We have at least some answers about Major League Baseball's planned return after the league announced this week it will adhere to the March 26 agreement and pay players prorated salaries for a 60-game schedule set by Commissioner Rob Manfred.
We have the when. July 1 for pitchers and catchers. July 3 for everyone else. July 23 or 24 for official Opening Day.
We have the where. Major League parks and some alternate sites.
The how gets complicated. A lot more complicated as evidenced by a 101-page health-and-safety protocol agreed to by the players and league. While the protocols got plenty of digital ink for their ban on spitting or the requirement that a wet rag replace a pitcher's licking of his fingers, they will certainly have other effects that will make the 2020 season unlike any other in baseball's history, and those effects will ripple around some of the game's top prospects.
This week's Toolshed explains and explores how some of Major League Baseball's biggest changes will shape prospects in the days, weeks and months to come.
60-man player pools
This is the biggest change directly affecting prospects. Even with Major League Baseball set to return, Minor League Baseball remains on pause, and its 2020 season remains very much uncertain. That said, teams still need to have players in reserve in case of injury or downturns in production. In order to keep those players handy and fresh, organizations will name 60-man player pools this Sunday with all 60 players first reporting to Spring Training II, though some may be physically at an alternate training site. That's the 40 players on the 40-man roster, plus 20 more from within the organization. Eventually, the Major League rosters will be culled down to 30 for Opening Day (more on that later), and the other 30 officially will head to the alternate sites for workouts in order to stay ready for any potential callup.
Under normal circumstances, it would stand to reason that the 30 not headed immediately to the Majors would be the next 30 closest to the game's top stage. Of course, 2020 is every bit far away from being normal circumstances. Without the Minors playing in any capacity, key prospects have lost development opportunities that come with live at-bats and actual innings pitched against fair competition. It's one thing to get in reps at a local park or gym with fellow players in your area, as many Minor Leaguers have done since baseball was shut down in March. It's another to do the same with guidance of coaches and the guarantee that the person you're facing on the mound or in the box is of at least pro quality.
As such, organizations have already made clear that several of the game's top prospects will be added to their 60-man player pools in order to limit the amount of development time they've lost over the summer of 2020. For example, MLB.com's Jesse Sanchez reported late Wednesday that top overall prospect Wander Franco will be part of the Rays' extended player pool. The 19-year-old switch-hitting shortstop was a potential candidate to crack the Majors in late 2020, considering he has 80-grade potential for his hit tool and seemed primed to take a jump in power, but that was only after expected spells at Double-A Montgomery and likely Triple-A Durham. With the Biscuits and the Bulls both off at present, the Rays' best opportunity to monitor Franco and guide his growth in 2020 will be to have him at the alternate-site workouts.
There are other more extreme examples as well. Sanchez added in a separate report that the Mariners and Giants planned to add Noelvi Marte and Marco Luciano to their respective 60-man player pools. Neither of the 18-year-olds has seen much game time away from the complex. Marte hasn't even made his domestic Minor League debut yet. But given how big a role each plays in the current state of the Seattle and San Francisco farm systems, both organizations figure it's best to oversee their development in person rather than leave matters to FaceTime check-ins and Zoom calls.
Basically, expect a healthy amount -- perhaps even a majority -- of Top-100 prospects to appear on 60-man player pools when they're revealed Sunday. The same could be said of first-round talent from the 2020 Draft, with organizations wanting to make sure get their careers started on the right feet.
There might even be some special cases in which top prospects are added for reasons beyond keeping their development in-house. To return to the Mariners, Seattle is expected to bring Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez to the player pool. Both certainly need more than 60 more games of Minor League experience to show Major League readiness, but they need actual games. Even in a shortened season in which anything could happen, the Mariners aren't expected to compete this summer and could turn to its young outfielders late in the season to get them the game experience they would be lacking in alternate-site workouts. Remember, this was the club that brought up Kyle Lewis, Justin Dunn and Justus Sheffield for Major League experience late last season. The Giants could do the same with Joey Bart and Heliot Ramos. The Tigers have options on the mound in Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal who will need to face actual in-game batters in order to grow. The Marlins could give Sixto Sanchez, Jazz Chisholm, JJ Bleday, Jesús Sánchez and Edward Cabrera looks to make sure they get playing time somewhere. Yes, this would require eating up some service time, but that may be something clubs are willing to swallow rather than lose any kind of playing time for their best young talents.
Finally, keeping prospects close on 60-man player pools could be beneficial for clubs with a chance at competing. The White Sox, for instance, made several moves in the offseason in the hopes of chasing down the Twins and Indians in the American League Central. It becomes a lot harder to keep down Nick Madrigal, who was in the midst of trying to win the second-base job in the spring, in order to get him more Triple-A at-bats when he's only able to get in workouts at the alternate site. The Padres, in their second season with Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr. on the left side of the infield, could make a run for a Wild Card spot and could be in a tough position, knowing MacKenzie Gore and Luis Patiño are two of their best arms at any level but wouldn't be getting game action.
