As Major League Baseball clubs return to their ballparks to prepare for the shortened 2020 season, many of their minor-league players are in limbo.

Minor League Baseball canceled its season June 30 due to the coronavirus pandemic, and MLB is drafting plans to reorganize and contract baseball’s developmental circuit from 160 teams to 120. Though that reduction seemed unthinkable a couple of years ago, the pandemic-induced economic recession has made MiLB’s contraction inevitable.

Now, these players have lost a season and are facing potential unemployment or up to 18 months without game action, assuming MiLB returns on a normal schedule in 2021. But for the league’s top prospects, baseball may still be on the horizon.

“[Teams are] going to find a way to get those guys on the field,” MLB.com writer Richard Justice said on Glenn Clark Radio July 1. “I think they’re going to create playing opportunities for those guys in the interim.”

Under the league’s revised rules for this season, teams are allowed to keep 60 players on their expanded roster. In addition to the expected major-league players, these rosters mainly consist of Triple-A players and top prospects at other levels.

For the Baltimore Orioles, their initial roster listed 44 players and left off notable names like Keegan Akin, DL Hall, Ryan Mountcastle, Adley Rutschman and Grayson Rodriguez. But there is a good chance those players will be added in the coming days as training camps get underway at Camden Yards.

Once that list is finalized, those minor leaguers will serve an important role as the team’s “taxi squad.” The squad will work out at a nearby facility and will be on standby to replace major leaguers who are injured, ill or opt out of playing.

In addition, these prospects will receive valuable practice reps, which can help their growth even if they do not see game action in 2020.

“Every GM’s biggest concern is about these kids, do they go forward or do they go backward,” USA Today baseball writer Bob Nightengale said on GCR June 29. “But [for them] to work out and just to be around major-league staff and the top coaches in the organization [is crucial].”

Beyond the on-field product, general managers have to grapple with service time concerns for their prospects. Typically, players who are on the big-league roster for 172 days accrue one year of service time. Teams have manipulated this in the past to gain an extra year out of their best young players before they hit free agency. Most notably, the Chicago Cubs brought up Kris Bryant in late April 2015 so that he would only collect 171 days of service time; Bryant lost a grievance earlier in 2020 regarding this manipulation.

But with a shortened season, service time has become pro rata, according to Nightengale. The window for teams to tinker with service time has shrunk, and he believes organizations may keep their prospects off the major-league club all season as a result.

That seems to be the most likely course of action for now, but due to the evolving nature of the pandemic, there are major uncertainties in how teams will progress.

“They’re dealing with it day to day, and you try to figure out the best path forward,” Justice said.

While the lack of Minor League Baseball will undoubtedly impact the 2020 season, the long-term effects of this stoppage could be even more significant.

MiLB will likely accept MLB’s reorganization and contraction proposal due to economic hardships, reducing the sport’s footprint in towns nationwide. And with fewer clubs come fewer players, and many minor leaguers — especially those at the lowest levels — could be out of a job.

“Baseball hurts itself significantly by walking away from that legacy,” Phil Rogers, a sportswriter for Forbes and a former MLB.com correspondent, said on GCR July 1. “But the flip side is, in a way, the coronavirus is going to do a lot of the hard work for Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball in streamlining its player development system in a more efficient manner.”

Besides the economic impact, front offices will likely see complications in development from their minor leaguers. Even if players are able to practice regularly, they will likely not see valuable playing time that would help them best improve their skills. Clubs will not play their prospects unless needed, and fall leagues will probably be canceled due to spikes in reported cases of coronavirus in Arizona and Florida.

Growth for these players will be stunted, at least temporarily, and organizations relying on a carefully crafted rebuilding plan that hinges on prospect development — especially those like the Orioles and Detroit Tigers — could be set back years.

So even with the major leagues nearing its return, the ramifications of a canceled minor-league season could be profound and game-altering.

“For a team to be building around its minor league teams, to not be able to get competition for those guys is really significant,” Rogers said. “Long term, it’s one of those impossible-to-quantify things, but it feels that it’s going to be really bad.”

For more from Justice, listen to the full interview here:

For more from Nightengale, listen to the full interview here:

For more from Rogers, listen to the full interview here:

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