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How MLB teams are developing prospects with baseball on hold

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The trend, in the rapidly evolving world of professional baseball, has been to nudge hitters away from honing their craft on a tee. To use pitching machines instead.

A pandemic, it turns out, can moderate a trend rather efficiently.

“One of the players reached out and said, ‘Can I hit off a tee?’ We said, ‘Yeah, dude!’ ” Kevin Reese, the Yankees’ senior director of player development, said recently in a telephone interview. “ ‘Ted Williams used to pick up pebbles and hit them with a broomstick. That may be all we have access to, but if it helps you work on your hand-eye coordination, awesome.’ ”

As the present of Major League Baseball hinges tenuously on not only the path of the coronavirus but also the ability of players and owners to hammer out an agreement, its future also takes a beating. The sport’s lifeblood, its minor league players, sit at home like the rest of us, their professional maturation short-circuited. Teams spend far more than they once did on resources, from equipment to personnel, for their uncut gems. With development complexes closed, many of those resources are collecting dust and taking pay cuts.

“This is the research and development side of the organization,” said Jim Duquette, the former Mets general manager and Orioles vice president of baseball operations who now broadcasts on MLB Network Radio. “It’s one of the most important aspects of the organization, and every year is precious.

“As we know there’s a very short timeline in an athlete’s career when you can take advantage of their peak season. You take one out, you miss one season of live game action, it impacts guys.”

It falls upon folks like Reese and his Mets equivalent Jared Banner (the club’s executive director of player development) to minimize that impact. To develop without the benefit of a minor league season, which very likely won’t happen even if the major league campaign takes flight, or having constant eyes on the assets.

“Despite the lack of baseball currently, we don’t believe in making excuses,” Banner wrote in an email. “There is always a way to improve, and it’s our responsibility to be innovative and provide our players with safe ways to do so until we can get back on the field again.”

In the past couple of weeks, the Yankees and Mets released 45 and 39 minor league players, respectively, a most unfortunate nod to the cost-cutting that many owners, even the large-market ones, have executed. For those who survived the purge, the challenge to get better while not being part of a team remains.

The Mets have utilized Zoom conference calls with their development staff and young players as well as one-on-one discussions to review and log activity, Banner wrote. Reese said the Yankees have produced videos for their charges, some of the “pump-up” variety and others instructive and reinforcing like showing a hitter a past at-bat in which he laid off a tough pitch and followed by stroking a friendlier offering for a double.

“We’re doing whatever we can to make players more aware of what they need to work on,” Reese said. “Hitting, strength and conditioning, mental — each of those departments have broken into groups. We have our Double-A hitting coach [Ken Joyce] working with our Double-A-ish hitters.”

The mention of minor-league levels prompts the question: Does a lost 2020 for the youngsters simply push everyone back a season? The player set to play at Double-A this year and Triple-A next year will instead do the former in 2021 and the latter in 2022? It needn’t be that simple or penurious, Reese said, explaining, “I think we’ve gotten better at scouting, better at evaluating the players that we have. It’s a little bit less ‘Graduate level by level.’

“It’s not just, ‘Hey this guy hit .300.’ It’s, ‘What was the quality of each of his at-bats?’ There’s a better chance to figure that stuff out.”

Yankees
Deivi Garcia of the Yankees sits at the end of the dugout during spring training.Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

Furthermore, if circumstances do allow a major league season to take place, there will likely be expanded rosters in addition to reopened development complexes for the younger guys.

“Let’s say the rosters are at 35,” Duquette said. “Do you in some cases take a kid that you don’t feel is quite ready, but keep him around the major league team and get him involved in intra-squad [games], put him on the roster and activate his service time? You might be willing to give him exposure in doubleheaders on the pitching side, ‘Let’s throw him out there,’ even though in a normal year you wouldn’t. You might see cases like that.

“I think you’ll see development cycles speed up with some of these players moving forward because of the year that we missed.”

We also might see less turnover on both ends of the age spectrum. Veteran major leaguers near the end, having received less pay than expected and not enjoying a full campaign, could opt to return for 2021. Some prominent high school seniors, recognizing the reduced rounds and funds in this year’s amateur draft, opted out of this past week’s amateur draft, committed to colleges and hoping the coast clears down the road. Latin American amateurs and Asian professionals, reading the tea leaves from the shattered economy, could wait a year before shopping themselves.

Currently, teams and players do the best they can. That some players can do better than others depending on their socioeconomic status — whether their parents can afford a batting cage or the aforementioned pitching machine in their home, for instance — further underlines the concerns this creates at the industry’s foundation.

The only saving grace: Every club is equally handcuffed.

“It would be one thing if only one organization was behind the 8-ball,” Reese said. Whichever team can best solve this unexpected conundrum will reap the development dividends down the line.

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