First Pitch: Alcatraz and Minor League Spring Training

Last summer, thanks to Netflix, I watched the entire series of “Lost” from start to finish. I rarely watch shows when they’re on TV, always wanting to avoid investing in a show, only for it to get cancelled after one season. The downside to this is that I’d be four seasons behind when I finally decided to watch the show, and prior to Netflix, it was hard to catch up.

I only needed about two months to speed through all six seasons of the show. I’d probably rate it as one of my favorite shows, possibly even surpassing “24”. Because I liked the show so much, I was absolutely going to watch “Alcatraz”, which is by the same people who created “Lost”, and has a very similar feel.

“Alcatraz” is about the inmates of Alcatraz disappearing in the 60s, then suddenly showing up one at a time in modern day. Just like “Lost”, there are a ton of unanswered questions. Why do they not age? How are they traveling through time? Why do some of the people look the same as they did in 1963, while others show their age?

Most importantly, what happened to them? They disappear in the 1960s, and then they show up in present day, and not even the inmates know what happened.

I was thinking about that today while watching minor league Spring Training and reading some of the comments under the minor league schedule article on the site. There seemed to be some confusion when I posted the schedule last week, since it didn’t match up with the very common major league Spring Training schedule. I can understand this. Minor League camp is not something I ever thought about prior to running this site. You focus on major league camp, but you have no clue what’s happening with the minors until they show up on one of the minor league rosters on Opening Day.

That reminded me of “Alcatraz”. This year Gerrit Cole will be cut from big league camp at some point. Then he’ll just disappear, and re-appear at a later date, likely on the Bradenton Marauders’ roster. Unlike “Alcatraz”, we know where Cole will be in that middle part. Like all of the other players in the system who didn’t receive invites to big league camp, Cole will be in minor league Spring Training.

Every morning the minor league players take the field for the normal workouts, throwing programs, fielding practice, and batting practice. Then around 1:00, after returning from lunch, they play games.

The players are divided up in to four groups. There’s the AAA squad. This squad isn’t necessarily made up of all of the guys who will play in AAA to start the 2012 season. Guys who are expected to play in AA will also show up here, although usually it’s only the top guys. The next squad is the AA squad. This is like the AAA squad, with some of the top A-ball players joining this team. The third group is the A-ball squad. Typically this includes the full-season A-ball players, and a few of the top short season guys. Finally, you’ve got the players who are expected to play in the GCL and State College.

All four groups play games on a daily basis. The AAA guys go up against the AAA squads from other teams. The AA guys take on other AA teams. Single-A goes up against Single-A. And the short season guys typically play inter-squad games.

The clubs don’t play other teams every single day. Some days are marked as camp days. These days are usually shorter, and include two inter-squad games that take place around 10-11 AM.

Minor league camp doesn’t get the attention that big league camp gets for the obvious reasons. The main reason is that it’s the minor leagues. In big league camp players are fighting for a roster spot. The roster battles aren’t as important in minor league camp. Sure, there are important questions. Will Tony Sanchez end up in AA or AAA? Will Kyle McPherson move up to AAA, or return to AA to start the year like Jeff Locke last year? Does Jarek Cunningham get an aggressive push to AA, or do they hold him back in high-A due to his plate patience issues?

Another reason minor league camps don’t get the attention is because there’s not as much urgency. In big league camp you’re working on finalizing a roster. The purpose is to build a team that gives you the best chance of winning. Wins don’t matter in the minors. The only thing that matters is development. If Jarek Cunningham goes back to high-A and starts destroying the ball, it wouldn’t be hard to move him up to the AA level. If a player gets cut from big league camp, then goes down to AAA and does well, it might be harder to move him back to the majors, since there would have to be a player for him to replace.

The Pirates often repeat this phrase when talking about where a minor league player projects to start the year: it’s not where they start the year, it’s where they finish. I think we saw that with Jeff Locke last year. He was expected to move up to AAA, along with the rest of the 2010 Altoona rotation. Locke returned to the AA level, but managed to make it to the majors by the end of the year. At the start of the year Locke and Bryan Morris had disappointing placements compared to Rudy Owens and Justin Wilson. But at the end of the year Locke had the most successful season, even though Owens and Wilson had better placements at the start of the season.

That’s not something you can say about the majors. If Tony Sanchez starts off in AA, but sees a major rebound in his hitting and makes it to the majors by September, it would be considered a very successful season. If Pedro Alvarez starts in AAA (just a hypothetical example, and not something I think will happen), and only rebounds and makes it to the majors in September, it would be considered a massive disappointment.

Big league camp is all about getting the Pirates, as a team, ready for the 2012 season. Minor league camp is more about getting the individuals ready for the 2012 season.

Links and Notes

**Sunday was the early reporting date for a lot of players. That was mostly players who played in the lower levels last year. The first workouts were held today, and my notes can be found here. The workouts begin around 1:30 PM tomorrow. I’ll be heading over to Pirate City around 10:00 AM to catch some of the big league camp, and to follow the full day of minor league camp. Kristy Robinson will be covering the big league camp on her blog.

**Here are today’s notes from Kristy and Wilbur, who were both at Pirate City.

**Kristy takes a look at the first base competition, and Andrew McCutchen trying to avoid his second half slump that we saw in 2011.

**Jim Callis of Baseball America released information on all of the players who missed the top 100, but received votes in the top 150. Eight writers contributed to the voting for the Baseball America rankings. The two Pirates who didn’t make the top 100, but drew top 150 consideration, were Luis Heredia and Robbie Grossman. Heredia received top 150 votes from seven out of eight voters. The highest he was ranked was 64th overall. Grossman only received one vote inside the top 150, which came in at 137th. It appears we know where the Baseball America writers stand on the debate of whether Grossman is a legit prospect or not.

**Here’s how the draft prospects fared this past week.


  • Good analogy with Alcatraz.  Fausto Carmona left the Indians in October and came back this year 3 years older. 

    That’s life imitating art right there.