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Scrappers see benefits with new league

The more things change, the more they’ll stay the same.

That’s the message proclaimed by Mahoning Valley Scrappers general manager Jordan Taylor, who is gearing up for a return to summer baseball at Eastwood Field.

The Scrappers last played a game on Sept. 2, 2019 when they closed out their season with a 5-4 home win over West Virginia.

Then came COVID-19, which wiped out the 2020 minor league baseball season.

Then came the announcement last November that the Scrappers were one of 40 minor league teams eliminated through a professional baseball restructuring plan triggered by Major League Baseball.

Now, for the first time since they arrived in Niles in 1999, the Scrappers are not a member of the New York-Penn League; they are not an affiliate of the Cleveland Indians and their players will not be paid professional athletes.

Instead, the Scrappers are now a member of the newly formed MLB Draft League. The league will focus on top college- and high school-level prospects who are eligible to be drafted that summer by MLB teams. The league will have a partnership with MLB and Prep Baseball Report.

The Scrappers are joined by the Trenton Thunder (formerly of the Double-A Eastern League) and Frederick Keys (formerly of the Class-A Carolina League) along with the Williamsport Crosscutters, State College Spikes and West Virginia Black Bears (all formerly of the New York-Penn League) as founding members of the MLB Draft League.

The six-team league will play a 68-game regular season consisting of 34 home games and 34 road games.

The season begins May 24 and concludes Aug. 13 with a break in mid-July for the MLB All-Star Game and Draft.

“As this league evolves, I really believe you’re going to see a higher level of play than what we’ve seen in the past,” Taylor said. “This league will concentrate on the older, more developed players. We’re going to have a bigger collection of top-end draft-eligible players.

“Our partnership with the Indians was outstanding. Every year we had roughly 50 players come through, and on average, we sent about five players per year to the big leagues. We always fielded quality players. But now our rosters will focus solely on athletes who are very close to big league level. I think you’ll see a much higher percentage of our players reach the big leagues.”

Taylor noted that Prep Baseball Report will be responsible for assigning players to each franchise, with a goal of evenly distributing talent. Special consideration will be given to players who have local ties to a specific franchise.

“If there’s a kid from say YSU or Kent State or Ohio State coming into the league, there will be a priority to place him with the Scrappers,” Taylor said. “That’s a luxury that we didn’t have in the past.”

Because it is in the best interest of MLB franchises to have the best possible resources to scout Draft League players, MLB is providing technical and other support to the six Draft League stadiums.

Prep Baseball Report is expected to assign managers to the six Draft League franchises in early March. Several weeks later, the rest of the field staffs will be named.

While there will be plenty of changes on the field, Taylor says that Scrappers fans can expect many of the same experiences they have enjoyed in previous summers at Eastwood Field.

“We’ve already scheduled all of our fireworks nights like we have had in the past, we’re working on bobblehead nights and other familiar promotions,” Taylor said. “The response from our corporate sponsors has been outstanding, and as a result, we should have a promotional schedule that is comparable to past seasons.”

Taylor believes the Scrappers will also benefit from a revised schedule, which has the team beginning and ending its season approximately one month earlier than in the past.

“June and July have always been our sweet spot in terms of attendance,” Taylor noted. “Once we got into mid-to-late August, it was always tough. We lost workers who were going back to school. High school sports and the start of the school year cut into our attendance. We feel like the new format will be beneficial from a fans perspective.”

Of course, much of what happens this summer for the Scrappers and for the rest of baseball will be determined by the future impact of COVID.

When Eastwood Field opens its gates to high school and Youngstown State games in March, up to 900 fans will be permitted in the ball park. Taylor expects that number to increase by the time the Scrappers open their season in late May.

“Right now, the Youngstown Phantoms are permitted roughly 1,500 fans at Covelli Centre (6,109 seating capacity) for an indoor winter event,” Taylor said. “I’m pretty confident that by the time we get into the summer, we’ll be in a situation where we can open things up quite a bit.”

The Scrappers open their season May 24 at West Virginia. They will play their first home game on May 26 against State College.

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