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Breaking News: Triple-A Season Delayed by At Least One Month

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MLB: Winter Meetings Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

I had an article in the works about the structure and schedule of the Cardinals’ full-season affiliates that I was planning to release as Spring Training drew to a close. But we have received a breaking report from Jeff Passan at ESPN that requires an immediate announcement.

The Triple-A season was scheduled to begin on April 6th and end on September 19th. The Memphis Redbirds released their schedule the day after pitchers and catchers reported to major league spring training. The schedule for all other full-season clubs of a lower classification were all structured identically and called for the season to begin on May 4th and also end on September 19th. The AAA season is now being pushed back closer to the time that the seasons of the lower classifications will begin.

This season’s COVID protocols only permitted a maximum of 75 players to report to major league spring training. With the AAA season starting on time, and the minor league camp not even starting until the major league camp ended, the opening day AAA roster was going to consist entirely of players who had been invited to spring training. Those players not making the AAA roster were going to be left behind in extended spring training, or the minor league camp for another 30 days or so of work to then be assigned to a different club.

Because there will be no minor league club that will have an active roster when major league camp breaks, that raises an issue. Where will the major league clubs send players that are optioned and other players that were expected to make the AAA club to start the minor league season?

The answer is that we will return to the Alternate Training Site structure that was in place last season, although the parameters will be different. Last season, the major league clubs were required to compile a 60-player Club Player Pool. Only players in the Pool could participate in a major league game. The players in the Pool that were not on the major league active roster were assigned to what was called an Alternate Training Site. The various sites were situated close to the home parks of the major league clubs for easy access. With limited space in the Pool, most clubs, including the Cards, took a mixed approach with two types of players invited. In one group were typically 40-man roster players and other non-roster players who could help the club immediately if a need arose. The other group consisted of minor league prospects the club wanted to keep a closer eye on for fear that those players would lose a season of development.

Returning to an Alternate Training Site structure to start the 2020 season was not unexpected, as it was listed as a possibility in the new Operations Manual that was distributed to teams in early February. One major concern that prompted the change is that the players in major league camp and players who will ultimately make the opening day roster have severe restrictions in place in terms of contact with the outside world. But the AAA clubs fly plain commercial for travel instead of taking buses or charter flights. The thinking seems to be that the delay will allow for more vaccinations and make that travel safer.

Because this news has just broken earlier this evening, we do not have any information on how the Cards’ Alternate Training Site will be structured. Last season, the Cards hosted the site at Springfield, Missouri, the home of their AA affiliate, not only because the Cards owned that club and facility, but because of its proximity to Busch Stadium. I have no knowledge of any numerical restrictions in place at the Alternate Site. It appears for now that once major league camp breaks, there will be two training areas. One is minor league camp, or extended spring training in Jupiter, Florida as planned. The second will be the Alternate Training Site, which may be based in Springfield again.

The Cards will have to answer some interesting staffing issues in the coming weeks. With no Club Player Pool or numerical limit to the Alternate Training Site, you can expect the Site to include the major-league ready players the Cards might want to call up at any given time. But what about the rest of the players? Can we expect that Site to be an audition for the AAA Memphis roster staffed in part by the AAA coaching staff? In addition to finding out who makes the opening day roster, it will be interesting to see how the Cards decide to allocate their players between the Alternate Training Site and minor league camp.

UPDATE

The Memphis Redbirds tweeted that the new tentative start date for AAA is May 4th, just like with the other full-season affiliates.

Although it is theoretically possible that the AAA-East schedule could be extended a bit beyond the currently scheduled September 19th end date, the games that were scheduled in April will not be rescheduled, and the season will be shortened to 120 games.

In addition, J.J. Cooper, an indispensable minor league writer for Baseball America, tweeted about this development, and said two interesting things of note. First, according to some AAA clubs he talked to, the clubs were not necessarily unhappy with this development because the clubs will lose money having to host fans without a sufficient capacity. Second, he had written that this Alternate Training Site development was almost certainly going to happen because the major league clubs would not risk their season by calling up a non-vaccinated player from AAA who had just flown commercial air.