Much can be made about the financial losses that have been endured over the last 12 months in professional sports — just as much can be said about the players who missed an opportunity to play an entire season.
One year ago, it was business as usual for minor-league baseball players — attend spring training and battle for a spot in their respective organizations. What followed was an unprecedented shutdown that forced many to lose a year of growth.
Top-end prospects throughout the majors have the advantage of relying on past pedigree to ensure their position within a team’s farm system — the same can’t be said for players further off the radar.
Keegan Matheson, Toronto Blue Jays beat writer for MLB.com, is the only reporter present in Dunedin, Fla., writing about the team, and the minor-league shutdown from a year ago has only confirmed his beliefs about how baseball farm systems operate.
“This isn’t the NHL or the NBA or the NFL, where if a guy goes No. 1 overall, he’s probably going to be in the opening day lineup and be a superstar,” said Matheson via Zoom from Dunedin. “Baseball prospect and development is already such a long process.”
That already long process was prolonged amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It (minor-league baseball cancellation in 2020) really changed everything for a lot of these players,” Matheson stated.
A new baseball season often marks the beginning of a fresh start, one that encompasses optimism and high expectations. But for the one’s who were unable to play at all last year, 2021 signals the launch of crucial adjustment period.
“The progress of our player development system will continue to supplement support and provide depth for us,” Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro told reporters in February.
New opportunities ahead
For Blue Jays pitching prospects Simeon Woods Richardson and Ty Tice, the unprecedented circumstances that prolonged a year of their development last year may open doors for big opportunities in 2021.
Teams across baseball are expected to limit the amount of innings their top pitchers throw, in an effort to slowly ease their arms back to normalcy after a condensed 60-game schedule in 2020.
Two potential beneficiaries in the Blue Jays organization of the latest adjustment are Woods Richardson and Tice.
“If I am a pitcher towards the bottom of a 40-man roster right now, I’m saying — man, stay healthy, do my thing and there’s probably going to be an opportunity,” said Matheson. “For someone like (Tice), I think you have to be optimistic because of how many innings there are in the major leagues, and the fact that teams are going to need a ton of pitchers.”
Both Tice and Woods Richardson are regarded as two of the brightest, young arms the Blue Jays possess, particularly the latter, who was sent to Toronto in the summer of 2019 in a package that saw Marcus Stroman go the other way to the New York Mets.
Shapiro: New Dunedin complex brings all the players ‘under one roof’
Since Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins arrived in Toronto to lead to Blue Jays’ front office, the team’s farm system has ranked amongst the best in Major League Baseball.
And as the 2021 season approaches, Canada’s only MLB squad has unveiled a new development facility in Dunedin, Fla., to take it a step further.
“I felt it was one of the biggest opportunities for the organization to move a step closer to a sustainable championship organization,” said Shapiro, the team’s president and CEO, via Zoom in February ahead of the start of spring training.
Since 1977, the Blue Jays have called Dunedin their spring training home. But despite the team spending over four decades in one spot during the spring, renovations to various facilities have come few and far between.
The unveiling of the state-of-the-art, 65-acre site marks a new era in Dunedin for the Blue Jays.
The hub includes six fields, 12 batting cages, and labs dedicated to sports science.
In addition to serving as a complex for players across the entire organization to use during the spring, the new facilities will support both major-league and minor-league players with injuries for all 12 months.
New-look starting rotations
Woods Richardson, 20, is expected to spend the majority of his time in 2021 with one of the three Blue Jays’ minor-league teams (Dunedin, New Hampshire, and Buffalo), but due to the growing belief that big-league clubs are bound to utilize an increased number of pitchers, his call-up to the majors may come sooner than if there would have been no shutdown last season.
The outlet for hurlers to see new opportunities in 2021 is clubs that have six-man starting rotations.
“Six-man rotations will be one thing we see, absolutely,” said Matheson. “It’s a good way for young pitchers to break in. There are some teams who are saying that this what they are going to do.”
Same challenges, different effects
What makes the 2021 edition of spring training so different from previous years is that there are an abundance of players who haven’t stepped foot on a diamond for game-action since 2019.
With no minor league baseball being played in 2020, a number of players had the luxury of using resources courtesy of the team to stay in shape and maintain focus in preparation for the 2021 campaign.
For others, it wasn’t so easy.
“Especially with the younger guys, who are missing out on a key year of development at age 16, 17, 18, 19. Because in there (team facilities), you have not only baseball development, but physically development as well,” said Matheson. “Doing that on your own is a little tougher than doing that with a team or with a facility.
“It just threw a wrench. Some guys made really good use of it, but for others, it was a challenge.”
Impacts of pandemic loom on
For the second consecutive year, Toronto will not begin its season north of the border. Contrary to last year, the team will play its first two home stints in Dunedin, Fla. at TD Ballpark, instead of in Buffalo, N.Y.
While teams across the league ease back into playing a full 162-game schedule, the Blue Jays will once again have unprecedented hurdles to overcome amid the border restrictions.
The challenges of not playing in front of the Toronto faithful is not stopping the team from remaining upbeat, in a year where expectations surrounding the squad’s potential on-field performance are higher than usual.
“There’s a tremendous amount of positive energy and optimism around the team, which is great,” Shapiro told reporters.
Toronto qualified for the post-season in 2020 for the first time since 2016, and have since added 2017 World Series most valuable player George Springer, shortstop Marcus Semien and closer Kirby Yates via free agency.
“We’re determined to take the success, (and) the belief that our players had in each other and in their ability last year that transpired into a very positive step forward,” said Shapiro.