There might not be any Minor League Baseball at present, but thanks to the 60-man player pools, there will be plenty of prospect talk going around from July on.
Expanded Major League rosters
This is where the 30-man rosters come into play. Teams will be allowed to carry 30 players on their Major League rosters until the 15th day of the season, when those must be slimmed to 28. There will be another round of cuts on the 29th day of the season down to 26, and the roster limit will stay at 26 for the remainder of the regular season and playoffs.
That early expansion is notable and important to the topic of top prospects. Four additional spots create openings for prospects who were in the midst of positional battles in the spring.
Madrigal again is a prime example. Even if the White Sox prefer Leury García at second base right now, they could keep Madrigal around for 15 days without feeling the roster squeeze and see whether their No. 4 prospect can make the job his in time. Looking elsewhere, Dylan Carlson seemed destined for Triple-A Memphis while the Cardinals explored a multitude of outfield options this spring, but now, the additional space (and the lack of Memphis' season) makes it easier to give the No. 17 overall prospect a look and see whether he can crack the outfield rotation. It's even possible that Blue Jays right-hander Nate Pearson has more of a chance to bring his triple-digit heat to the Majors as Toronto looks to keep arms around early. However, Pearson, whose Jays squad is much less likely to contend than the Sox or Cards, could bump into more service-time issues than his other counterparts here, since Toronto might not want to burn a year of service on what would be a down year.
The biggest benefactors of expanded rosters and rule changes might be Rule 5 players. Nine of the 11 picks from December remain with the clubs that selected them, and it should be much easier to stick going forward, especially in the early going on the 30-man. Rule 5 players still must remain on the Major League roster for the duration of the season, but that's much easier to do over 60 games than 162. That can include time on the injured list, but a player must be active for at least 50 days -- still an easier task. Good news for the likes of Rony Garcia (Tigers), Sterling Sharp (Marlins), Stephen Woods Jr. (Royals), Yohan Ramirez (Mariners), Mark Payton (Reds), Dany Jimenez (Giants), Vimael Machin (Athletics), Trevor Megill (Cubs) and Jonathan Arauz (Red Sox).
It seemed like the designated hitter was coming to the National League for good. Instead, it'll only be here for 2020 for now, and some prospects could reap the benefits, even indirectly.
Start with the defending World Series champions. The Nationals already had a logjam on the infield with veterans Howie Kendrick and Asdrúbal Cabrera returning, Starlin Castro signing as a free agent and top prospect Carter Kieboom looking to win the third-base job. (Not to mention Eric Thames and Ryan Zimmerman competing for time at first base.) Giving up one more spot in the lineup for a bat frees up some potential for Kieboom, who showed he doesn't need much more seasoning with an All-Star turn in the Pacific Coast League last season, to lock down the hot corner for himself or at least be part of a rotation on the dirt.
In a similar vein, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts has said publicly that he plans to use the DH as a chance to give his regular players a day off. It was all but settled anyway that No. 2 overall prospect Gavin Lux was going to be Los Angeles' everyday second baseman, but finding different types of at-bats for Justin Turner, Max Muncy and Corey Seager could only help Lux's case for time anywhere on the infield.
Over with Atlanta, Cristian Pache instantly would become one of the Majors' best defensive outfielders the second he reaches The Show, and as someone who put up a .747 OPS over 26 games at Triple-A Gwinnett, his bat likely wouldn't be a total disaster right now in the bigs. The Braves already have a few DH candidates in Nick Markakis, Austin Riley, Adam Duvall and even Marcell Ozuna -- all of whom play the outfield already -- but the new rule could make it easier than ever for the reigning NL East champs to hide Pache's bat and take full advantage of his glove.
Alternate training sites
This doesn't have a direct on prospects, but while we're talking about the new Major League protocols on a Minor League site, it's worth bringing up how some of the 60-man player pool members will be seeing some familiar sites in the weeks to come. Several organizations have confirmed they plan to keep their player pools at Minor League stadiums nearby, including the following:
Atlanta Braves: Gwinnett
Boston Red Sox: Pawtucket
Cleveland Indians: Lake County
Colorado Rockies: Albuquerque
Detroit Tigers: Toledo
Miami Marlins: Jupiter
Milwaukee Brewers: Wisconsin
New York Mets: Brooklyn
Pittsburgh Pirates: Altoona
San Francisco Giants: Sacramento
Seattle Mariners: Tacoma
St. Louis Cardinals: Springfield
Tampa Bay Rays: Port Charlotte
This list will be updated as other Minor League parks are announced as alternate sites.
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.