How call-ups and rehab assignments will work in 2021

Throughout their 60-game season last summer and the first month of this season, when the Nationals needed to add a player to their big league roster they simply sent word to their alternate training site in Fredericksburg and waited for the player to make the short drive up Interstate 95 to Nationals Park. It was, under the circumstances, the safest way to make transactions while playing through a pandemic.

No more. Beginning today, all major league clubs will have the ability to call players up from their Triple-A affiliate, with a few twists.

As the minor league season finally commences one month late this year and after being canceled altogether in 2020, the process for promoting players to the majors will return to something more familiar to anyone who followed such transactions for decades. But teams won’t have total freedom to call anybody up they want on short notice. There will be restrictions.

Thumbnail image for Nationals-Park-Closed-Gates-Sidebar.jpgMost notably, all promotions must come from Triple-A to begin the season. That’s because all Triple-A players and coaches are part of the same Tier 1 COVID-19 protocols their counterparts in the big leagues have been since the start of the season.

If, say, the Nationals realize at 10 a.m. they need to make a roster move, they can call their new affiliate in Rochester and inform a player he’s being promoted. That player can either make the six-hour drive to Washington or board a commercial flight without being subject to a full round of intake testing or quarantine period. He’ll just need to take a rapid-result test upon arriving at the ballpark, and if he passes he’ll be eligible to play that night.

The key caveat, though, is that the player must come from Triple-A. The other minor league affiliates are not considered part of Tier 1, so they aren’t subject to the same level of testing and other protocols as their Triple-A and major league counterparts. So the days of the Nationals calling up a player directly from Double-A Harrisburg are over, at least not without having to jump through a bunch of hoops.

“If there is a need, and for some reason we don’t have that player (already at Triple-A), there’s a process we could follow to get that player into Triple-A quickly and then have them on the roster for a period of time, then they get called up,”

Nationals assistant general manager for player development Mark Scialabba said Monday during a Zoom session with reporters. “Or if we have to directly take them from Double-A for some reason, then they’d have to sit out for some period of time, like five days. So you really want the players you’re going to use on your Triple-A team.”

To help organizations ensure they have enough players at every position available to them, Triple-A rosters will be expanded to 33 to begin the season. Only 28 players will be designated as active for each game, but all 33 are eligible to be called up to the majors if needed.

Clubs also still have the option of bringing a five-man taxi squad on the road with them, as they did last summer and throughout April. Nationals manager Davey Martinez, though, said he prefers all of his players to remain with Rochester so they can continue to play on a daily basis and stay fresh.

“It’s a good thing they’re giving us that flexibility,” Scialabba said. “There are a lot of players right now. It’s a heavy roster, but that’s what we’re dealing with right now. It doesn’t mean we have to have a taxi squad on the road. It doesn’t mean we have to send players (on the road with the big leaguers), but that is an option if we want to.”

The start of the minor league season also means the return of official rehab assignments for injured players who are close to returning to the active roster. But again, there’s a twist.

In the past, the Nationals would often send their rehabbing big leaguers to their closest affiliates: Harrisburg and high Single-A Potomac, which has now relocated to Fredericksburg and dropped down to low Single-A. But because all Tier 1 personnel need to remain with each other, rehabbing big leaguers will be required to go to Triple-A for now.

That means Stephen Strasburg, for example, won’t be able to make a rehab start for Fredericksburg once he’s ready to take the mound again following his stint on the 10-day injured list with shoulder inflammation. If the Nationals want Strasburg to build up his arm in actual ballgames, they’ll need to send him to Rochester.

Officials hope those restrictions also ease up as the season plays out. So fans in Fredericksburg may yet be able to see big leaguers in their stadium sometime in 2021.

“If there’s other ways around it and we have to do something close by, we certainly would consider that in the future,” Scialabba said. “But right now, I think we’re limited in the rehab process to Triple-A, because of the tier system.”

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