I am officially back from the birthday break to resume baseball activities. Things in the league start to coalesce for teams a little bit more each game. One thing which is new this week is that this week marks the beginning of the minor league season. One of the great parts about living in Southern California is the access to so much professional baseball. Between the Dodgers, Angels, and Padres at the major league level to the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, Inland Empire 66er, and Lake Elsinore Storm as their low-A counterparts. While most fans understandably focus on the guys playing at the highest level, the minor leagues give fans a chance to see players before they reach The Show.
The minor leagues have been reconstituted this season as Major League Baseball has taken control of all levels of professional baseball. MLB has standardized the number of minor league affiliates for each major league team. There are now 120 teams throughout minor league baseball, a reduction of 42 teams from 2019, the last year with minor league baseball. Each major league team now has 4 affiliated minor league teams. For the sake of simplicity, the way to look at AAA is now an East/West format, AA is now broken up into Central, Northeast, and South leagues; High A will be leagues in a East, West, and Central configuration, and Low A will have East, West, and Southeast leagues. A couple examples of the restructured minor leagues means the California League is Low A West, and the Pacific Coast League is AAA West.
The restructure, reclassification, and removal of teams has caused many ripples throughout professional baseball. The most obvious of which is less opportunities for players as they attempt to make it to the majors. This also will trickle down to non-playing personnel, such as the managers, coaches, and office staff. The teams which have reclassified will see a new caliber of player coming through town. I have to say I feel bad for Fresno. The team was a AAA affiliate, but has been reclassified to Low A in the California league. Fans there were used to seeing players with big league time or on quite possibly on their way up to the majors. They will have to get used to seeing guys with a year or less of pro experience now. The team will have a more difficult time selling advertising and generating revenue as a Low A club, since there will be a lot fewer recognizable names on the roster.
All isn’t doom and gloom in the minors as each new season presents an opportunity for players to emerge and show progress. It could be a pitcher with improved velocity or a hitter with a revamped swing. The promotional curve isn’t linear, so a player who was previously an afterthought will have the opportunity to show his or another organization he is worthy of a look. With that said, I want to point out a few guys I will be keeping an eye on for various reasons.
The first player is Wander Franco. He is widely considered the top prospect in the minors. A switch-hitting shortstop with plus power and an advanced feel for hitting, all while being 19, is reason enough to make a mental note to monitor his progress. He may be only adequate defensively at this stage, but if the bat plays then the glove won’t matter. He could be a real difference maker for the Tampa Bay Rays in the second half of the season.
Jared Kelenic of the Seattle Mariners is another player I am waiting to see. The former Mets first round pick (Ouch) was the key piece going to Seattle in the Robinson Cano/Edwin Diaz trade. He combines a plus hit tool and plus power and projects to becoming an all-star level player for years to come. I applaud him for calling out the Mariners and their service time manipulation, while betting on himself when he declined the contract extension offered to him in spring training.
Mackenzie Gore is a left handed pitcher with the San Diego Padres. I have liked his arm since I first saw him in the Futures Game a couple of years ago. He has four plus pitches and would have made his debut last year had there been a minor league season. The only question with him is his ability to repeat his mechanics, which looked improved when I saw him in spring training.
A bit farther away is Marco Luciano. He is a shortstop assigned to Low A in the Giants system. He makes plenty of loud contact, with the look of a middle of the order bat down the line. He will likely end up a third baseman, but if the bat carries him, being lower of the defensive spectrum will not matter. A couple of homers with 109 MPH exit velocities at the alternate site gives me more reason to be intrigued.
Yankees prospect Jasson Dominguez is a super wild card to me. Reports are he has plus tools across the board, but I have only seen video of him in batting practice and a couple plate appearances in spring training. I want to see if he is for real, or a product of the hype machine. He is physically mature for his age, so that is a concern going forward, but if the tools are what they say they are then he might be knocking on the door in the Bronx come 2022.
If you give minor league baseball a chance, you might be surprised. Guys still hit 400 foot home runs and throw 100, but they aren’t quite polished yet. The logos and team nicknames are fun. It gives fans a chance to see the next wave of talent for their favorite MLB club. Who doesn’t want to be a bit of a baseball hipster who can say they saw the rookie of the year when he was still in A ball?