in some areas). Aside from that, nobody really knows the answers right now. Major League Baseball will be involved in some of those decisions.”
Last month, MLB announced that the rookie Appalachian League would become a wooden-bat league for college players in 2021. There already is a wooden-bat league with a long history nearby – the Valley Baseball League located in many towns in western and central Virginia.
The Nationals have not had an affiliate in the Appy League – though since 2011 they have had a farm team in the New York-Penn League in Auburn, N.Y.
The Nationals had four full-season affiliates in 2020 and all of those had their seasons called off this year due to the pandemic: Triple-A Fresno of the Pacific Coast League; the Double-A Harrisburg Senators of the Eastern League; the high Single-A Fredericksburg Nationals of the Carolina League (after moving from Woodbridge); and the low Single-A Hagerstown Suns of the South Atlantic League.
The two-year contract with Fresno ran out at the end of September.
While the Nationals would certainly want a Triple-A farm team closer than Fresno, California, there is no guarantee that could happen.
The closest Triple-A teams to Nationals Park are in Virginia at Norfolk, a farm team of the Orioles; and at Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, an affiliate of the Phillies.
“The Nats could be stuck with Fresno,” a source told Federal Baseball. “It was supposed to be a two-year deal.”
The closest Double-A teams to the nation’s capital are the Bowie (Md.) Baysox, a farm team of the Orioles; the Richmond Flying Squirrels, an affiliate of the San Francisco Giants; and Harrisburg.
During the 2019 season, the Nationals put several top prospects at Harrisburg so they would be closer to the nation’s capital if needed. That included pitcher Erick Fedde, outfielder Michael A. Taylor (now a free agent), and catcher Spencer Kieboom, who is no longer in the system.
For those players at Fresno in 2019, once they were called up that meant getting a connecting flight from California in order to get to the east coast to join the Nationals.
Many times, that meant red-eye flights with little sleep by the time they arrived at Nationals Park in the afternoon for a 7:05 p.m. game.
Early in 2019, pitcher Joe Ross – who had been with Fresno - took a flight from California and had a connecting flight in Chicago in order to get to New York to join the Nationals for a game against the Mets.
Holman, 52, was the Triple-A pitching coach at Syracuse in 2018 and then at Fresno in 2019 in Washington’s system.
He was named the pitching coordinator in player development before the 2020 season.
The native of Kansas City – who pitched for Seattle in 1993 - has played and coached for several minor league teams.
With possible contractions, the minors could be a lot different than his playing days less than three decades ago.
Last year, The New York Times reported that 42 minor league teams could be cut.
Baseball America reported in October 2019 that a quarter of minor league teams could be done away with.
Those stories reported teams in the New York-Penn League could be eliminated.
“Anything is possible; nobody knows. It is such a brutal process,” the source told Federal Baseball of possible sweeping changes in the minors. “People don’t know what is going to happen. It is brutal how little (that) people know” about the MLB plans with the minors.
Jake Lowery, a catcher who played for Harrisburg in 2019, was slated to be a coach this season under manager Tripp Keister at Single-A Fredericksburg. Instead, Lowery was not able to be an instructor at the alternate site or in Florida at the Instructional League this month.
He, like many, is not sure what the future holds for the minors. “We kept in touch a little bit,” he told Federal Baseball of talking to Keister. “Just seeing how he was doing after he got the (COVID) virus. Just a little small talk here and there.”