As we head into the second week of March with still no labor agreement between owners and players, it seems likely that more regular season games will be canceled following Commissioner Rob Manfred’s announcement last week that the first two series of the season will not take place. Unless a deal is struck soon, we could have a significantly shortened season, if one is even played at all.
And yet, in Arizona and Florida there are players in spring training preparing for the season - the minor league season.
How will the lockout affect the minor league season?
Will the minor league regular season be delayed?
Nope! Minor league games will begin on time regardless of the Major League labor negotiations.
- The Omaha Storm Chasers (AAA) begin April 5 at Indianapolis (complete schedule here)
- The Northwest Arkansas Naturals (AA) begin April 8 at Springfield (complete schedule here)
- The Quad Cities River Bandits (High-A) begin April 8 at South Bend (complete schedule here)
- The Columbia Fireflies (Low-A) begin April 8 vs. Augusta (complete schedule here)
The Royals will also field a team in the Rookie Arizona Summer League to begin play after the draft in June.
Who will be playing in the minors?
Players on the Major League 40-man roster are currently locked out, even if they have zero service time in the big leagues. This includes top Royals prospects like catcher MJ Melendez and first baseman Nick Pratto, who were added to the 40-man roster last December to protect them from being selected in the Rule 5 draft (which has not taken place this off-season yet). It also includes anyone on an MLB contract, even if they aren’t on a 40-man roster, or anyone that was a MLB free agent under the rules of the collective bargaining agreement (which can include players like former Royals Rule 5 draft selection Sam McWilliams, despite the fact he has zero MLB experience).
But players not on the 40-man roster are not locked out, so top prospect Bobby Witt Jr. is participating in spring training and will be able to play with the Storm Chasers when their season begins.
Also not locked out are players with MLB experience that signed minor league deals like infielder Ivan Castillo, outfielder JaCoby Jones, and pitchers Colton Brewer and Arodys Vizcaino, as long as they did not end last season on a MLB roster. These players would ordinarily have invites to Major League camp with the Royals, but since there is no such camp right now, they have the option to attend minor league camp or not. This can put them in awkward positions of trying to get their careers back on track while wanting to show solidarity with fellow union members.
So what will Omaha’s roster look like with some players locked out?
That’s a really good question! Pratto’s absence could give a first base opportunity to Vinnie Pasquantino, who has gotten some good notice on prospect lists this off-season. Omaha will be without catchers MJ Melendez and Sebastian Rivero, which likely leaves catching duties to organizational soldiers like Freddy Fermin and Logan Porter. But with so many potential Storm Chasers players - Kyle Isbel, Edward Olivares, Ryan O’Hearn, Emmanuel Rivera, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, Ronald Bolaños - all unavailable, it may be difficult for Omaha to fill out their roster.
If this lockout stretches through the end of March or into April, will the MLB veterans on minor league deals join spring training in time to prepare for the minor league season? What happens if they join the Omaha roster, only to have the lockout lifted in April - will they lose out on a chance to make the big leagues squad in spring training? We are treading into some uncharted territory. In 1995, the minor league season began as scheduled in the first week of April, despite the player’s strike pushing Major League Opening Day to late April. This led to a lot of roster shuffling after the first month, which we could see again this year.
What are some Royals minor leaguers to watch for?
All eyes are on Bobby Witt Jr. who would probably have a chance to be beginning the season in Kansas City, but may have to head to Omaha due to the lockout. Vinnie Pasquantino could jump to Omaha after an impressive season last year between High-A and Double-A. Outfielders Brewer Hicklen and Seuly Matias have intriguing power and could end up at Omaha or Northwest Arkansas. Nick Loftin and Michael Massey could be up the middle for the Naturals, although Loftin has been spending some time in centerfield. Dutch outfielder Darryl Collins could be a standout for Quad Cities, and you could see Peyton Wilson and Erick Peña in the outfield for Columbia.
On the pitching side, fans will want to see if 2020 fourth-overall pick Asa Lacy can overcome control issues and a minor injury that cut his 2021 season short. Alec Marsh is back from a more serious injury and could rise up prospect lists if he’s healthy. Lefty Austin Cox should be at the top of the Omaha rotation. In the lower minors, keep an eye on Ben Hernandez and his plus change up, Christian Chamberlain and his plus fastball, and Noah Murdock and his plus curveball. We could also see 2021 draftees Frank Mozzicato, Ben Kudrna, and Shane Panzini - who are already becoming good friends - make their full-season pro debuts.
If this lockout stretches out any longer, could this be a boon for minor league teams?
The longer owners and players are unable to reach agreement, the more fans will look to other ways to fill their summer. Minor league baseball could give baseball diehards their fix, and with more teams near Major League fans - the Twins and Braves moved their top affiliates to the metro area of their big league clubs - there is greater access to minor league ball.
Here in Kansas City, that could mean more business for the independent Kansas City Monarchs of the American Association. Their season begins on May 5 (complete schedule here), and you could see them field a higher quality roster than in past years due to (a) Major League Baseball cutting the number of minor leaguers; and (b) the work stoppage keeping many free agents unsigned and looking for work.
After missing out on the entire 2020 season due to the pandemic, and still operating in recovery mode with limited capacity in some places last year, minor league teams could certainly use your business.