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Rays prospects wonder what's next after MiLB season canceled

Without the Minor League Baseball season, players are organizing their own competition.
Credit: Grace Remington

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The news was expected, but on Tuesday, it became official: The Minor League Baseball season is canceled.

“When it was official, it was like, just spin zone,” Rays catching prospect Chris Betts said. “Is this really happening? And all the usual thoughts.”

The announcement means 160 affiliated minor-league teams and more than 5,000 players across the country are officially out of work as a result of the pandemic. That includes six Rays affiliate clubs.

“It’s tough,” Rays pitching prospect Alex Valverde said. “Me, and I'm sure all the other guys, were all looking forward towards the season a lot. It's a big bummer.”

Prospects are missing an important year in development, so they’re organizing their own competitive groups.

Betts slashed .210/.333/.400 with 19 home runs and 73 RBI for the Bowling Green Hot Rods last season. He was assigned to the Port Charlotte Stone Crabs in March. With the 2020 season officially canceled, the Southern California native fired off a Tweet asking for live arms.

Betts said he received seven or eight direct messages from pitchers who wanted to work.

“That's huge,” he said. “For most of us, when this started – especially in California – it was just hit where you could get in. I think all of us have been chased out or kicked off dozens of fields, so for this to kind of lighten up and for us to get back on the field and also to do it with our peers that are on our same level, it’s awesome.”

Valverde has been working with a group of minor leaguers in the Miami area.

After going 4-6 with a 4.85 ERA in 65 innings pitched for the Stone Crabs last season, the Rays sent Valverde to the Arizona Fall League, essentially a September all-star league for clubs’ top prospects.

But there’s no guarantee of instructional leagues and fall leagues this year. All plans depend on the spread of COVID-19.

“It’s possible,” Valverde said. “I talk to the Rays every Monday. We call or text, just keeping up with them every week. They really haven't said anything about it. They usually just tell us that they're not sure – not to listen to any rumors out there.”

In the meantime, both Rays prospects hope the club can safely open Charlotte Sports Park for scrimmages and simulated games.

“It's been very clear that the organization is going to take the route of getting us back as soon as possible and as soon as it’s safe to get us in the same building,” Betts said. “I've been with the Rays since 2015, so if I know anything, it's that if there's a chance for development or a chance to get us out there and get some work in, they'll do it. They've told us that it's in the works, but obviously nothing yet. But, I think now that the big league season is up and going, hopefully, we hear something soon. I wouldn't doubt that the Rays will be one of the first.”

There have been positives to the downtime.

Betts made a swing change for the first time in his career during the off-season. He said being able to continue working on his swing during the last four months has given him “some peace of mind.”

Valverde switched to a plant-based diet. Without the season shutdown, he wouldn’t have had the time to research the regimen and make the switch. Plus, he’d have been eating the food in the clubhouse.

“I used to rely on just my young body,” the 23-year-old righty said. “I’m already feeling the positive effects of it. I’ve just been focusing on that – going to Whole Foods, buying groceries, making everything that I make. I feel like that'll also translate to my game.”

Both prospects and their peers are staying ready for the call from the Rays – whenever that may be.

“I know our guys, they want to see us compete still,” Valverde said. “Even though we’re not going to have affiliate ball, we can still play with each other, scrimmage, throw pens there, so they can get eyes on us.”

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