MiLB Clubs Scramble to Remain Part of MLB Development Pipeline

After battling a movement they had little chance to stop, MiLB teams have had to instead find new ways to continue to be involved, and the prospect development pipeline or PDP, seems to be the answer.

The PDP is a joint venture between MLB and USA Baseball intended to develop and identify armature players in the United States along with providing a pathway. The goal is to provide a place for prospects to play and develop under the watchful eye of MLB and USA Baseball beyond collegiate or independent league structures.

When MLB announced it’s plans to eliminate nearly 40 teams from the low level MiLB rung of the development ladder, many worried about the effect on small towns that have minor league baseball at the very core of their identity. On top of the concern that young ball players very much so need the ‘introduction to baseball’ that low A tends to provide.

The historic Appalachian League will be the test pilot for what will essentially be a Collegiate Summer League, consisting of 10 teams playing a 54 game schedule. Teams will be selected from rising college freshmen and sophomores and the teams will no longer be affiliated directly to MLB clubs. So next time you see a score from Bristol, it won’t be the Bristol Pirates, but the Bristol Appalachian League Team.

The Appy as the league has come to be called is deeply entrenched in baseball’s history. Founded in 1911, the Appy has been part of the path to the Bigs for most of the time there has been a landing spot to aspire to. Keeping baseball in these communities helps to smooth over one of the biggest concerns but it still leaves open questions about whether the league might be skipping an important step in the development process.

A few months back Craig and I sat down to talk with Eric Minshall on the pitching side and Scott Seabol from the hitting side. They both had some pretty strong opinions about MiLB contraction. Ranging from player readiness to even the very human side of understanding the pull to provide for family that comes with most young international prospects. Both men have extensive experience in the Appy and felt of all the leagues that could be up for cuts, this one made little sense as the communities were largely prepared to improve ball parks and the travel time within the league is minimal.

At this level, players tend to be extremely raw and extra time is taken with youngsters to find their strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to remember by the time you sign a pro contract, you’ve probably spent almost every day of your life being the best player on your team. That comes with confidence, surely, but it also can create mental hurdles for youngsters to get past. Skipping past this level will jam those lessons into the next part of the progression. It won’t eliminate the need for learning on the job, but it could take time and patience off the table a bit more and facing more sharpened competition won’t help everyone equally.

As Scott said in the podcast, sometimes in the lower levels, baseball is at least third on the list of what the players need educated on. Eating right, staying in touch with family and managing money for some who have seen it for the first time in their lives always have to be focused on. That’s the kind of thing that might be sacrificed at the alter of MiLB contraction. They’ll still have to learn them, but now they’ll be dropped into an environment where baseball is typically number 1 on the list.

Eric at the time mentioned his main concern was the potential of essentially jumping a level and a half. He went so far as to compare it to malpractice to potentially push players from the Gulf Coast League to Low A or even High A before guys are ready.

To be blunt, this conversation took place nearly five months ago and I always like to give people an opportunity to update their feelings and opinions. Hell, we didn’t even know we’d see MLB play baseball this year when we talked so in that spirit I gave Eric a call. He’s been continuing to work at the Throwing Club through the entire shutdown just in case you were wondering about how plugged in he remains.

Well, as with most people who have integrity, Eric stood by much of what he said and followed up with “There are a lot of things I personally don’t believe were thought through”.

We talked about how this might change the process of developing talent. For instance, as we just talked about last week, the Pirates just signed 49 international prospects. And Eric told me about an experience from 2019 in which many of the DSL (Dominican Summer League) players were up here training because of the renovations taking place to their facility. He recalls being told by their coaches to bear with them as they were still being developed. The tools were visible and exciting, but put them into game action and they were exposed quickly.

That’s why baseball needs that Low-A option.

Without it, more players could be drafted out of college rather than high school, and they may have to look at some way to alter the rules in the DSL to keep some of those guys learning there a bit longer.

What baseball has put forward, primarily travel time and infrastructure are rather weak to be honest. In the Appy, the most travel time at any one point is 3 hours and most road trips are strung together. Almost every member town was open to improving the infrastructure but MLB never told them what moves in particular needed to be made.

Part of me thinks when reasons fail to, well, reasonably explain the motives, there must be something else. That something else in my mind is to bring in less players in the first place and while I understand that on the surface, I also think this will ultimately lead to more Independent League discoveries and potentially talent from smaller schools missing the opportunity all together.

Again, I’m happy they found a way to keep baseball in these communities and hopefully it will take off just like the Cape Cod league, but it’s a different brand of baseball and depending on how they select the teams, selling it as the stars of the future might be a stretch.

Fighting this is over, but understanding it is just beginning.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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