Spring Training is delayed. Spring games will soon be canceled.
The players and MLB are meeting regularly now, as negotiations for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement ramp up. But the clock is ticking on regular season games as the lockout continues.
We’ve looked at the issues involved in the negotiations. You can find my latest update here. Now let’s look at the impact of this lost time of organized training and the potentially compressed spring schedule on the newest Cardinals.
Back in November, the Cardinals added three players to the 40-man roster to protect them from the Rule 5 draft: INF Brendan Donovan, and RHP Jake Walsh and Freddy Pacheco. (Read about the transaction here.)
While these moves were necessary at the time to meet the Rule 5 roster deadline, they’re only going to cause avoidable problems going forward. When the league made the decision to lock out the players, they initiated a freeze on major league rosters. That included the canceling of the Winter Meetings and the postponement of the Rule 5 draft. (There is no word yet on whether or not the draft will take place when the lockout ends.)
That’s created a bad situation for front offices, who try to delay these kinds of 40-man additions until they are necessary.
It might be worse, though, for the players who were added to the roster from the perspective of training and preparation.
MLB’s lockout does not stop with the active rosters of franchises. Nor is it limited to players who have MLB contracts and service time. Any player listed on a team’s 40-man roster is included in the lockout.
That means some of these players are already missing vital early-season training opportunities and workouts with the organization’s coaching staff. Minor leaguers with some full-season affiliates have already begun to gather at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, FL to begin pre-season workouts. Minor league spring training is set to begin late next week.
So, when minor league camp official opens next week, Donovan, Walsh, and Pacheco, along with Juan Yepez and other 40-man roster players with little or no MLB service time, will be barred by the league from participating. If the lockout extends into the minor league regular season, these players will not be allowed on minor league rosters or to play in minor league games.
That leaves them in the same position as major league players. They are stuck training on their own for the length of the lockout.
That’s ok, though, right? Because once spring training starts, these 40-man roster players will have just as much time to prepare as the major leaguers.
A normal MLB Spring Training lasts about six weeks, with roughly a month’s worth of live games. Spring Training is already delayed and when it returns, it is certain to be compressed.
A recent report suggested clubs believe they need four weeks of spring. During COVID in 2020, “spring training” prior to the start of the shortened season lasted only 3 weeks. Whether the 2022 Spring Training ends up 3 weeks or 4, it will include a significant compression of training time and the loss of many valuable late appearances for developing hitters and innings for rising pitchers.
If Spring was happening as originally scheduled, it’s likely players like Donovan and Yepez would be in line for significant playing time – getting at least 1-2 plate appearances in every early season spring game as expected starters and experienced reserves worked their way up slowly to full-game action.
In a compressed environment, priorities will shift. It will be critical for teams to get their established players up to game speed quickly. That will come at the expense of opportunities for younger players on the edge of the roster.
All of that leaves these kinds of players stuck between a rock and a hard place. Minor League spring will happen without them. They can’t use the minor league camp as a fallback to get live PAs. They’ll be present for Major League spring but their role could be greatly diminished.
Add it up and if the lockout continues deep into March, these young 40 man roster players who are on the cusp of MLB will be entering the baseball season with the least amount of preparation and very little real opportunity to compete for the active roster.
This is not a new problem. It’s something both Donovan and Yepez have experienced since COVID shut down Spring Training in 2020.
Juan Yepez is the current odds leader to make the Cardinals’ Opening Day roster as the part-time Designated Hitter. Brendan Donovan looks like the first-call backup at multiple infield positions at Memphis.
Right now, neither player has faced a major league pitcher in organized competition.
That might seem surprising. But it’s true. Two Cardinals players who have been with the system long enough to warrant protection from the Rule 5 draft, have already proven themselves at AAA, and have a decent shot at the Opening Day roster somehow got to this point without facing a single Major League pitcher in an organized game.
Donovan and Yepez were not included on the spring roster heading into the 2020 season. They were not on the roster at the Alternate Training Site in Springfield during COVID. They were not given any playing time during spring training of 2021. Yepez worked his way onto the postseason roster for the Wild Card game this past fall, but he did not appear.
Even with a compressed spring, that problem will get rectified. Yepez will get some plate appearances and Donovan will see the field. The Cardinals, though, might not be done adding to the roster.
Before the roster lock-down, there were reports that the Cardinals were looking to add left-handed depth to their bench. With the DH now in place, that seems even more likely. A left-handed-hitting veteran infielder would likely slide in above both Yepez and certainly Donovan on the playing time pecking order. The club also has several non-roster invitees set to compete for time as well.
Similar reports suggest that the Cardinals are not done adding to their bullpen either, with the club looking at potential impact relievers. Those arms would certainly slot above Pacheco and Walsh, who are sitting at the bottom of the depth chart as is.
The worst-case scenario for these recent 40-man additions is that the lockout continues through the length of the minor league spring training. With limited opportunities available during the major league spring, they would enter the minor league season behind the curve in terms of live competition. This lack of preparedness could slow their progress this season and threaten their readiness to fill in at the major league level in the case of early-season injuries – which seem likely with a compressed spring schedule.
Their early-season success and chances at making the roster largely rest on the quality of their independent training.
That might be a blessing in disguise for Yepez and Donovan. Both hitters made significant strides last season despite not having any organized training in 2020. Whatever they did independently during COVID must have worked. Hopefully, they can continue that kind of unsupervised progression.
And the pitchers? Kyle Reiss, one of Cardinaldom’s resident minor league experts, has nothing but positive reports on Pacheco and Walsh and their work ethic.
Other players who find themselves in a similar situation, with varying levels of MLB exposure in the regular season and spring include:
Pitchers: Johan Quezada, Angel Rondon, Brandon Waddell, and T.J. Zeuch
Hitters: C Ivan Herrera, C Ali Sanchez
If you’re interested in more on this topic, I would suggest giving a listen to the most recent installment of “Meet Me At Musial” with my good friends Daniel Shoptaw and the previously mentioned Kyle Riess.