The Giants sent out messages to their minor leaguers early Tuesday after a report emerged that the minor-league season would be canceled. Nothing’s official, the players were told. Hang in there.
A few hours later, everything was official. An entire year’s hopes were gone before they could start.
“Oh crap,” Franklin Labour said over the phone, learning the news for the first time.
The 60-player pools around the league will be a godsend for top prospects, teams fully aware the can’t-miss types can’t miss a full year of development. The prospects of the could-miss variety, though — the good-but-not-elite names littered all over an organization, loaded with potential and potential pitfalls — are the forgotten ones, staying at home and hoping the pandemic has not crushed their dream.
Thirty farm directors and thousands of minor leaguers are grappling with what comes next; what happens with COVID-19, what happens with a minor-league system whose agreement with Major League Baseball expires after September, what happens with prospects milling about at home, so many of whom lacking the equipment and opportunity to keep skills sharp.
Labour, a borderline top-30 prospect on the Giants, did everything right. In his first appearance above Rookie Ball, the outfielder emerged with short-season Salem-Keizer last year, an All-Star in the Northwest League who knocked 14 home runs in 41 games, slashing .307/.392/.639 before a promotion. He continued working this offseason, then felt he allowed himself to get too big as the pandemic took hold and wiped out minor league spring training.
He’s been in touch with the Giants’ nutritional team, who’ve designed a meal plan that he says has helped him lose about 20 pounds in the past few months.
“Just body weight,” the 22-year-old said. “This pandemic, this quarantine, has been more of a mind test. I wanted to prove to myself that I can do this in any situation, so I can do it whenever I go out again. I’ve been [working out] mostly by myself, and I have one coach here — whenever I have some doubts, he helps me.”
Giants mental-skills coach Derin McMains has cited the not knowing as the most difficult part for the players during this break. No one knew when to be ready, when to start ramping up. Those in the 60-man pool now know; the others feel around in the dark.
Labour has gotten himself down to about 210 pounds, his body “way more athletic” than it was last year. Speaking from the Dominican Republic, he described bouncing between a couple stray batting cages, whatever he could find because “everything’s still closed here.” He says the swing feels good, but he doesn’t have the means to test it in real gameplay.
“This year was supposed to be — I had to give another strike to prove what I did last year wasn’t just one season,” said the 2015 international signing. “I was ready mentally to embrace the challenges that I was going to get this season.
“With the situation … we’re all getting older.”
There is vague hope for perhaps an instructional league somewhere, at some point, but nothing is guaranteed, and a lot will depend on how the major league season fares. Labour said he’s looking forward to winter ball, though he’s not sure yet if he can play in the Dominican Republic; “there’s probably going to be some major league players that want to play and want to have extra game time.”
For a player whose dreams are at best delayed, Labour is handling it all well. After all, he only has to look to his cousin for perspective. Labour lives with 20-year-old prospect Luis Tejada, whom the Reds cut last month. The Giants have released a known 37 players from their minor league system during the pause in play, but have pledged to pay Labour and the remaining prospects $400 per week until the end of what would have been their season.
“No player was expecting to get released during this time,” Tejada said Thursday in Spanish over the phone, Labour helpfully translating. “It wasn’t fun at all. But I know life still goes on.”
Tejada worked throughout the offseason on his swing, looking to generate more power from a bat that has hit four home runs in 67 Rookie League games. He hoped to enter Cincinnati’s minor-league camp and turn some heads, begin rising. He never got the chance. He’s now training with Labour and hoping for another opportunity somewhere, from the US to Latin America to Japan. He is not looking for a job outside the game just yet.
“It’s hard because the only source of income that I had was the team,” said Tejada, a third baseman. “Most of us have been in baseball since we were little kids. I’m trying to stay in shape, get better, but my main goal is to get another contract from a team next year.”
Tejada is down but not devastated. After all, he and his cousin can look to other minor-league friends for perspective. They know some players who took out loans this offseason, hiring trainers to get their bodies ready for a campaign that never came.
“That’s the thing that bothers me — they didn’t even have the chance to prove themselves,” Labour said. “I know for a fact it’s not the fault of any of them. It’s just the business.”
Labour is thankful for the Giants, who he says checks up on him once or twice a week, who ask him if he needs anything. Of course, what he needs right now they can’t provide.
Chances for minor leaguers already were set to take a hit as dozens of clubs entered MLB’s much-rumored to-be-axed list. Reality is hitting faster than anyone could have anticipated.