The instructional league, which is now underway at Spring Training sites in Florida and Arizona, used to be a time when clubs got their first look at their Draft picks in action. But with the changes to the Draft rules instituted last year under the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement, that is no longer the case.
Now that the signing deadline is in July, almost all of the players selected in June in the 2013 First-Year Player Draft have already made their professional debut. But that doesn't mean the instructional league is any less important to the clubs and this year's Draft picks.
Among the players who were selected in the 2013 Draft who are participating in the instructional league this fall are top 10 picks Jonathan Gray, Kohl Stewart, Clint Frazier, Trey Ball, Hunter Dozier and Austin Meadows. In all, about 25 of the 32 first-rounders who signed this year are participating.
Twins director of Minor League operations Brad Steil said the summer moves quickly for players after the Draft, and the instructional league provides another chance for them to get used to playing professionally.
"We like to bring a lot of our guys that are first-year players to get them more time in our system and get them used to our system," Steil said. "They don't really get a lot of time with us, being so new, and things are moving pretty fast for them. Instructs are a little bit better of a learning environment."
Rays director of baseball operations Chaim Bloom said the instructional league games can now be used for more specific instruction.
"Having that time in summer to already get to know these players, we have a picture of what they need to focus on," Bloom said. "With the youngest players, so much is working on background and putting a foundation in place. Now, we get to be a little more specific, because we had a chance to watch for well over a month in most cases."
Still, not every recent Draft pick made his professional debut this summer. Right-hander Ryne Stanek, one of Tampa Bay's first-round selections, was held out after the Draft due to a nagging hip injury and his long college season at Arkansas.
Bloom said he is looking forward to seeing Stanek, the 29th overall selection.
"It will be a little more of a 'Get to know you as a pitcher,'" Bloom said.
The instructional league isn't just about recent Draft picks. Many more established players ranked on MLB.com's Top 100 Prospect list are also participating in instructional league games. Some of these more high-profile players include Rangers third-base prospect Joey Gallo (this year's Minor League home run champion), Dodgers left-hander Julio Urias (a 17-year-old who excelled in the Midwest League), Rangers catcher Jorge Alfaro, Padres left-hander Max Fried, Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez and Braves right-hander Lucas Sims, each of whom ranks as the top prospect in his organization.
While these players are more experienced, the instructional league offers them an opportunity to make adjustments outside of a competitive atmosphere.
"When you play in games that don't count against a record, and the stats aren't official, players are more willing to work on stuff in that environment than in the regular season," Steil said.
There are still many more interesting storylines in the instructional league this fall:
Padres hit the road
While teams generally use their Spring Training complex for instructional league games, the Padres aren't headed to Arizona this fall. Instead, they'll hold instructs at the club's complex in the Dominican Republic, beginning Wednesday.
San Diego's Spring Training home in Peoria, Ariz., is under renovation, forcing the club to get creative.
Padres vice president of player development and international scouting Randy Smith said the experience will be about more than just baseball.
"It was born out of necessity, but one of the benefits of it is it will be a fantastic experience, baseball and otherwise, for everyone involved," Smith said. "We will have everyone at the complex all day, we'll be able to work with them and then we'll also get them out to do some work in the community. We want to make this something they'll remember. And they'll get to see where many of their teammates come from."
Making up for lost time
The instructional league also serves as a chance for prospects who missed significant time this season due to injury to get some extra innings or at-bats.
Among the players who will benefit from the extra playing time include Rangers outfielder Jairo Beras, Nationals right-hander Lucas Giolito, Twins right-handers Alex Meyer and Luke Bard, Blue Jays left-hander Matt Smoral and Indians outfielder LeVon Washington.
A shoulder injury limited Meyer, ranked No. 31 on MLB.com's Top 100 Prospect list, to 16 starts between the Gulf Coast League and Double-A New Britain this season.
Meyer's stay in the instructional league will be brief, as he will head to the Arizona Fall League in October. Steil said Meyer will make about three starts in instructional league before leaving.
"The biggest thing [for Meyer] is just being out there healthy and getting more innings," Steil said. "Continuing the stuff he worked on during the year. Locate his fastball, pitch ahead and work on his changeup, which has improved."
Among the many young players in the instructional league are several players who were ranked on MLB.com's Top 30 international free agents list this year.
Headlining the group is Cubs shortstop Gleyber Torres, who was ranked No. 3 in the class. The native of Venezuela is making his professional debut after signing a $1.7 million deal. Right-hander Jen-Ho Tseng, another member of the Cubs' vaunted international free-agent class, joins Torres in Arizona. Tseng, ranked No. 29 among international free agents, pitched for Taiwan in the World Baseball Classic this spring and signed a $1.625 million deal in July.
The Rangers will also debut three of their top summer signings from the Dominican Republic -- right-hander Marcos Diplan, ranked No. 8; shortstop Yeyson Yrizarri, ranked No. 23; and shortstop Michael DeLeon, ranked No. 27.
The instructional league also provides an ideal setting to shift players around the diamond. Several prospects who began the process of changing positions during the season will now get an extended opportunity to learn their new positions.
The Yankees have two of the most notable players who will be playing a new position in instructs. Tyler Austin, who is ranked No. 67 on MLB.com's Top 100 Prospect list, has mostly played the outfield since being drafted in the 13th round in 2010. This fall, he'll get some work at first base, where he has played 24 games during his four-year career.
Peter O'Brien, whom the Yanks selected in the second round as a catcher in 2012, will continue to play third base, where he spent part of this season.
Similarly, Victor Caratini, the Braves' No. 18 prospect, played third base and catcher at Miami Dade Junior College before Atlanta drafted him in the second round in June. The Braves used Caratini as a third baseman during the season but will now give him a chance to catch.