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What’s new as Minor League Baseball returns in 2021?

Brooklyn Cyclones to debut Tuesday in Asheville

May 4, 2021 Jake Seiner, Associated Press
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After more than a year of waiting, fans of minor-league baseball are finally getting baseball back.

“Small-town baseball, it’s the fabric of the United States,” Brooklyn Cyclones manager Ed Blankmeyer said. “It’s a culture.”

Minor league teams across the country are set to open their seasons today, returning baseball to communities denied the old national pastime during the coronavirus pandemic. For the Cyclones, the first game to be played will take place in Asheville, N.C., on Tuesday, but the first home game at MCU Park will take place on May 18 against Hudson Valley.

Of course, much has changed since the last affiliated games were played in 2019. There are fewer teams and leagues, and Major League Baseball has introduced plans to use the minors as a testing ground for new rules that could improve pace of play or reduce player injuries. For example, the Cyclones, which were originally in the short-season single-A New York Penn League, are now in the longer-season single-A High-A East league.

Much will remain the same. Family-friendly prices, offbeat giveaways and colorful team branding — such as the Cyclones’ Sandy the Seagull — remain key pillars of the minor league experience.

But for those wondering what will be different, here’s a primer:

The biggest change, of course, is that MLB contracted the minors from 160 affiliates to 120.

Commissioner Rob Manfred’s office assumed full control of the minors after deciding this offseason not to renew its agreement with the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the body that operated minor league ball.

That gave MLB latitude to reshape the minors, and it acted fast. The short-season leagues were eliminated, as were several full-season affiliates, to take 40 clubs out of the equation.

What remains are four levels — Triple-A, Double-A, High-A and Low-A — each with regional names. No more Pacific Coast League, for example — it’s just Triple-A West. Several leagues with over 100 years of history, including the International League (established in 1884), Texas League (1902) and Florida State League (1919), are no more.

The most impactful change could come at the lower levels, where MLB will limit pitchers’ ability to hold baserunners. At High-A, pitchers will be required to fully disengage from the rubber prior to throwing to a base, under penalty of a balk. In Low-A, pitchers only get two pickoff attempts per plate appearance. If they try for a third and don’t record an out, it’s a balk.

At least 1,000 roster spots, including the Staten Island Yankees, the Cyclones’ traditional rivals, were eliminated when MLB contracted 40 clubs, but those that remain are at least getting a pay raise. MLB decided prior to the pandemic to boost minor league wages.

Players at Class A will see their minimum weekly pay raised from $290 to $500. Double-A will jump from $350 to $600, and Triple-A from $502 to $700.

For most, opening day will be their first competitive game since the end of the 2019 season. More advanced players may have gotten reps last season at alternate training sites, but the bulk of players reported to spring training in late March after scrambling to stay sharp in 2020.

“If you have young guys that need to play baseball, they’ve been void of it for almost two years now, they’ve got to get out there and play,” Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “This is one time I am really going to be paying attention to minor league reports coming up. I want to see and hear how our guys are doing.”

Players are understandably eager to get back into the minor league grind, competing against other teams and playing in front of fans.

About the only thing they aren’t excited for?

“The nine- or 10-hour bus rides,” Mets prospect Matt Allan, who is returning to Brooklyn to play for the Cyclones, joked.

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