With fans in the stands and MLB's Opening Day upon us, baseball's return is one big step ahead for normalcy. But the word "normal" doesn't work with minor leaguers.
Due to COVID-19 concerns, the 2021 minor league season has been pushed back to May 4. This means that teams' alternate sites will live to see another day. Or in this case, another month.
Sutter Health Park, home of the Triple-A affiliate Sacramento River Cats, will serve as the Giants' alternate site again this season. The hope is that will be true for just one month this year, and daily routines will look much different. So will the roster.
The Giants will have around 28 players in Sacramento, ready to join the big league team if needed. At the same time, Giants minor league camp will begin with pitchers and catchers reporting in Arizona at Papago Park on April 1, and position players arriving the next day. Players assigned to Sacramento will somewhat resemble what the River Cats' roster would have looked like, with a plethora of younger players sprinkled in as well.
“Yeah, I think it will look closer to what’s needed to call up to the major leagues and be similar to a Triple-A, but I wouldn’t be surprised -- one, just to make sure we have enough players to scrimmage or anything that if there’s young guys mixed in," Giants director of player development Kyle Haines recently said to NBC Sports Bay Area in a phone conversation. "Maybe not quite on the extreme end as the alternate site last year, but there is an outside chance that some of the younger guys would join the more Triple-A mold."
Joey Bart will be in Sacramento, as well as some top prospects and offseason signings like LaMonte Wade Jr. and Jason Vosler. There also will be a handful of pitchers there too who could soon help the Giants, and it wouldn't be a huge surprise if young arms like Camilo Doval, Kervin Castro, Gregory Santos, Tristan Beck and Sean Hjelle were seen in Sacramento.
That's far from a guarantee, though.
Spring training standout Heliot Ramos should start the season off at the alternate site, too. Ramos, 21, looked like a future star this spring after hitting .410 with three home runs in 21 games. He won the Barney Nugent Award, which is voted on by teammates, coaches and training staff to the player who was the top newcomer in big league camp.
"We'll probably be aggressive early in sending guys who are in big league camp to the alternate site to start with," president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said recently. "One big advantage we have this year is that we can kind of add and remove guys to the alternate site with flexibility, which we did not have last year. For guys that have kind of been ramped up, played in games, to go back to square one with minor league camp starting without a lot of clarity and certainty on playing minor league scrimmages -- we may want to keep them going."
The big change to the alternate site this year will be the day-to-day. The Giants did their best last year to create a game-like environment but nothing compares to the real thing. Luckily, it looks like that will be much different this year. The goal is for the Giants and A's, which are holding their alternate site in Stockton, to scrimmage four times a week with two games at each stadium. In accordance to county guidelines, there would be fans in the stands at these scrimmages, too.
This, of course, only will come to fruition if the Giants and A's feel they can do so safely. All signs point to that happening.
"That’s the hope right now," Haines said. "Obviously just want to make sure we can do that safely, that we’re all comfortable with that. But yeah, that’s our hope and that would be nice for those guys to not have to just scrimmage each day."
Life as a minor leaguer always is a mystery. However, with fans at the park and two teams competing against each other, the alternate site should look much more normal than last year before baseball hopes to begin the minor league season on time.
Or at least whatever "on time" means at this point.