Thursday was a long day coming.
Last Friday, Major League Baseball unveiled a new structure for Minor League Baseball that included 120 teams, 11 leagues and four full-season levels. One important item still in limbo was the schedule for all the leagues, which needed to be hashed out before it could become official. That much-anticipated reveal came Thursday.
The two Triple-A leagues will feature 142 regular-season games per team, while clubs on the Double-A, High-A and Low-A circuits will have 120 games apiece. Triple-A East play begins on April 6, Triple-A West on April 8 and everything else on May 4. Yes, Opening Day is Star Wars Day for 90 teams in the Minor League galaxy. The seasons are scheduled to end on Sept. 19, except in the case of Triple-A West, which will wrap up on Sept. 21. None of the league will play a post-season.
All of this feels like reaching the shores of a massive lake after traversing a desert in 2020. However, the news doesn't come in a vacuum. The coronavirus pandemic isn't over. There remains the possibility that Triple-A games could be pushed back with alternate sites taking their place for April if the state of the pandemic calls for it. As part of the steps being taken to ensure players and fans will be safe in the months ahead, the 2021 Minor League schedule features a few other changes that will take some getting used to.
This edition of the Toolshed walks you through what stands out about this year's schedule announcement and the implications it will have on the Minor League landscape.
Six-game series: To limit travel in 2021, Minor League teams are going to get to know each other over longer stretches in the season ahead. All series will be six games in a single stadium, which could have fascinating repercussions. Players talk all the time about making adjustments and then adjusting to the adjustments of others. Seeing one team exclusively for one week is going to make those adjustments all the more necessary. Prospects who can assess what changes they need to make against a specific opponent and then actually follow through will be those who thrive the most in the season ahead. But if, say, the other side realizes a player can't hit the high fastball by Wednesday and he doesn't correct for that, it could be a long, long week. It's also possible one starting pitcher could see the same team twice in the same series. And possible player-development staffs could use the six-game series to try out six-man rotations. In the end, there will be a lot of familiarity between clubs. More on that in a bit.
Mondays (or Wednesdays) off: Because of the six-game series, Triple-A West clubs will have every Wednesday off while clubs on the other 10 circuits will have Mondays off. That day will be used for travel or rest, if the club is staying home. One day off per week should be a boon for players and clubs alike instead of them receiving as little as one day off per month in years past. The consistency also should be helpful mentally, especially during what is commonly referred to as the grind of the summer.
Keeping it local: The new leagues were formed to have additional emphasis on keeping things as regional as possible, and the schedules for 2021 take that to a whole new level. These aren't bubbles, per se, but they're pretty close given the circumstance. For example, the Triple-A East Northeast Division only plays within itself in 2021, meaning Buffalo, Lehigh Valley, Rochester, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Syracuse and Worcester won't compete against any of the other 14 teams on that circuit. Travel will therefore be limited to New York, Pennsylvania and one city in Central Massachusetts. Even when teams aren't sticking to their divisions, they will see other clubs much more often than others. The new Triple-A club in Jacksonville, for instance, will play Charlotte or Norfolk in 84 (42 each) of their 142 games. So Marlins prospects at the Minors' top level will get to know White Sox and Orioles farmhands extremely well before they set off for other divisions in the Majors.
Goodbye, neighbor: That said, there are a few strange instances in which some relatively close-by clubs won't play each other at all, as the schedule dictates they will head in other directions. For instance, Rocket City of Madison, Alabama, does not play Mississippi in 2021, despite the two sitting in neighboring states in the Double-A South. Further south in the same state, Birmingham and Montgomery will see the M-Braves multiple times. Sticking to the same level, Binghamton and Somerset -- affiliates of the two New York clubs in the Double-A Northeast Northeast Division -- won't face each other for a single six-game series. Similarly, Memphis and Charlotte are in the same International League East Southeast Division, but won't cross paths at all. The Redbirds instead have Indianapolis and Louisville on the schedule from the new-look Midwest. The list goes on. Some parts of the schedule are necessarily wacky to fit the new guidelines, and that means it won't be until 2022 when certain teams can face clubs from their own divisions again.
High-A East travel: The scheduling was always going to be most interesting in the newly fashioned High-A East league, a circuit that stretches from Hudson Valley, New York, all the way down to Rome, Georgia. The North (five teams) and South Divisions (seven teams) in that league are unevenly matched, meaning there will have to be at least one cross-division matchup every non-Monday. That said, the schedule makers have found ways to make this circuit work in its first year of existence, particularly when it comes to cutting down on extreme travel. The farthest south the Hudson Valley Renegades will travel will be Winston-Salem and Greensboro from Aug. 24-Sept. 4, and those trips will be back-to-back. The farthest north the Rome Braves will trek is Wilmington and Aberdeen from June 22-July 4, again on successive road series. The Renegades are saved from further trips to Rome, Asheville, Greenville and Hickory while the Braves are spared lengthy excursions to Jersey Shore, Brooklyn and Hudson Valley, at least for this summer.
New clubs in town: Seven clubs will make their official Minor League debuts in 2021, and their first schedules were released Thursday. Three (St. Paul, Sugar Land and Somerset) come from the independent ranks, while Worcester, Rocket City, Wichita and Fredericksburg are established Minor League clubs in new cities. The latter three were meant to debut in 2020, but their opening celebrations were pushed back one year.
The home openers for those clubs are as follows:
Triple-A St. Paul: April 6 vs. Columbus
Triple-A Sugar Land: April 8 vs. El Paso
Triple-A Worcester: April 13 vs. Lehigh Valley
Double-A Rocket City: May 11 vs. Tennessee
Double-A Somerset: May 4 vs. Harrisburg
Double-A Wichita: May 11 vs. Amarillo
Low-A Fredericksburg: May 11 vs. Delmarva
Not-so-short-season anymore: Finally, 10 formerly Class A Short Season clubs have jumped to full-season status -- all at the High-A level -- and will get to play in May for the first time in a long time, or in some cases, ever. Their home openers will be on the following dates:
Aberdeen: May 18 vs. Wilmington
Brooklyn: May 18 vs. Hudson Valley
Hudson Valley: May 11 vs. Aberdeen
Eugene: May 11 vs. Hillsboro
Everett: May 11 vs. Tri-City
Hillsboro: May 4 vs. Everett
Spokane: May 4 vs. Eugene
Tri-City: May 4 vs. Vancouver
Vancouver: May 11 vs. Spokane*
Due to Canadian travel restrictions, Vancouver is likely to be forced to play its home opener elsewhere. The club is exploring options to play in another High-A West ballpark or another stadium in the United States.
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.