Rather than beginning near the same time as the MLB, the AAA season will be delayed by at least a month and alternate sites are back.
The St. Louis Cardinals are off and running in spring training without any COVID-19 issues to this point. Even though MLB camps are going well, the MLB announced on Tuesday that the AAA season would be delayed by at least a month.
Before the recent change, the plan was to have AAA start on April 6 with minor league spring training for the rest of the levels beginning after the MLB teams left.
The levels below AAA were scheduled to start at the beginning of May, and now that appears to be the schedule that the entire minor leagues are tentatively planning on following. Instead of playing games, AAA players will be working out at alternate sites similar to the ones used during the 2020 season.
For the St. Louis Cardinals, the group that they had playing at AA Springfield (where they had the alternate site in 2020) was incredibly important when the team was struck with a COVID-19 breakout. The players at Springfield did get more one-on-one instruction, but the impact on a year without normal competition is still unknown.
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With there now being three viable COVID-19 vaccines being distributed around the United States, MLB hopes that by the end of April minor leaguers can have a higher likelihood of receiving a vaccine before beginning play.
Per Jeff Passan’s report above, the AAA season will still be the same length, with the month skipped at the beginning being added to the end of the season.
If the minor leagues didn’t want this delay, there was almost nothing that they could do to stop it. Without a union and with the affiliates all being placed under MLB control this winter, the MLB was free to implement these changes that they likely would’ve wanted at the MLB level too.
For the Cardinals specifically, the alternate site is going to be a semi-normal AAA roster.
While it is a shame that AAA players are going to have to spend another month at an alternate site, the added month at the end of the year is likely going to save any concerns over another developmental year lost.
The most likely players at the alternate site are going to be fringe-MLB players that need to be ready for a call-up at any moment.
For the team’s top prospects (Nolan Gorman, Matthew Liberatore, Ivan Herrera, and Zack Thompson), AA will probably be the best home for them and would’ve been without this change.
Minor league baseball is tougher to insulate players from the general public as they don’t travel by private jet as the big club does. Because of this, delaying to allow more vaccines to be distributed and to minimize the risk of having to start then delay due to infections makes some sense.
Passan made it clear that this move to delay AAA has no risk of meaning a delay of the MLB, which is the most important.