Getting the 2020 season underway remains the primary focus for everyone involved with MLB. It’s a complicated process, one which will likely get heated in the coming weeks.
Once everything is agreed upon, and questions about when the season will start and how it’ll look are resolved, teams can begin addressing some of their own pressing matters for the year ahead.
For the Cleveland Indians, one of these is figuring out what to do with top prospect Nolan Jones.
Cleveland is set to have a vacancy in its infield next year, one which seems tailor-made for Jones. That said, he could still use a little more seasoning in the minors. With the fate of MiLB looking grim, this is something he unfortunately may not receive this summer.
Knowing that, the Indians need to figure out a way to ensure Jones’ development isn’t put on hiatus in 2020.
This was set to be an important year for Jones. Cleveland’s up-and-coming third baseman was looking to build off a strong 2019 which featured his jump from High-A to Double-A ball. After displaying excellent plate discipline (14.7% walk rate) and raw power (.213 ISO), Jones entered this season ranked by MLB Pipeline as the No. 42 prospect in all of baseball.
Said showing also helped earn Jones his first spring training invite this past February.
Admittedly, his time in Arizona was relatively low-impact. Still, his trademark patience at the plate was on full display, as logged a .421 OBP in 19 plate appearances despite notching only one hit.
The plan was to continue Jones’ development in the minors this summer, likely with Triple-A Columbus. Under a best case scenario, he’d quickly prove he was ready for the bigs, forcing the Indians’ hand and earning a call to Cleveland.
Even if that didn’t work out, a clear path to the Tribe’s lineup is waiting for him in 2021.
Once César Hernández’s contract expires after this season, Cleveland will have a hole at second base. Under normal circumstances, the easiest solution is to have José Ramírez move positions, then bring Jones up to take over at third.
As we’ve learned, the word ‘normal’ likely won’t be used again anytime soon.
While attempts are still being made to get an MLB season going, the same can't be said for the minors. Currently, the odds of minor league campaigns taking place in 2020 aren’t favorable.
For the Indians, this means their No. 1 prospect may not get any development right as his route to the majors takes shape.
So, what exactly can they do to avoid this?
First of all, should a 2020 MLB season get under way, it seems lofty to assume Jones would make Cleveland’s expanded roster.
Per the latest proposal, the league wants to give teams 30-man rosters to work with this summer. The idea of the Indians saving one of these spots for a prospect who’s yet to take a pitch in Triple-A seems unrealistic.
However, Jones could definitely find his way onto Cleveland’s “taxi squad,” i.e. a 20-man group of prospects each team will have available to step in as injury or illness replacements.
That said, what these prospects do to ensure their growth continues is a bit of an unknown.
Depending on how this taxi squad works, Jones could at the very least train with the Indians throughout the summer. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing.
Still, it’s hard to believe a few months of pregame workouts is all Jones needs to develop into a pro-ready prospect.
It’s worth noting, though, that other options could present themselves once the MLB season is hammered out.
As Paul Hoynes of Cleveland.com notes, the Indians are already considering a few routes to take with their prospects should no minor league season take place.
Said routes include everything from Double-A and Triple-A squads combining to host intrasquad games at the team spring training facility out in Arizona to having each team hold scrimmages at their respective home fields.
Each of these options would be helpful for Jones’ development. None of them are even remotely guaranteed to come to fruition.
Should they not, should Jones’ 2020 development involve nothing but batting practice, Cleveland’s call for next season becomes significantly trickier.
Season or not, Hernández is likely gone this winter. Re-upping with a one-year rental who’ll be turning 31 after a season featuring revenue losses doesn’t really seem like something up Cleveland’s alley.
Theoretically, the Indians could keep Jones in the minors next year and let fellow prospect Yu Chang take the hot corner in 2021. This, of course, is under the assumption Francisco Lindor is still Cleveland’s shortstop, something reports continue to indicate is no certainty. If Lindor has departed, Chang is likely to take over at short.
Frankly, the easiest route is calling up Jones. Unfortunately, the Indians may have limited options when it comes to ensuring he’s ready for the call.
Make no mistake, a summer without minor league baseball hurts every prospect, not just Jones. Still, considering he sits atop the Indians’ farm and appears to be a season away from getting his shot, they’d be wise to ensure his growth keeps going in the right direction.
How they go about doing so is a mystery they’ll need to solve in the months ahead.