After the pandemic wiped out the 2020 minor league season, we hoped that there would be no need to resort to the “Alternate Training Site” procedure that was in place last season. At first, the 2021 AAA season was scheduled to start on time on April 4th, with the other full-season minor league clubs to start a month later. Major league camps were restricted to 75 players at the complexes, and players not invited to that camp would not be allowed to report to minor league camp until March 31st, by which time the major league players had vacated the complex. The thinking was that the opening day AAA roster would have to consist entirely of players that were invited to spring training, because that allotment of up to 75 players would be the only players that got any kind of supervised work.
The commentators that seriously follow the minor leagues felt that that planned schedule was a pipe dream because the AAA clubs travel by commercial air, and they didn’t believe that major league clubs would allow players to be shifted into their atmosphere that didn’t face the same strict isolation protocols. As it turned out, those commentators were correct, and the AAA season has now been pushed back to May, along with the other full-season clubs. Baked into that decision was surely the hope that the delay would allow players to get vaccinated, and that would ensure a smoother transition when major league clubs inevitably would need to recall players from the AAA roster.
The result is, that for at least the first month or so, we will have the same Alternate Training Site procedure that prevailed last season. Instead of the AA Springfield facility the club used last year, the site is being set up in Sauget, Illinois at GCS Credit Union Ballpark, home of the Gateway Grizzlies of the independent Frontier League. I went to St. Louis University for college, and I heard that that august city is just across the river from St. Louis, a handful of miles down Route 3 South. The Grizzlies’ season doesn’t start until May 27th, and it is hoped that the Cardinals will have vacated the facility before then. Official transactions such as options and contract purchases will be to and from the Alternate Training Site for the first month or so, and I will have to resist the temptation to describe a player as being optioned to the “East Side.”
The Cards provided the the 2021 Alternate Training Site roster to the media, and thanks to Jeff Jones of the Belleville News-Democrat, we now have the list. Jones’s Twitter page is here, and he’s always worth a look because he provides timely Cardinal information. The coaching staff will consist almost entirely of what will be the AAA Memphis coaching staff: Manager Ben Johnson, Pitching Coach Dernier Orozco, Hitting Coach Brandon Allen, Athletic Trainer Dan Martin, and Strength and Conditioning Coach Frank Witowski. Also listed as a coach of undefined description is former Cardinal Bernard Gilkey, who was hired last season as the co-hitting coach for the Gulf Coast League affiliate.
As I understand things, the Alternate Training Sites will be limited to 28 players. Last season, there were no games played between the various ATS clubs. Al Yellon of Bleed Cubbie Blue reports that the ATS squads of the Cubs and White Sox are supposed to have a 13-game schedule against one another. The Cubs’ facility in South Bend, Indiana is about 2 hours away from the facility of the White Sox in Schaumburg, Illinois. Schaumburg itself is about 45 minutes away from Chicago, and supposedly one of the games is set to take place at the major league stadium of the White Sox when that club is on the road. Whether that plan ultimately works out or not, I don’t expect the Cardinals to follow suit with something similar. A full list of the 2021 ATS locations for all 30 MLB clubs is here. The Cincinnati Reds moved their ATS from Mason, Ohio to their AAA Louisville facility in Kentucky this year. That’s the closest ATS site to the Cardinals, and that’s still about 260 miles east from St. Louis on Interstate 64.
With this procedure in place, and the minor league camp scheduled to start very soon, a question has arisen. Of the players that were invited to major league camp but did not make the major league opening day roster, which players would benefit more from being in minor league camp/extended spring training, as opposed to being assigned to the ATS. One would expect that the ATS would consist of those players who were on the bubble of making the opening day roster, and others who would be the next man up in case of an emergency. The club’s decision to staff the ATS with the AAA coaching staff also reflects a judgment that the players assigned to the ATS are likely to make the AAA club. Here is the list.
