When Jacob Heyward played for the Richmond Flying Squirrels in 2019, the team’s scheduled off days were rare and travel frequently exhausting. Heyward, an outfielder, returned to the Double-A Flying Squirrels this season and things have changed in a positive way, he believes.
When Major League Baseball took over operational control of the minors during the offseason, the emphasis on player development increased, to include a standardized scheduling format and reduced travel. Mondays are now off days, without exception.
“From a body perspective, I think it’s better. With Mondays off, it’s a mental break, too, which is good for everybody,” said Heyward, 25 and originally from McDonough, Ga.
During the Flying Squirrels’ first 10 years, off days were very uncommon, and oddly placed on schedules. A month would typically include only one or two idle days. When the Flying Squirrels hit the road during that decade, the team normally visited at least two cities, with multiple games at each stop, through a week-long trip.
Starting this season, all teams in the Double-A Northeast play six home games, usually followed by six on the road, with Monday off as a buffer. Those six road games are in the same city, rather than traveling from city to city for shorter series.
“It’s not perfect. None of this is going to be perfect in terms of regular human being standards,” said Heyward. “But instead of twice or three times a week getting on the bus and driving from city to city and getting in at 2 o’clock or 3 o‘clock in the morning, it’s only one night. You’ve got a good break.
“You almost have a home away from home when you’re in the hotel for five or six days. It’s definitely a lot more comfortable from that aspect.”
This is what MLB was aiming for when it eliminated minor league offices around the country and the minors’ national supervisory office. Commissioner Rob Manfred addressed the goal when MLB announced the 2021 structure in February: “In modernizing our minor league system, we prioritized the qualities that make the minor leagues such an integral part of our game while strengthening how we develop professional athletes on and off the field.”
For travel reasons, no longer do all teams in the Double-A Northeast (formerly the Eastern League) play one another. Richmond, for instance, does not meet Portland (Boston Red Sox) or New Hampshire (Toronto Blue Jays) this year. There is no July all-star break in the Double-A Northeast because the league does not have an all-star game this season.
Heyward noted that playing the same opponent six games in a row is not ideal. Batters would prefer to see a fresh set of pitchers, and the pitchers generally feel the same way about batters.
MLB has given no indication if this scheduling system in the minors will continue beyond this year. One MLB change in the minors met with unanimous approval among players. MLB increased pay at all levels. In Double-A, players’ minimum pay increased from $350 a week to $600. Pay fluctuates based on experience.
By eliminating 40 minor league teams, MLB increased the pay pool for remaining players. Players are compensated only during the five-month regular season. Players earn signing bonuses after being drafted, and many are supported by that money while in the minors.
Also, facilities and players’ working conditions are in the process of being modernized, per MLB mandate. In Richmond’s case, only so much can be done at The Diamond, opened in 1985 and with very limited expansion possibilities.
Plus, VCU and the Flying Squirrels are planning to collaborate on a new stadium that could open by 2025, making expensive changes at The Diamond financially impractical.
Halfway through Richmond’s six-game series against Altoona, the Flying Squirrels haven’t found a way to take down the Pittsburgh Pirates’ affiliate. The Curve won 4-2 Thursday for their third consecutive victory at The Diamond, before 3,321.
Altoona scored two runs in the first inning. Richmond’s Ryan Howard, in the second, hit his second homer in two days and the Flying Squirrels tied it 2-2 in the third on an error. Altoona took a 3-2 lead in the seventh on a bases-loaded wild pitch, and made it 4-2 on Deon Stafford’s ninth-inning home run.
The Flying Squirrels and Curve resume their series at The Diamond Friday at 6:35 p.m.
Note: Flying Squirrels right-hander Matt Frisbee was named May’s Double-A Northeast pitcher of the month. Frisbee went 4-1 with a 1.24 ERA in five starts, and was promoted to Triple-A Sacramento Thursday. His roster spot is filled by lefty Phil Pfeifer, who was at Sacramento.