The baseball developmental league, which has operated every October since 1992, won’t open its gates this season, and if it returns in 2021 it could be in a different format, Sportico learned this week through a high-ranking official who asked to remain anonymous because Major League Baseball has yet to make the announcement.
The AFL has been a huge showcase for young talent over the course of its existence. Such big-league stars as Mike Piazza, Mike Trout, David Wright, Max Scherzer and Derek Jeter are members of its Hall of Fame. Plus, Michael Jordan played the 1994 season in the Fall League during his hiatus from basketball. His manager? Another Fall Hall of Famer, Terry Francona, the two-time World Series-winning skipper for Boston and pennant-winner for Cleveland.
The league was the brainchild of legendary general manager Roland Hemond and was run for decades by Steve Cobb, who was forced into retirement after the 2018 season. “I’ve been involved in a lot of projects, but this has been the baby I gave birth to,” Cobb said. “It’s been very rewarding, very rewarding.”
Big-league general managers had no desire to have their young players work in the close quarters of selected Arizona spring facilities this fall, the source said. Historically, the 30 Major League teams would send prospects to play on six Fall League squads. The concept had already been posed of each big-league club having their own development squad in separate 15-team leagues playing in Arizona and Florida spring facilities. But that’s been tabled to 2021, at the earliest.
The demise of the Fall League is the latest example of baseball’s arrested development for young players this season. From high school to college to MLB-sponsored, low-level professional leagues, there hasn’t been an organized place for most youngsters to play.
That’s been an overlooked consequence of COVID-19, which has affected baseball in many ways this season. “There’s no minor leagues,” long-time baseball analyst Suzyn Waldman said during a New York Yankees radio broadcast Wednesday. “And that’s been a big problem.”
MLB clubs have been given the green light to stage Instructional Leagues this fall, but whether teams will go to camps in Florida and Arizona, travel to play, or simply scrimmage amongst themselves as they have done this season at alternate camp sites is still to be determined.
“Time will tell,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “I’m still hopeful we’ll have Instructional League for our minor league players. It won’t be like our alternate sites, where our prospects have gotten repetitions but no games against other opponents, which certainly matter. If we do have that Instructional League it will give a chance for players to develop but also play other teams. I’m hopeful for that.”
The entire MLB-affiliated minor league system remained dark this season while COVID-19 restricted the majors to 60 games. As hundreds of players went on the injured list and 55 others tested positive for the coronavirus, there was no place for active lower-level competition or a place for returning injured big leaguers to rehab.
For instance, if Yankees sluggers Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, nursing almost season-long leg injuries, make it back to the field for the playoffs, they’ll do so without a stint in Triple-A, and without seeing live in-game pitching for months, Waldman pointed out.
Even before the coronavirus struck, MLB had begun negotiating a new agreement with the minor leagues, floating the possibility of eliminating as many as 60 of the 160 teams. The existing agreement expires at the end of this month, and negotiations are ongoing. The longtime president of minor league baseball, Pat O’Conner, is now planning to retire as 2020 expires, after having been re-elected to another term this past December at the Winter Meetings in San Diego.
That doesn’t bode well. There’s no telling what the minor league structure will be next season and when the virus will allow play to resume. Many franchises are in serious financial trouble, having had no games to generate any revenue.
“Our teams are pretty strong financially,” said Tim Purpura, a longtime MLB executive who is now commissioner of the Double-A Texas League. “But it’s impossible to say what shape the rest of the minors are going to be in when this is all over.”
Without scholastic baseball this season there has been no way to evaluate players for next year’s amateur draft, either. MLB’s draft is always a crapshoot. From its inception in 1965, it took generations of draftees before Ken Griffey Jr., became the first No. 1 pick to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2016. But with no players to scout, next year will really be problematic. One former scout, who asked to go nameless, said he’s glad he “doesn’t have to do it.”
“There’s a lot of unknowns in this area,” Arizona Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said. “These are topics and discussions that have come up in our space. Our minor-league athletes need some playing time. They need to be evaluated. So do the amateurs. Hopefully that can get squared away so we can have a healthy June draft.”
And then there’s the Fall League, which in recent years has produced such players as Ronald Acuna, Keston Hiura, Gleyber Torres and the sons of former Major Leaguers Vladimir Guerrero, Phil Nevin, Mike Cameron, Gary Varsho and Craig Biggio.
Hemond, on his 90th birthday, threw out the first pitch of what could be the last AFL championship game on Oct. 26, 2019, in Scottsdale.
None of it will happen this year.