Baseball’s shutdown impacting minor league preparation

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic in professional baseball reaches down to the minor league level. To players with salary concerns and the managers and coaches who are trying to develop them and prepare for an abbreviated season.

Triple-A Norfolk’s Gary Kendall is back home in the Salisbury area, doing yardwork and engaging in video conference calls to collect and share information that no longer could be dispensed in Sarasota.

The six-foot rule turned into complete isolation.

The calls come to Kendall several times a week and include vice president of analytics Sig Mejdal, player development director Matt Blood, director of minor league operations Kent Qualls, the minor league staffs and others.

“I know there’s a lot of people on them. Our Dominican staff. It’s a lot of people,” Kendall said.

“Basically, some of the calls are analytic information, some are reviewing the grading scale. (Monday) we had one basically on how to pull up things and get information, let’s say on pitchers and hitters and looking at stats on our computer. We have a revamped and a much-improved computer system.

“This is time we were going to use in spring training when we met, but we’re allowed to get together on a Zoom conference call and we go over things.”

Such is life in a pandemic. Business must be conducted from a safe distance.

Kendall-ST-sidebar.jpgKendall left Sarasota two weeks ago and headed to the Eastern Shore, but only after receiving confirmation that he could go and finding a suitable return flight.

“The limbo part of it was tough,” Kendall said. “I remember getting an email. I was out at dinner down in Lakewood Ranch and we got a minor league email that told us we could make flight arrangements or travel arrangements to go home. And then the next morning I went in to pack my bags and I saw some major league coaches and they told us to kind of sit tight, so I didn’t make any travel arrangements and I went back to the hotel, and then things kind of changed that Sunday.

“I was looking for flights home and a one-way flight to Salisbury was like $500 on a Monday but it was $100 on a Tuesday, so I took the one-way flight. That was kind of eerie because Sarasota is a great airport anyway, there’s not much traffic, but it was even less and the flights were partly full, so that was an eerie thing.

“Coming home, I didn’t really notice a difference in the streets because at that time people were still out and about, but slowly each day you started to see less and less people, which is kind of weird. And being home, this is the first time in many, many years that I was home during this time, going back 25-30 years. Actually having to go out and cut your own grass is weird, you know?”

A tougher chore is trimming players and constructing rosters for all of the affiliates without a standard spring training and no games played over at Twin Lakes Park.

The Orioles still have 50 players listed on their camp roster. Kendall doesn’t know which ones will trickle down to his club. How his rotation and bullpen are going to look or who’s playing the outfield and infield and providing catching options.

Get a team ready that might not be put together for months - if at all.

“It just depends on how many weeks we have,” Kendall said. “I really believe that a hitter, if he gets 30-40 at-bats, and I think you can get a lot of those through live BPs or simulated games or different things to get a hitter to feel comfortable, I think offensively you can get it going and prepare a hitter much easier than it is to stretch out a pitcher.

“That’s the biggest thing. I think that’s the reason why spring trainings have evolved into a longer period, just because of the money that’s made in spring training, plus the fact that the pitchers need more time than the hitters do. But just speaking to hitters, I know at the point when we shut spring training down, they felt comfortable if the season started tomorrow that they would be fine.

“However, in the minor leagues, it was a little bit different because, from talking to some minor league guys, we had not yet begun playing games, so all you’ve got were live batting practice and intrasquad games. So I don’t know if their at-bats totaled into that range that I mentioned about getting enough looks at a breaking ball, looks at a fastball, and just that plate maintenance that you need to break and usually that you have by April to start your year.”

A second version of spring training would allow the Orioles to undergo a more normal process of determining, as Kendall referred to it, a “pecking order” for players after they break camp. Decisions that are made in meetings and don’t require video communications.

“That’s usually something you get to probably a week ago or two weeks ago, before those players are sent down and I go out, so when you go down to minor league camp, you sort of have an idea from Mike Elias and Brandon Hyde just exactly what we’re looking at in the rotation and in the outfield,” Kendall said.

“Last year, we had kind of like a matrix where certain players were to play a certain amount of time at a position. I’ll use Ryan Mountcastle as an example. We had a matrix at the beginning of the season last year where he was going to play a little bit of third base and some first base, and the outfield wasn’t in the works at all. Then, as the season progressed, we were informed to put him out in left field and that progressed to where third base wasn’t visited anymore. We went basically between first and left field.

“I’m sure once we get it going again and revved up, that information will be passed along to all of our staffs about just exactly how we’re going to divvy up the playing time.”

The timelines to filter prospects onto the Orioles roster this season have been trashed. Debuts are delayed and perhaps denied.

“I’ve never been in this situation to really know what that’s like,” Kendall said. “I’m sure the longer this period stretches out, it’s going to be - for those that are chosen to be on the major league club - that time period may alter for some of the guys vying to get on that club. To get going and get their numbers up and get their abilities to where they need to be to be thought of to help the major league club.”

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