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The 2021 minor-league season could again be very different

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An article about Cubs player development hints at that.

Photo by Adam Glanzman/MLB Photos via Getty Images

This article in The Athletic by Sahadev Sharma is mostly about the progress Brennen Davis, Burl Carraway and other top Cubs prospects made in the challenging environment that was the 2020 baseball season.

As you know, the 2020 minor-league season for affiliated teams was cancelled due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, and what work minor leaguers did get in was at the “alternate sites” set up by big-league teams. Not all minor leaguers got to participate. At the end of the 2020 season, the agreement between Major League Baseball and the minor leagues expired without a deal between the two parties and there was talk about minor-league teams becoming “licensees” of MLB teams with a completely different structure than existed through 2020.

Further, buried within Sharma’s article is a hint that the 2021 minor-league season might not resemble those from the past. It begins with a quote from Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein.

“(We’re) preparing for everything from a completely normal spring training and minor-league season or potentially a minor-league season that has significant adjustments to help everyone get through 2021 as safely as possible,” Epstein said. “I feel like there’s a lot of talent in our farm system right now. Obviously the world didn’t get to see the progress that was made in certain areas. I’m excited as to what that will look like in 2021.”

According to sources, MLB’s focus right now is on getting major-league spring training and the regular season started on time. There is a strong chance that they’ll want numbers at spring training as low as possible. With that in mind, the Cubs started talking a couple months ago about plans for how they’d work with their minor leaguers.

Many teams are preparing for a situation where there isn’t a second group of minor leaguers at spring training working on the backfields after big-league camp is done for the day. In this scenario, teams would break camp for the regular season and once again have a primary roster and an alternate site roster (the Cubs would likely once again be at South Bend). There would potentially be a third site, a minor-league camp at the team’s spring-training facility. Those players would either play intrasquad games or, perhaps as organizations have done for instructional league, they could collaborate to create a schedule for some real games.

Well. This doesn’t sound like MLB teams are going to have their minor leaguers spread out through the country to affiliated (or “licensed”) teams at all — rather, they’d play much as they did in 2020, except with a “third site” possibly added at a team’s spring-training facility — and based on what’s in the article, this isn’t guaranteed to happen. On the other hand, Theo states that they are preparing for a number of different scenarios, and of course that’s just prudent planning.

Perhaps things will change before spring, but if the scenario noted in Sharma’s article comes to pass, it would be a major change in the way professional baseball is played in this country.

As always, we await developments.