What Could New Minor League Rosters Look Like in 2021?

After a lost season in 2020, there are plenty of questions facing Minor League Baseball in 2021. The revamped development system and what players will be a part of it is the one that has personally been weighing on my mind lately.

I don’t consider myself a prospect evaluator of any kind—it’s why you don’t see me writing player reports or contributing to the site’s Top 50 list. Rather, I have a passion for transactions, rules, payroll, and roster building—I always have, ever since my days playing Madden or MLB The Show in high school, simulating entire seasons just so I could partake in Offseason Mode. So, the opportunity to envision what the system could like for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2021 has really had my gears moving recently.

As you all are probably aware, Major League Baseball has taken the liberty of cutting every team’s development pipeline from at least seven domestic league teams to five. Organizations are now left with Triple, Double, High, and Low-A, as well as the Complex Leagues to roster and develop Minor League players. Cutting two levels from the system brings with it some intriguing questions of just how teams will handle this new reality. After a lost season for a large majority of any given organization, where will teams choose to send their prospects to start this season, as it may not be clear what kind of progress a player made? How fast or slow will teams promote prospects? What kind of prospects will—or won’t—make the cut to get to the newly mandated organizational limits? As an organization with a new front office who has yet to oversee a traditional minor league season and are in the middle of a rebuild, it makes following the Pirates even more interesting than it may have been otherwise.

Due to my aforementioned passion for this type of thing, the ramifications to this transition have truly fascinated me; however, the complete lack of transparency has also been extremely frustrating. While a lot of details are lacking—largely thanks to the reporting of Baseball America and the Associated Press—here’s what we (probably) know thus far:

  • Triple-A was originally scheduled to begin on April 6th, but it was pushed back a month to the beginning of May. Double and Single-A schedules are slated to begin on May 4th.
  • There is currently no scheduled start for the Arizona or Gulf Coast Leagues
  • Organizations will be limited to 190 minor league players for domestic leagues during the offseason, and 180 during the season
  • Teams, if they so choose, can roster two Complex League teams, as long as they stay within the 180-player limit
  • The roster limits for each league will likely be 28 for Triple and Double-A and 30 for Single-A

These details leave several questions unanswered, such as when do organizations need pared down to meet the limit, what constitutes a “domestic league player”, and what is the roster limit for the Complex Leagues, just to name a few. One question that has been of particular interest to me is just how many players the Pirates will have to cut to meet the new limit, so that’s what I’m going to focus on first.

Before I begin, I want to state the obvious—it’s not great that this many players will have to lose their jobs in affiliated baseball. Multiply the numbers I’m about to cover by 30 teams and you have a flood of players that will suddenly be out of a job—most of them with only their specialized skillset which leaves them with few applicable skills in the market. For as much as Major League Baseball wants to tout the leagues taking the place of what once were affiliated organizations, it won’t be the same, and it will likely leave many players out. For this reason—among others—I won’t be referencing any specific players by name. I have a working list, but I don’t think it’s fair to spotlight any individuals, especially as this is just theoretical, and I have no real background or expertise in this kind of evaluation.

By my count, the Pirates currently have 326 players under contract in the organization. This includes Major and Minor League contracts, as well as the past two international signing period classes. While it’s not entirely clear, players in the minors but still on the Reserve List—thus under Major League contracts—will be excluded from the 180-player limit, so we can remove 43 players from the count (which includes players on the Injured and Restricted Lists). For those keeping score at home, I counted the four players on minor league contracts most likely to make the team on Opening Day—Brian Goodwin, Tony Wolters, Todd Frazier, and Chasen Shreve—among the 40-man roster, so I had to remove four players from the actual current 40-man roster to get where I needed to be. Next, we must account for the “domestic” facet of the requirement. Again, it’s not entirely clear what would qualify as a player slated for a foreign league—is it strictly the roster limit, which was 35 as of 2019, or can teams assign more players to the DSL and effectively hide them from the count? Since this is somewhat unknown, I decided to subtract 70 players from the count—two full DSL teams, as the Pirates have rostered for the last several seasons—to account for the foreign roster requirement. This takes us to 213 players on minor league contracts, with a requirement to meet of 180. By my math, that leaves 33 players left standing when the music stops. What kind of player does it look like will be left with the short end of the stick?

When building my theoretical rosters, I decided to the split teams in the following way: for Triple to Single-A, I divided the roster evenly between pitchers and position players, while I gave pitchers the extra spot for the GCL roster. Since it was easier for me to conceptualize who needed to stay and who needed to go, I decided to roster two GCL teams. This creates some issues that I will try and touch on, but for now, we’ll imagine the Pirates having to roster six teams with 180 players. In total, with the roster limits listed above, there would be 94 pitchers and 92 position players needed to fill all six teams, for a total of 186 players. Wait, that’s more than 180 you ask—remember, however, that up to 14 will be on the Reserve List, so it’s only 172 players with eight left without roster spots, but still in the organization.

