When the Colorado Rockies hit the road on Sunday evening to prepare for a seven-game road swing through San Francisco and Arizona, they brought along five players who will likely never see time on the field during those games.
While the five players comprise the “taxi squad” and may not be a part of the active roster, their place with the Colorado Rockies on the sojourn through the National League West is a vital part of their development into Major League players, manager Bud Black said on Sunday.
So what is the taxi squad and how does it benefit the Colorado Rockies?
Ushered in as part of Major League Baseball’s way of dealing with possible COVID-19 issues when a team hit the road, MLB introduced the “taxi squad” concept for the 2020 season. During the shortened 60-game slate, each team brought three players on every trip. One of those three players had to be a catcher.
For the 2021 season, along with the expanded number of games played by each team came an expansion of the taxi squad as well, with five players (including one catcher) on the taxi squad.
Here is the official terminology from MLB when it comes to the taxi squad in 2021:
"A Club is permitted to carry up to five additional Taxi Squad players on all road trips with the Major League team. If the Club elects to carry five additional players, at least one must be a player whose designated position prior to the season is catcher. Players on the Taxi Squad are permitted to workout with the Major League Club but are not permitted to be in uniform and in the dugout during games. Upon the conclusion of each road trip, players on the Taxi Squad will return to the Alternate Training Site."
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For Colorado’s first road trip of the season (a six-game swing through San Francisco and Chavez Ravine to face the Los Angeles Dodgers), the Rockies brought along two pitchers (Lucas Gilbreath and Antonio Santos), two infielders (Alan Trejo and Colton Welker), and a catcher (Chris Rabago). At the time, only Santos had had MLB experience (he pitched in three games for Colorado in 2020). Gilbreath would later be a part of Colorado’s bullpen as the 27th man for a double-header against the New York Mets at Coors Field.
Trejo, of course, was called up from the taxi squad in San Francisco when Chris Owings was placed on the injured list with a thumb injury.
So if a taxi squad player can’t be in uniform and can’t be in the dugout during the game, how does being on the taxi squad benefit the player’s development? Black said it’s about what happens before the game.
"“I think it’s advantageous for a player, even though he’s not active, to be around the big league environment during the regular season. He can see the intensity of the big league game, see the focus, what’s going on in the dugout,” Black offered. “He can feel the energy prior to a game in the cage or during batting practice. He gets to hit and take grounders on big league fields.“So when it does become real for a player, when they’re active and they’re in a game, they start or they come off the bench, at least there’s some frame of reference that they’ve been through this.”"
And that frame of reference is important for the Rockies to give to different players, and that’s why five different players will be on the taxi squad for this trip.
"“We’ll mix it up with five new guys this trip. Let them get that experience,” Black said. “They’ll get on an airplane. They’ll see how the day unfolds travel-wise and going to the ballpark. When their time comes, they won’t be, for lack of a better word, in awe of being in the big leagues.“As much as we haven’t liked what’s gone on in the last year with the virus, there have been some things that have been beneficial for players.”"
And who are those five players?
This road trip, it is catcher Brian Serven, outfielder (and former infielder) Ryan Vilade, and right-handed pitchers Chad Smith, Jose Mujica, and Justin Lawrence.
Vilade was one of a few players who stood in the batter’s box against Kyle Freeland during his bullpen session on Tuesday. Mujica is the only guy with MLB service time, though.
With minor league seasons scheduled to begin the first week of May at all levels, how the Rockies and other teams potentially use a taxi squad versus players coming from the minor league system will be interesting to watch. But, for now, on this trip, the Rockies will use the taxi squad as a way to not only be prepared for what might happen in the present, but also what could happen in the future as well.