Minor League Baseball 101

On June 8th, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs opened a four-game series with division rival Scranton/Wilkes-Barre with a 3-2 win as Pedro Beato saved his 18th game of the season. It looked like the ‘Pigs were destined for a trip to the International League playoffs and it seemed to be a better than average shot of playing for the Triple-A Championship next month. How sweet it would be that the championship is scheduled for the home field of the rivals RailRiders and that the IronPigs were the prohibitive favorite to be playing on their rivals field to win it all.

What happened?

Fast forward a little more than two months and Lehigh Valley is now 8 1/2 out in the division and tied with Rochester for the wild card spot, although the IronPigs do hold the tie-breaker over the Red Wings. Well, if you believe some in the Twitter-sphere, IronPigs general manager Kurt Landes is to blame.

The Tweet was directed at Landes by a fan, who later apologized and admitted that he was just frustrated after Lehigh Valley’s collapse. Truth is that even today, many fans don’t understand that a minor league general manager has zero control over the roster of his team, very unlike the role of a major league general manager.

Have a beef about the food at the ballpark? Kurt Landes is your man to gripe to. Upset that you got to the park too late and didn’t get a giveaway? Take it out on Kurt Landes if you want to, but next time, get there earlier.

Every player in the Phillies organization is under contract to the Phillies and are assigned where they’re assigned because of folks like farm director Joe Jordan and Phillies GM Matt Klentak. Believe me, Kurt Landes would love to have back every player that is now in Philadelphia after spending time with Lehigh Valley this season. It would help him to sell tickets, even though the IronPigs don’t need much help in that department, thank you very much.

Since that high-water mark of 6 1/2 games up in the division two months ago, the IronPigs have lost Mark Leiter, Pedro Beato, Nick Williams, Rhys Hoskins, Zach Eflin, Jesen Therrien, Hoby Milner and Jorge Alfaro to the IronPigs. Ben Lively, Cam Perkins and Brock Stassi have been up and back a couple of times, and Taylor Featherston was traded to Tampa Bay. Plus, Roman Quinn and Mark Appel have been lost to injuries.

None of which was under the control of Mr. Landes.

The players lost have been replaced by the likes of Scott Kingery, Andrew Pullin, Joey DeNato, Herlis Rodriguez, Yacksel Rios, Alexis Rivero, Jose Taveras and Nick Rickles from Double-A Reading. Utility player Matt Williams was signed as a minor league free agent as well.

None of which was under the control of Mr. Landes.

Throw in a big slump by Dylan Cozens, which technically has been offset by the resurgence of J.P. Crawford, and you have a recipe for disaster.

An even bigger fan misconception about minor league baseball surrounds the manager. Sure, every manager wants to win, but there are times when every minor league manager makes a move – or doesn’t make a move – because of player development questions rather than the won-loss record. Managers will maneuver players into situations that they want to see them battle through. For instance, a starting pitcher might be left in a little longer than the manager might want to because he wants to see how he can handle working out of a jam. Maybe you leave a left-hander in against an opponents big right-handed hitter in a key spot, because you want to see just what your lefty is made of.

The lineup also isn’t entirely a manager’s call. Sometimes, the organization wants to see a player hitting in a particular spot in the order to see how he handles situations. Jorge Alfaro was hitting third most of the season with Lehigh Valley, but in the majors, he’s likely not going to see the number-three spot in the order. This year though, the Phillies got a look at Alfaro in that spot and also got him a couple extra at-bats here and there.

And finally, we come to injuries. Teams sometimes run into roster gluts and need a roster spot just until they can figure out where to send someone or figure out how they want to handle a player’s situation. Oddly enough, a turf toe injury, or maybe a shin contusion just happens to occur as teams have one player too many, and someone winds up on the DL.

About a month ago, IronPigs manager Dusty Wathan talked about limiting the innings of starters Tom Eshelman and Brandon Liebrandt. A few days later, Eshelman wound up on the DL with a hip flexor strain. Two days after that, Stassi was optioned back to Lehigh Valley, and Hector Gomez went on the DL with; you guessed it, a hip flexor strain. Gomez recovered nicely, but four days after being reactivated, he was back on the DL with a hip flexor injury when Eshelman’s hip had recovered enough for him to be activated.

The Phillies aren’t the only team that does this. It’s done by every team to manipulate the roster limits and hide a guy away for a while as the team looks to truly clear a spot. That’s not to say that Eshelman or Gomez weren’t hurt. I’m not a doctor and they both very well could have been hurt, and if they were, they went down at just the right time, because the team was in a pinch and needed a roster spot.

Rosters are also manipulated early in the season by having a player assigned to a short-season team that isn’t even playing  yet. It happens a lot with pitchers, either a starter who won’t pitch again for a few days or a reliever, who maybe has pitched pretty much and they want to give him a breather.

If you follow minor league baseball, you just have to get used to these things. It’s part of the game and every one of these areas plays a spot in developing talent. Baseball has become a game where pitcher’s innings are carefully watched and they want to limit innings late in the year. With a variety of injuries, call-ups, promotions, demotions and signings, rosters can fill up quickly. They can also be depleted quickly. Teams have to be inventive to create space during the times when there is somewhat of a player overload, so that they still have the players around when the roster numbers drop quickly.

Everybody – except a lot of the fans – knows that these things go on and everybody looks the other way.

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