Luke Erickson: The arc of a minor league season

Greetings from the “New Kid on the Block” at MASNsports.com! Well, except I’m not new, I’m not a kid, and my wife is the one from South Boston.

What I am is a minor celebrity in the “Natmosphere,” as I’ve been covering the Nationals’ farm system for eight seasons at NationalsProspects.com, with the help of some volunteers and some gratuitous use of bulldogs.

Tomorrow is opening day for Washington’s four full-season affiliates - low Single-A Hagerstown, high Single-A Potomac, Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse - which play roughly 140 games until Labor Day. Most of you are familiar with the rhythms and flow of major league season. Here’s how it (usually) goes in the minors ...

April

The season begins with speculation as to where the prospects will play - would Erick Fedde begin at Double-A or Triple-A? Would Victor Robles return to Potomac or be challenged with the next step to Harrisburg? Would the teenage phenom Juan Soto skip past short-season Single-A Auburn to Hagerstown?

On the flip side, there will also be a dozen or so players who played full-season ball last summer but will not be assigned this spring. They will go to extended spring training instead, and a fair number of them will be quietly released or retire.

May

By now, one of two things will have happened. Somebody, somewhere will be dominating his level and there will be a drumbeat for his promotion. Or someone at the big league club will have gotten hurt. Sometimes the Nats will promote a pitcher this early, but rarely a position player.

Late in the month, the Dominican Summer League (DSL) starts up, to little-to-no notice aside from Baseball America and really hardcore prospect followers. The Nats’ affiliate - the DSL Nationals - will play until late August, the first of three short-season teams.

June

First comes the First-Year Player Draft. This was a much bigger deal eight to 10 years ago, when the Nats were the National League East’s doormat and were drafting early. Now, as contender, the Nats are drafting very late in each round, often looking for hidden gems in the college ranks.

Shortly afterwards, the team’s two other short-season teams begin play: The GCL Nationals in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and the Auburn Doubledays in the New York-Penn League. These will be populated by the younger/smaller-school draft picks and older/major-college draft picks, respectively.

Not long after that, the two Single-A teams - Hagerstown and Potomac - will finish their first half of the season. Following their leagues’ All-Star Games, there will be a series of moves to realign the rosters, some related to the draft earlier in the month.

July

If there’s one month that’s hard to peg, this is it. When the big club was doing very poorly, there’d be anticipation as to who would be added to the organization. Now, it’s the opposite: who might be dealt away.

Like the majors, the Double-A and Triple-A All-Star Games are in the middle of the month. There’s a maybe player or two named to the Futures Game, but it generally only causes the player(s) to miss a game or two from the minors.

August

The final promotions come in this month, with an eye towards (1) getting a taste of the next level before next season and (2) qualifying for the Arizona Fall League (AFL) that runs from October to November. Obviously, the first part is more important than the second, but they are related.

At the highest levels, there’s the speculation as to which of the 40-man guys will be called up for the September expansion. This can put a damper, if not kill, the enthusiasm if the team is in the playoff hunt, since the guys that got them there might be in Washington instead.

For Potomac and Hagerstown, who are usually in playoff contention, inning limits for their pitchers are the biggest bugaboo, but it’s often offset by the front office dropping down a player from the level above. Otherwise, this is often a lot of fun for the fans of these affiliates.

At the lowest levels - the DSL and GCL - the season is done by the end of the month, and the playoffs are extremely short.

September

Or more accurately, Labor Day weekend. Sometimes it will run for another week or two for the playoffs, but for the most part, it’s the end of both the summer and the season. My goal is to be your weekly guide for the next few months.

Luke Erickson blogs about the Nationals’ minor league affiliates for NationalsProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter: @nats_prospects. His thoughts on the Nationals’ farm system will appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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