In keeping with the past year’s COVID-caused dislocations, Tigers farm kids remain in a state of semi-flux as they get ready for what already has been a weird baseball season.
The kids, some 140 of them, begin formal workouts this week at Lakeland, Florida — a month after they normally would have begun sweating on TigerTown’s backfields. Boot camp there would have preceded what once upon a time were minor-league game schedules that began in April, and not on May 4, which is the new date leagues and realigned MLB farm systems now begin play after coronavirus crashed the calendar a year ago.
Other wrinkles: Pitchers and catchers are checked in and are set for their first workout Monday. Position players, meanwhile, began reporting to TigerTown during the past weekend, but they won’t have their first organized sessions until later this week — all because of mandatory quarantine time that must extend several days ahead of physicals and, finally, full team routines.
“It’s definitely a little different,” said Dave Littlefield, who heads player development for the Tigers. “A little more spread-out than usual.”
For example: Some prime-time prospects who by now would have been boring into their A-ball routines at Toledo, Erie, or West Michigan — Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson, Dillon Dingler, Matt Manning, Parker Meadows, etc. — are working alongside scads of lower-level teens at Lakeland.
Greene, Torkelson, et al, won’t be leaving Lakeland until that first week of May when the minors, now firmly under the direction of Major League Baseball and re-named the Player Development League, begin their COVID-delayed schedules.
About that realignment: It was one of the more dramatic offseason stories in professional baseball. Minor-league teams, as they moved formally to MLB control in New York, were slashed from 160 to 120 franchises.
The Tigers’ affiliates were spared outside of their Bristol, Connecticut, low-Single A partner, which formerly was part of the New York-Penn League. The New York-Penn no longer is part of the formal minor-league galaxy.
The Tigers were affected in another higher-profile manner. West Michigan, which previously had been a low-Single A stop, flipped status with the Lakeland Flying Tigers, which prior to December was the high-A affiliate.
West Michigan is now the upper-tier Class A team, while Lakeland is the lower-rung A outpost — and no longer is Lakeland part of the ancient Florida State League. The teams now are part of a grouping known as Low A-Southeast.
Another name-change has shaken up the Lakeland hatchery where young international teens and kids fresh from the domestic draft often first taste professional games. The Gulf Coast League is history. It now is a “complex league” under MLB parlance.
What hasn’t changed is the work ahead for MLB teams trying to groom kids and tender adults into valid big-league talent.
And that process can feel, at times, as if it totally missed 2020.
“We talked today about it,” Littlefield said, speaking of an earlier staff meeting. “A lot of these guys haven’t played in a real game since September of 2019.”
Typical of the way in which a pandemic has made hash of institutions and habits during the past 13 months, this reacquaintance with “a real game,” as Littlefield acknowledges, will happen in stages.
Later this month, the kids at Lakeland will begin playing intra-squad scrimmages. They then will graduate to a handful of contests among some of the Tigers’ regional spring-camp neighbors — as was the arrangement for the Tigers and various Grapefruit League rivals in the general Tampa Bay sector.
But not until next month will players who last saw serious minor-league competition 19 months ago — where win-loss records count, where statistics are part of a permanent record, where big-league preparation is most intense — resume a real-life farm regimen that was wiped out in 2020.
For the first time, against other teams, Littlefield’s staff of farm managers, coaches, and roving instructors will get a shot at seeing how last year’s June draft crop looks against other pitchers and hitters.
Daniel Cabrera, an outfielder from Louisiana State who was taken in 2020’s third round, is in Lakeland warming up for what probably will be a May assignment at Low-A Southeast, or at West Michigan. Same with a pair of shortstops, Trei Cruz and Gage Workman, as well as Colt Keith, a prep outfielder and left-handed slasher who last June was a fifth-round grab.
“A bunch of guys from a good draft group last year,” Littlefield said. “I’m anxious to see Workman, Cruz, Colt Keith, the whole bunch. Parker Meadows (outfielder and second-round pick in 2018) is a very interesting athlete.”
What hasn’t yet been finalized is tied to farm camp’s biggest question: When can players get vaccinated?
Their big-league counterparts in Detroit last week got the COVID vaccine. With more than 4 million doses per day now bringing more and more from all age groups into the realm of those vaccinated, the Tigers would naturally cheer any news that the minor-leaguers might be on the docket — soon.
“Don’t know,” Littlefield said when asked if he had even a general guess for when shots might be available. “We’re working hard with our Detroit doctors and with our relationships here in Lakeland.
“We hope to get it soon.”
Until then, policies in place for MLB teams during spring camp carry over to the farm side. Players are housed either in dormitories or in hotels or apartments that ensure as much isolation as possible. Players cannot go into restaurants or into public places that can lead to exposure and transmission.
Life is anything but normal for baseball’s cosmos even as more and more of America begins to at least dabble in old habits and routines.
The discipline extends beyond United States borders. Similar protocols and safeguards have been in place in the Dominican Republic, where the Tigers have a team and academy for players who are either too young (not yet 17) to travel to America or who have been restricted by this country’s COVID regulations from entering the United States.
It is ever-shifting, baseball’s pandemic-pocked landscape, as 2021 begins in something approaching normalcy both the big leagues and the minors would appreciate rediscovering this spring or summer.
But until a bug that has ravaged the world, in ways far more painful and profound than it has slammed a sport, is finally subdued, the Tigers will follow that old one-day-at-a-time creed.
“We’re just waiting for the games to start,” Littlefield said.
He sounded not exhausted, but wistful. Like much of a world, perhaps, that after a year of siege and suffering simply wants its old way of life back.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and a retired Detroit News sportswriter.