On Tuesday, the MLB lockout took its first bite out of the regular schedule as pitchers and catchers had to remain home on the day they would usually report to spring training.
The tenor of MLB-MLBPA negotiations made that outcome an inevitability, but it was still jarring to see baseball begin to lose real work days, if not games. While it remains to be seen how long the sport is ground to a halt, even if just spring training days are lost it will have a significant effect across the league.
For some players, spring training is a relatively relaxed affair that allows them to build up their workloads or find their timing. Others find their livelihoods at stake. As the lockout begins to burn through the traditional spring training period, some will be disproportionately affected by the disruption — even if there is ultimately some kind of truncated preseason camp, like there was prior to the 60-game 2020 campaign.
Here are a few player archetypes that will be most affected by labour negotiations wreaking havoc on the traditional spring training calendar — with a Toronto Blue Jays example for each:
Inning-eating back of the rotation types
2022 Blue Jays example: Ross Stripling
A shortened spring training will make it significantly more difficult for pitchers to build up and enter the 2022 season ready for the rigors of a starting workload.
The 2020 season and its “summer camp” serve as an instructive example, and that year starters saw their early-season innings totals crater as they had to stretch out on the job. In the Blue Jays’ first 20 games that year their starters managed more than five innings just four times — and those outings were hyper-efficient starts that took 87 pitches apiece, on average. The relatively poor performance of Toronto’s rotation (4.64 ERA during that span) played a role in those results, but caution was the name of the game when it came to getting starters back in the groove.
If that type of scenario unfolds in 2022 the victims will be durable back-of-the-rotation guys who make their money through accumulating a sizable workload as opposed to achieving remarkable per-inning efficiency. The best example on the current Blue Jays roster is Ross Stripling, who projects as a competent fifth starter largely through relative reliability and durability.
Players fighting for a specific role
2022 Blue Jays example: Nate Pearson
In an era when teams are precise (if imperfect) in their evaluations and projections of players entering a season, “winning” a job in spring training is harder than it used to be. Even so, some battles for jobs involve players who teams see as similar talents—or at least likely to produce at similar levels. There are positions on the depth chart to be claimed at the margins, and whoever looks strongest at spring training can ultimately get the nod.
The less spring training there is, the less the opportunity there is to battle for a particular job, and ties are likely to go to more established players. For instance, It’s obvious that Pearson has enough talent to earn the final spot in the Blue Jays rotation, but his inconsistency in recent years (both health and performance-wise) make him precisely the kind of player who could have benefitted from putting together a solid body of work over a full Grapefruit League season.
Multi-positional players (or players switching positions)
2022 Blue Jays example: Cavan Biggio
A full-length spring training involves getting countless reps in the field, the utility of which is debatable depending on the player. The Francisco Lindor, Nolan Arenado, and Harrison Baders of the world might be able to win Gold Gloves without touching a baseball before Opening Day, but not everyone has super-human fielding abilities.
Getting the most possible defensive work is especially important for players who are working on their positional versatility — or switching positions. In the case of the Blue Jays, there is less defensive uncertainty as there’s been in recent years with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. established at permanent defensive homes.
Biggio continues to play around the diamond, though, and he may need to be more of a Swiss Army Knife than ever, depending on what addition to the infield the club makes. The 26-year-old’s glovework outside of second base hasn’t graded out particularly well, and work time to work at different positions certainly couldn’t hurt. It would be overly dramatic to assert that he needs a massive quantity of extra reps. He's simply the best example on a Blue Jays team that doesn’t have any major defensive projects in the works. If this were the offseason Vladdy was transitioning positions, it would be a different story…
Off-the-radar dark horses
2022 Blue Jays example: Graham Spraker
One of the best things about a full spring training (even if it can drag for players, fans, and media members alike at times), is seeing an unexpected player or two come out of the woodwork and demand to be noticed with their play. Unfortunately, the lockout may rob us of that this year.
By the nature of this category, it’s hard to guess who that might’ve been for the Blue Jays under normal circumstances, but Spraker fits the bill. The 26-year-old was in the midst of a solid but relatively uneventful minor-league career until he moved away from a sinker-heavy approach and discovered a four-seam fastball capable of generating a massive whiff rate up in the zone. That adjustment, and a move to the bullpen, allowed the right-hander to record a solid campaign at Double-A before a dominant turn in the Arizona Fall League — where Spraker struck out 17 hitters in 11.1 scoreless innings with just seven base runners allowed.
There’s no guarantee the former 939th overall pick would’ve broken through in a full 2022 spring training, but the Blue Jays bullpen isn’t totally solidified and he could’ve had a shot. A shortened spring training won’t necessarily eliminate feel-good stories of unknowns breaking out, but they might be deferred until a little later in the season.