As MLB lockout rolls on, Dodgers’ loaded farm system on display at minor-league camp
GLENDALE, Ariz. – The spring sun in Arizona can be brutal in the wake of a winter filled with cool afternoons and even cooler evenings.
So it was natural when Dodgers players and officials crouched into the shade at Camelback Ranch. Staffers hurried to assemble the Trackman unit on one of the facility’s back fields. As Maddux Bruns, the Dodgers’ first-round selection just eight months ago, prepared to throw a live batting practice session, club president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and general manager Brandon Gomes hurried over, stopping to whisper to a nearby coach every few pitches or so.
A few hours later, the Dodgers rolled out a who’s who of a farm system that The Athletic‘s Keith Law ranked last month as the best in baseball. A local independent ball team looked across the dugout as the Dodgers unleashed a top-of-the-lineup featuring Michael Busch, Miguel Vargas and Andy Pages – each on Law’s top 100 list – consecutively. The indy ball team’s treat for recording three outs was a steady diet of mid-90s fastballs from Ryan Pepiot, who just missed Law’s top 100. Pepiot a few times threw his new pitch, a sweeping slider, for good measure. Just one batter of six Pepiot faced put a ball in play. Before the afternoon was over they’d have to go through another top-100 prospect in Bobby Miller. They were overwhelmed by Landon Knack’s arsenal. At the plate, Jeren Kendall, a 2017 first-rounder whose prospect pedigree has lost some shine, homered on the first pitch he saw.
As Major League Baseball’s players remain locked out and at least the first two series of the regular season have been canceled, this scaled-back Dodgers spring training featuring eligible minor-leaguers goes on interrupted. Thursday afternoon, all things considered, felt normal. For the group of prospects, this minor-league camp has been something of a reprieve.
“I mean, you had a spring training shutdown (in 2020),” Pepiot said Thursday. “You have an alternate site, a five-round draft. You had 20 (rounds) last year. COVID protocols, getting tested every other day. Having a semi-normal offseason was very enjoyable. Being able to just go in, get some work done and be able to do whatever you wanted to do on the side, go for a hike in Sedona for a weekend or something like that was nice rather than having to be stuck in a bubble. ”
The loss of the 2020 minor-league season was a massive blow to development, with the Dodgers’ makeshift alternate site at USC serving as a test lab for different coaching techniques but not quite matching the workload of a typical season.
“I feel like I’m a guy who keeps my focus on what I need to be working on and doesn’t let too much of the craziness (get to me),” Knack said. “Obviously, I’ve had to deal with a lot of it.”
The ramifications were felt throughout the ensuing spring of 2021 when minor-league camps opened after big leaguers had already left due to COVID-19 restrictions, and things still weren’t perfect. Now, there’s something at least resembling normal. Dodgers minor leaguers reported to the club’s facility around the start of the new year. Camp has started in earnest. And even as the major-league season remains in limbo, prospects – at least those not on a 40-man roster – are able to continue their work.
That includes some players who would have been in big-league spring training had things gone as scheduled, even beyond players with previous big-league time (who signed minor-league deals and are not among those locked out), like Eddy Alvarez or Jason Martin. In a truly normal world, the likes of Busch, Vargas, Pepiot and Miller would be sitting in lockers in the big-league clubhouse next to the likes of Justin Turner, Mookie Betts and Walker Buehler. Instead, any visions of prospects reaching the big leagues this season depend almost as much on when the season starts as what they’re able to accomplish before then.
“I’m sure some of the guys start looking ahead,” said Will Rhymes, the Dodgers director of player development. “Major-league camp is just an impactful experience for guys. But it shouldn’t change their trajectories. In fact, this may end up being a good thing for our young players because there may be more opportunities early. There may be bigger rosters. We don’t know what will happen, so our guys will be prepared to go out and take advantage of opportunities as they arise. “
There remain hurdles ahead as the club tracks the trajectory of some of its pitchers, including some who could reach the majors as soon as this season. Pepiot managed to top 100 innings last season after topping that figure between college and the pros in 2019. But others like Miller, Knack and Clayton Beeter – who were all drafted in 2020 – haven’t had close to a full-season workload under their belt.
“We’re still kind of in an unknown of how that’s gonna affect pitchers long term,” Rhymes said.
Then there are prospects who are among those locked out despite not having a single day of big-league experience. To protect them from the Rule 5 draft, James Outman (No. 11 on Law’s Dodgers list), Michael Grove (No. 20), Jorbit Vivas (No. 9), Jacob Amaya and Eddys Leonard (No. 6) were added to the club’s 40-man roster just weeks before MLB’s owners instituted the lockout. But now all of them remain ineligible for camps like these, unable to even communicate with the organization’s brass or coaches since the lockout began.
“I think it’s going to be a significant (impact),” Rhymes said. “And it’s unfortunate, the no-service-time players not being here. Especially the younger players. They can be impacted. Once we get a start date for them, once we can interact with them, we want to get in here quickly and assess where they’re at and come up with a plan to quickly get them up to speed. The longer this goes, obviously, the worse it is for players who are coming off really big years. ”
Their absence was notable, particularly at a time when so much is finally starting to feel normal.
(Photo of Bobby Miller from 2021: Norm Hall / Getty Images)