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Making rosters work just part of the minor-league formula

There are almost 1,500 miles between Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Billings, Montana, and Dayton Dragons outfielder J.D. Williams traveled every one of them – twice – in a two-day period, even before the Dragons completed their three-game series against the West Michigan Whitecaps in mid-June.

“I was tired,” Williams said, understandably. “It was tough. But I had three days off after that for the (Midwest League) All-Star break.”

Of course, that included a six-hour bus ride back to Dayton from Grand Rapids.

Such is life in the minor leagues as farm directors such as Jeff Graupe of the Reds juggle rosters of seven teams and two more teams in the Dominican Summer Leagues.

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It isn’t just about ability, either. In the lower minors, there are rules about how many years you can play. In the Pioneer League, for instance, where the Reds have a team at Billings, a 30-man roster can list only three players with three years of pro experience at one time.

It is not entirely clear who was on or off the Billings roster at the time, as contracts were being finalized with newly drafted players and the Pioneer League season was about to begin on June 15. Graupe had to make sure there were enough players in Billings and Williams, who had three previous years of rookie ball experience, was shipped out.

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Williams is a 21-year-old outfielder from Toronto chosen in the 17th round of the 2015 draft. He played that season and the next for the rookie Arizona Reds, and last year at Billings, giving him three years of experience.

Starting this season at extended spring training, he was placed with the Dragons on May 30, so he was only with the team a couple weeks when he received the dreaded call to report to Billings, a level down from Dayton.

After the Dragons finished a series in South Bend and bused to Grand Rapids, Williams was told he had a 7:30 a.m. flight to Billings, through Minneapolis, on Friday, June 15.

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Williams arrived in Billings at about 1:30 p.m. Billings time, practiced with the team, but did not play.

The next morning, at 7:30, he was called by Billings manager Ray Martinez and told he was going back to Dayton on a 2:30 p.m. flight. He said he wasn’t given a reason why. He didn’t make it in time for the Saturday Dragons game at West Michigan, but pinch hit in the Sunday, June 17 game.

After the game, the team bused back to Dayton, sending several members to East Lansing for the June 19 Midwest League All-Star game. No games were scheduled on the day before or after that game, so Williams had time to rest.

“We had to do some shuffling,” Graupe said. “A lot of it has to do with processing contracts and how rosters have to be balanced.

“There’s a lot of work that goes on below the surface to get the product out there every day. Based on roster needs, we needed players in Billings (and, for that matter, the Arizona Reds and Greeneville, the extra rookie team the Reds are operating this season). We were able to rectify it. We sent him back once we had enough players there.”

Jim McCurdy, in his 25th season as president of the Pioneer League, said it’s not unusual to see rosters constantly shuffled.

“It’s typical this time of year,” McCurdy said. “There is also some flex in the rosters.”

That means sometimes a player’s name will be on a roster, but he won’t physically be with the team. If a player can’t be added to the Dayton roster for a few days, he might remain with the team but be officially placed on the Billings roster.

Even injured players doing rehab must be on a team. If they’re rehabbing from a major league team, in most cases, they don’t count against the roster limits. Extended spring training doesn’t count.

In the Midwest League, where the Dragons play, no more than two players on an active roster can have five years or more professional experience (not including rehab assigned players).

At one time, McCurdy said, a player’s roster position was determined by his age, not years of service. That isn’t the case anymore.

Not wanting to be sent back to Billings soon after he returned to Dayton, Williams started a six-game hitting streak.

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