Of the 283 (326 minus 43) players from the remaining pool, 151 are pitchers, while 132 are position players. So, if it feels like Ben Cherington has been bringing in a lot of pitchers, it’s because he has been. To make up the two DSL rosters, I mostly moved over the 61 players from the past two classes, keeping a few here and there from the old rosters to make up the 70 spots. Maybe a few players here or there will actually start their careers in the states, but for argument sake, let’s say my pitcher/position player balance is representative. Those two teams were made up of 36 pitchers and 34 position players, leaving 115 pitchers and 98 position players.

I could actually go one or two steps of granular detail further, but it starts getting muddy when accounting for the split of pitchers and position players on the end of the Reserve List, players on the IL who are still under contract so will likely be in the count (like Robbie Glendinning, Aaron Shortridge, and Jack Hartman), as well as the couple of extra players that wouldn’t be assigned. For sake of confusing anyone even further, let’s work off the assumption that 33 players need cut, and there are significantly more pitchers to draw from than hitters.

My first step in making a list of who I thought may or may not get cut simply started out with projecting rosters for all the full season teams and seeing who was left out. I had the bones of where the rosters stood after 2019, so I started by inserting new additions brought in by Cherington between the last two offseasons—players that never had the opportunity to be assigned in the Pirates organization—as well as assigning players with anticipated promotions from 2019 to 2020. What remained were huge starting pitching staffs—even considering all the extra pitchers that remained—and very thin benches across the middle tier of the system—Double to Single-A. Working off a list of potential cuts in excess of 50, I started assigning players back into projected rosters, struggling to find enough position players to even staff entire teams.

In the end, I finished with a list of 24 pitchers and 9 hitters making up the group of 33 needed cuts.

The list is made up of players you mostly think it would be—players who ended 2019 on the Short Season teams that were jettisoned (Bristol and West Virginia) or in the GCL that didn’t seem quite ready for the jump to Full Season. I also favored younger players over older—23- or 24-year-olds in Short Season leagues don’t usually top prospect lists. The next largest subsection of the group was older players in the DSL for which I couldn’t justify a promotion to the GCL or sticking around for a second—or sometimes third—go around.

A theme that was definitely prevalent as I tried filling out the rosters was promoting players higher than I would have expected or was comfortable with. It will be interesting to see how it plays out, but the reality of the new system is that players will have to make jumps that we just haven’t seen before, so what will that look like? I leaned more conservative with my placements, more so than some projections I’ve seen. For example, I have Max Kranick, Oneil Cruz, and Travis Swaggerty all starting in Altoona. Many seem to think it’s a complete possibility that all three start in Indianapolis and end up in Pittsburgh at some point in 2021. Personally, what I see are two players that have never played above A-ball and one who hasn’t played much in Double-A and is still pretty raw. Was the work that all three received at the Alternate Training Site representative enough to replicate a 2020 season in Double-A, making a promotion to Triple-A in 2021 one that would have happened under normal circumstances? Were individual improvements clearly made that a jump over a level is warranted? Or are aggressive promotions like this the new normal, and we just don’t know it yet? I for one can’t wait to find out.

Another aspect I wanted to point out was the potential benefits or pitfalls of having two Complex Level teams. For one, it would provide more opportunity for game action, allowing more players to see the field and accumulate live innings and at-bats. On the other hand, it restricts the type of prospect the team may want to keep around. Of the 35 players that would make up a second team, maybe the organization would prefer to keep 25 pitchers instead of 18 to 20. Staffing only one team could allow for a larger pool to hang around Bradenton and move on and off the one GCL roster as the Pirates saw fit. However, that brings up the issue of what exactly do you do with such a large group of players after the season starts? Extended Spring Training ends when the GCL begins, so what happens when the Complex League kicks off and there are 70 plus players at that level? I can’t imagine some would just go home, but are there enough meaningful innings to go around? What does instruction look like for those who aren’t playing games? Further still, if the organization staffs two full teams and basically allocates an extra 35 spots to that level of player, it leaves as few as four extra players that are unassigned. What happens in the event of injuries? We already know that teams can use a five-man Taxi Squad for 2021, which basically extends the number of necessary players needed at Triple-A. It’s all pure speculation at this point, but still interesting to consider none the less.

If it seems like I’m rambling, well, it’s probably because I am. There are just so many unknowns right now that the possibilities of how things could play out are endless. While it’s important to touch base now with what we know and to speculate how things could play out, tomorrow is another day and could bring with it major change—quite literally, Triple-A was starting a month earlier and there was no Alternate Training Site when I started writing this article.

Even if we don’t know what they will look like right now, at least there’s a facsimile of minor league baseball to talk about.