The BDN is making the most crucial coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact in Maine free for all readers. Click here for all coronavirus stories. You can join others committed to safeguarding this vital public service by purchasing a subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.
Four former University of Maine baseball standouts have survived the massive cuts made to minor league teams by their major league organizations as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The coronavirus forced teams to cut minor league players as a cost-saving measure.
Pitcher Cody Laweryson, who is in the Minnesota Twins organization; shortstop Jeremy Pena (Houston), catcher Chris Bec (Toronto) and shortstop-third baseman Danny Casals (Milwaukee) are still employed by their respective teams.
Laweryson was relieved to find out he still had a job.
“That was really good to hear. I was a little worried. Some teams released 30 to 40 players,” said Laweryson, a Maine native who is working out at his home in Moscow.
“It’s tough because some of those guys won’t get that one last chance to prove themselves,” he said.
The Milwaukee Brewers released 30 minor leaguers, the Toronto Blue Jays cut loose 26 and the Astros eliminated 17.
The Twins announced that they aren’t going to release any of their minor leaguers and, along with the Astros, have committed to continue paying those players $400 a week and providing health benefits through Aug. 31. The Brewers and Blue Jays will do so through June.
Major League Baseball had implemented the $400 per week stipend through May 31 but several teams decided to extend it.
Lawyerson also applauded the Twins for their decision not to cut any minor leaguers and to pay all of them through Aug. 31. He hopes there will be a minor league season but admitted that it isn’t looking too good.
Bec said if teams do resume playing, he trusts Major League Baseball with making the decision based on its ability to take care of the players and keep them safe.
“I’ll be ready to go. But if they decide not to have a [minor league] season, I’m fine with that, too,” said Bec. “We need to be very cautious expediting this season. I don’t see many positives. I want to play but we need to be careful and take as many safety measures as we can.
“I would rather not get paid than risk my life,” he said.
Bec, Laweryson’s former batterymate, sympathizes with the minor leaguers who were released. He acknowledged that baseball is a business and he encouraged those who were released to stick with it because there are spots available on other teams.
“They should keep following their dream,” Bec said.
The former Black Bear players continue to work out to be ready if there is a season. All four have enjoyed impressive starts to their pro careers.
The 21-year-old Laweryson, a 14th-round draft choice of the Twins, was a combined 1-1 with a 1.57 earned run average between Rookie League Elizabethton and Class A Cedar Rapids in his first pro season last summer. He struck out 63 and walked 10 in 46 innings and allowed only 27 hits.
He turned in an “immaculate inning” for Elizabethton against Greenville during which he struck out three hitters on a total of nine pitches.
Bec, a fifth-round pick by Toronto, hit .232 but stole 16 bases for Dunedin in the high Class A Florida State League. He belted two home runs and drove in 24 runs in 54 games during his second pro season.
Bec thinks he proved to the Blue Jays that he had enough value to help the team win, which enabled him to survive the cut.
“I’m just going to keep my head down, keep grinding and be ready,” he said.
Pena, a third-round pick of the Astros, has continued to climb the ladder. He went from short-season A his first year to full-season A and high-A teams last summer. Pena has played in 145 career minor league games and is batting .290 with eight homers, 26 doubles, 7 triples and 64 RBIs. He also has 23 stolen bases.
Pena’s numbers have kept getting better as he hit .317 at high Class A Fayetteville (North Carolina) of the Carolina League in 2019 after being promoted from Quad Cities of the Midwest League.
Casals wasn’t drafted but signed a free-agent deal with Milwaukee. In his first pro season last summer, he hit .333 for the Brewers Blue team in the Arizona [rookie] League. He posted three homers and 16 RBIs in 29 games and stole six bases. He also walked 12 times and had an on-base percentage of .400.
Watch: What is an N95 face mask?