As the sports world continues to grapple with the challenges of hosting fans in 2021, there’s talk of a shift in spring training that would essentially add a second round of games to the mix.
Now, we report that there’s talk of this option, not that it would definitely happen. The talk comes as Major League Baseball both prepares for a return of fans in 2021 as well as how to manage a large number of players training for the 2021 MLB and MiLB seasons. While we know MiLB is in the midst of being reorganized by Major League Baseball, we also know MLB is also grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic and how fans will be treated once the 2021 season starts. We expect that the COVID-19 mitigation measures we reported on last month will be implemented in spring training, and the similar measures unveiled for the National League Championship Series and World Series will be implemented for the 2021 season.
That covers the fan side of spring training 2021.
The other side of the equation is what will happen with players. Again, some of this was addressed with the Yankees/Hillsborough County plan, including the installation of air purifiers in the ballpark HVAC system. But that’s only part of the story. What’s being discussed in some circles is a restructuring of reporting dates and games on the minor-league side to essentially implement a two-phased spring training.
Right now the major leaguers report for duty in mid-February, along with select minor leagues and camp invitees. After the beginning of March minor leaguers report to camp, where they embark on their own training schedules and games. When everyone is in camp, it can make for a lot of players spending a lot of time in very close quarters, depending on the team arrangement. One-location camps like Camelback Ranch-Glendale or JetBlue Park force a lot of interactions between players when the camps are at capacity, but it’s not clear that teams with separate minor-league facilities fare any better: We know a Yankees farmhand was diagnosed with COVID-19 in 2020 after training at the New York minor-league camp.
One familiar and effective COVID-19 mitigation measure is separation, so an issue on the player side is how to achieve separation. The obvious answer: don’t fill the camps to capacity. So a solution floating out there is to run spring training in shifts. Major leaguers and Triple-A level players would start camp at the usual time and complete the schedules already announced. Minor leaguers, however, would not report to camps until the major leaguers break camp for the April 1 season start. Games could be played in front of fans at the spring-training ballparks. This wouldn’t be an extended spring as has been held in the past; this would be a second phase of spring training. It’s also done in service of a potential shift of the Minor League Baseball season opening to mid-May.
Again, we’re just reporting on some of the talk floating around out there, and there currently is no firm game plan in place. The 2021 baseball season is a series of moving targets complicated by a variety of factors–some related to health, some related to player development, some related to the reorganization of Minor League Baseball–so your best bet is to be as flexible as possible.