It’s been an astounding 20 months since official Minor League Baseball games were last played, an interminable length of time for prospects, staff members, and fans in communities large and small across America to wait since the end of the 2019 season.
Suffice it to say, there are a lot of eager folks right now on the eve of a long-awaited 2021 opening day.
“It’s going to be an exciting day tomorrow for everyone involved,” Mark Scialabba, the Nationals’ assistant general manager for player development said today during a Zoom session with reporters. “Obviously, these players who have grinded through the process. It means a great deal to them to get back on the field officially, all the hard work they put in behind the scenes in a very difficult, challenging environment, where some players didn’t have access to fields or gyms for an entire year. And for all these staff members as well. And obviously for the fans and communities involved. It’s just going to be a great day tomorrow to have minor league baseball back.”
The Nationals officially announced the opening day rosters for their four full-season affiliates. A combination of franchise relocations, the every-two-years musical chairs act to sign new affiliate agreements and Major League Baseball’s takeover of the entire minor league operation leaves the Nats with a new look farm system for 2021.
Rochester takes over as the Triple-A affiliate, a significant move for an organization that won’t have to worry about dealing with far-flung Fresno as it did in 2019. The Red Wings roster includes most of the players who had been at the alternate training site in Fredericksburg for the last month, with infielders Carter Kieboom and Luis García topping the list of notable names.
When the Nationals need to add a player to their big league roster, they’ll be promoting them from Rochester, which requires only a one-hour flight or six-hour drive to D.C.
“It obviously gives us the benefit of having players ready to go,” Scialabba said, “and (they) will be able to make it to the game on time and not have to take a red-eye flight, or hopefully not have to deal with any major travel issues.”
The only affiliate to remain intact from 2019 is Double-A Harrisburg, which continues a longstanding relationship with the organization that dates to when the Nationals were still the Expos. The Senators roster includes left-hander Tim Cate, righty Sterling Sharp, catcher Jakson Reetz, and infielders Jackson Cluff and Drew Mendoza.
The Nats’ new high Single-A affiliate in Wilmington, Del., will get the benefit of hosting the organization’s top pitching prospects together. Cade Cavalli, Jackson Rutledge, Cole Henry and Joan Adon all will open the season with the Blue Rocks, making for a potentially star-studded rotation.
“It’s going to be exciting in Wilmington,” Scialabba said. “It’s a group of pitchers that have been working out together for some time now at the alternate site, and then they go to big league camp and get that experience. The progression right now is to get them into some live competition, continue their development together. We think that breeds some competition, but it’s a friendly competition. And we believe each and every one of those players belongs there. But it is going to be a fun and exciting group to watch.”
The Nationals’ former high Single-A affiliate at Potomac has now relocated to Fredericksburg and has been dropped a level to low Single-A. The FredNats, as they’ll affectionately refer to themselves, have a roster with fewer highly ranked prospects - only three players on the opening day roster were selected prior to the 10th round of the draft - but many of them are just now getting their first opportunity to play in official professional games.
“We played a lot of games against ourselves,” Scialabba said of last summer’s alternate training site and fall instructional league, plus this year’s minor league spring training. “So I know our players are really excited about playing some other competition, some real live games.”
In addition to the four affiliates who begin play Tuesday, another 50-to-60 players remain in West Palm Beach, Fla., for extended spring training. These younger prospects and players rehabbing from injuries will eventually be called up to some of the full-season affiliates or will remain in Florida to make up the rookie-level Gulf Coast League roster this summer.
Here are the full minor league rosters to begin the season:
For the high Single-A Wilmington Blue Rocks roster, click here.