ALTERNATE TRAINING SITE ROSTER
Pitchers (15): Jesus Cruz, Seth Elledge, Junior Fernandez, Connor Jones, Evan Kruczynski (L), Matthew Liberatore (L), Johan Oviedo, Tommy Parsons, Johan Quezada, Roel Ramirez, Angel Rondon, Zack Thompson (L), Austin Warner (L), Kodi Whitley, Garrett Williams (L)
Catchers (3): Tyler Heineman, Dennis Ortega, Ali Sanchez
Infielders (4): Evan Mendoza, Max Moroff, Jose Rondon, Kramer Robertson
Outfielders (4): Conner Capel, Scott Hurst, Lars Nootbaar, Lane Thomas
***The list as I have outlined it was not reported to Jeff Jones and the other media the way I have presented it, so let me explain, lest people think I’m pulling a fast one on them. The Cards have announced a 5-man taxi squad, consisting of RHP Seth Elledge, RHP Kodi Whitley, C Ali Sanchez, IF Jose Rondon and OF Lane Thomas. Those five names were not litsted as members of the ATS. The reason I presented it the way I did is that the taxi squad only operates on the road. Once the Cardinals come back for a home series, the only taxi squad member that is allowed to remain with the club is the taxi squad catcher, who will be permitted to serve as a bullpen catcher. The other four players are to report back to the ATS. For all practical purposes, you can think of the taxi squad as members of the ATS, who get to take a break from the site on Cardinal road trips. So rather than constantly shift the amount and personnel ATS roster based on the different members of the taxi squad over time, I think it’s better to just think of them all as members of the ATS. Because other than the taxi squad catcher, they ARE members of the ATS when the Cards are playing at home.
***This is the first season I know about, at least in my lifetime, where a taxi squad will exist in conjunction with the minor league season. Taxi squads have historically been barred by the Collective Bargaining Agreements, because the union has not wanted to permit clubs to put 40-man roster players in that type of limbo status, where they were required to report to a club but not eligible to play in games. Last season, there were no concerns with roster limits because there was no minor league season, and thus no AAA active roster limit to comply with. All the club had to do was make sure that it’s Club Player Pool was at or below 60 players.
***We are expected to have a minor league season this year. Historically, AAA clubs have had an active roster limit of 25, just like with the major league clubs. I do not know whether the AAA active list has been increased to 26 like the one for the major league club has. One area that I am still confused about is if or how the taxi squad players will count against the AAA roster once the season starts. Let’s suppose that the AAA season starts when we think it will, and the Sauget site is vacated. Unless one believes that the AAA clubs will play 5 players short, what will happen to the taxi squad players when the Cards are not on the road? Will the active list of the AAA clubs be extended to accommodate the taxi squad? Or will there have to be constant cascading roster moves throughout the minor leauge organization. When the taxi squad members come back to AAA Memphis when the Cards come home, does that mean that every time that happens, Memphis will have to send 5 players to Springfield, who will have to send 5 players to Peoria, who will have to send 5 players to Palm Beach, who will have to send 5 players to Extended Spring Training. I honestly don’t know the answer to that question, but if that’s an incredible pain if that will be the procedure. Maybe the answer is contained in the MLB 2021 Operations Manual, which to my frustration, I have not been able to obtain. When the AAA season starts, there may have to be a strict separation of a taxi squad roster and AAA roster, just as it has been conveyed to Jones and the other media with respect to the ATS.
***Of all the players the Cardinals have on option to the minor leagues, the only one not part of the ATS is Ivan Herrera, who was always set to start the season in AA. Nolan Gorman is also not on the ATS roster, but both Matthew Liberatore and Zack Thompson are. Although the current ATS roster (including taxi squad) is two players shy of the 28-man limit, we can come up with a list of players who were invited to major league spring training, but left behind in minor league camp. The full list of players is: RHP Griffin Roberts, LHP Domingo Robles, C Ivan Herrera, C Aaron Antonini, C Pedro Pages, C Carlos Soto, 1B Luken Baker, IF Nolan Gorman, IF Delvin Perez, OF Matt Szczur, and OF Justin Toerner. The numbers check out, and we can reconcile them this way. There were 67 players that were invited to major league camp, which consisted of all 39 players on the 40-man roster, in addition to 28 non-roster invitees. The opening day roster is 26 players, the ATS roster (including taxi squad players) is 26 players, and 4 players will be on the major league disabled list. That leaves 11, which is the exact amount of players I outlined that have been left behind in minor league camp.