Baseball is a difficult sport. That much is an understatement. In most other sports, a transcendent athletic talent can use their athleticism to succeed even at the highest levels. The same is untrue for baseball, as the core battle of pitcher versus batter requires an almost unbelievable amount of skill. Consider: before the season, substantial evidence surfaced about how the Houston Astros were cheating, using sign stealing to gain a hitting advantage.
Yet, every qualifying Astro but one between 2017 and 2018 (Jose Altuve) made an out during their plate appearance over 60% of the time. As a team, a little less than two out of every three plate appearances ended in an out—as one of the best teams in baseball that often knew what was coming.
You can see more evidence of baseball’s extreme difficulty in the draft. In other sports, such as the NFL or NBA, drafted players can contribute immediately. In baseball, most drafted players, even those who spend three years playing in competitive college envrionments, take at least two seasons to reach the big leagues—if they even get there. It’s been a decade since the 2010 MLB draft, and 18 players within the first 50 picks never played a single game in The Show. But in the 2010 NFL Draft, every single player among the first 50 picks had a multi-year NFL career. Every one.
Developing baseball players is hard. Pitching and base stealing are art forms, hitting seems like it is an impossible task, and the margin for error with baserunning and defense is practically nonexistent. It’s not enough to be occasionally excellent: baseball demands as close to perfection as is humanly possible.
Barring the kind of Covid-related shutdown that postponed the start of MLB’s season in the first place—a distinct possibility that ought to be in play, considering how caseloads are continuing to spike—big leaguers will get to play baseball again. However, those players who arguably need the experience the most, the minor leaguers, will stay at home. Opening up for one league that makes billions every year is hard enough. Opening and coordinating multiple leagues in over 100 cities across the country? It’s an impossibility.
Believe you me, baseball teams know about all this way more intimately than we do. To alleviate this lost season for minor leaguers everywhere, there have been some solutions proposed. An expanded Arizona Fall League is one. Weirder ideas, such as an idea to have free agents play each other in Nashville to keep their skills sharp, is another. This could even be the perfect time to remake something like the Royals Baseball Academy.
However, there are no perfect solutions. Ultimately, prospects around baseball will miss an an entire year without competitive games, an entire year without honing their craft against others, an entire year devoid of the opportunities for betterment that help separate the players who succeed from the ones who don’t.
In a world without Covid, where the season started when it was supposed to, we’d probably be seeing some of the Royals’ top prospects right about now. Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar would have likely began at Triple-A Omaha, with only one stop away from the big leagues; ditto for Khalil Lee. Others, such as Nick Heath, Foster Griffin, Daniel Lynch, and Daniel Tillo, could have also ascended by now, depending on injuries and performance.
In a world without Covid, these players would have spent time polishing their game in the minor leagues before kicking off their service time clock, the all-important countdown to free agency that more often than not ends in said players leaving a small market club like Kansas City—just ask Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, or Lorenzo Cain.
But we do not live in a perfect world without Covid. Covid-allowing, the season will start at the end of July. And for these players who are clearly among the Royals’ best already, the Royals must decide if kicking off their service time clock is worth it.
To me, it’s a no-brainer. The best place for developing prospects is with each MLB team. They have access to the best coaches, the best technology, the most funds, and most importantly, the best competition.
After all, service time only matters if a player is particularly good. The only way for those players to get there is for them to play. It’s already a weird season. Might as well make it weirder.