Interesting is a gross understatement. At the time, my thinking was that MLB would insist on a bigger slice of the minor league pie. Over the years, several minor league teams have evolved into multi-faceted enterprises with valuations reaching the tens of millions of dollars.
I wasn’t wrong, but I underestimated the extent of MLB’s goals. MLB wants to bake a new pie and dole out a right-sized portion to MiLB. With the help of the pandemic, MLB may get what it wants.
Until recently, the Majors and minors have gotten along acceptably well since the early 1990s, when the minor leagues relinquished some of what little control they had in exchange for certainty. For many years, MLB clubs have stipulated to a minimum number of affiliates (30 at each of four full-season levels and 40 at the short-season level) and contracting only with existing clubs. The latter rule has informed much of my writing about affiliations over the years. For example, it is why the Rangers grudgingly paired with High Desert after losing Myrtle Beach instead of creating a new team in a superior location like Pitcairn Island or the moon. The Plan (Per Various Sources)
• Between 40 and 42 teams
would be removed from affiliated baseball. I use the terms “eliminated” and “contracted” in this article, but these teams could continue (if financially and logistically possible) as independents or as part of a newly created amateur league for undrafted players. MLB floated the latter scenario as a balm to potentially eliminated teams, which reacted with something less than enthusiasm. The original elimination list from last fall included four AA teams (none in the Texas League), four from high-A and six from low-A.
• Short-season ball outside the spring training complexes would disappear, taking with it the Northwest League (which includes Spokane), Pioneer League, Appalachian League and New York – Penn League. The majority of eliminated teams would come from these leagues. 12 would survive including Spokane, which would join some of its Northwest League brethren in a new low-A league. Fresno, currently in AAA but shunned by western clubs for years, would drop down to high-A. Several other teams could be reclassified.
• Depending on the number of eliminations, currently independent teams in St. Paul (long a standard-bearer for indy baseball) and Sugar Land (a relatively new Atlantic League participant) would join affiliated ball.
• San Antonio and Wichita would drop from AAA to AA, presumably expanding the Texas League to ten teams. San Antonio just joined AAA and plays in a facility aged beyond its 28 years. With negligible local support for a new park, returning to AA makes sense. Wichita, on the other hand, will be playing in a sparkling new stadium intended for AAA, and I’m sure the owners, city and fans feel betrayed.
• The rookie-level Arizona and Gulf Coast League would remain.
• The affiliation system would be altered. Currently, MLB clubs and teams engage in a game of musical chairs every two to four years to sign new affiliations or extend old ones. Over time, more affiliations have been locked in by geography or club ownership of minor league teams. This is largely beneficial but has created some ugly side effects (like Texas and High Desert, and more recently, Washington’s Triple A team in Fresno). MLB wants more control over the type and length of the affiliations.
• Minor League Baseball’s central and league offices would be eliminated, their duties absorbed by MLB.
• The draft will shrink (permanently, not just this summer) and move to August, bolstering the justification for eliminating short-season leagues.
By all accounts, MLB isn’t adopting a maximalist stance to achieve lesser, incremental goals. MLB really wants this and seems willing to abide the scorn from many sources including state and federal legislatures. The pandemic has created a dire financial situation for the entirety of minor league ball, putting teams in a weakened state as they try to negotiate the terms of their existence. Why?
According to MLB: too much arduous travel. Too many players competing in allegedly inferior facilities. Too many players, period.
In truth, if starting from scratch, you wouldn’t design the minor leagues as they exist. The current system is a muddle of competing private and public interests, a very different historical system, fitful changes, and decades of inertia. There are no AA teams west of Midland, Texas, and no low-A teams more than 90 miles west of the Mississippi. The so-called South Atlantic League stretches to within sixty miles of New York City. The relocation of the Helena Brewers to Colorado Springs has created bus trips of 575-950 miles for every opponent save one in the Pioneer League. Many teams deserve reclassification to higher or lower levels, and doing so with an eye toward geographic cohesiveness makes sense. Housing and instructing more players centrally at spring training complexes also makes sense.
All that said, team relocations are subject to approval by the Commissioner, so MLB itself is partly responsible for some of the all-night bus trips forced on its employees.
Are there too many professional players? It’s an easy argument to make. Undeniably, most minor leaguers don’t make it, and many are ultimately employed just to provide an appropriate level of competition for better prospects. Shedding 20-25 players per club saves money, eliminates some administrative hassles, and focuses coaches on players more likely to reach the Majors. On the other hand, eliminating players almost certainly eliminates some who would have beaten the odds and reached the Majors. The marginal cost of a low-level minor leaguer, or even a squad full of them, is small relative to the cost of a free agent signed to pitch the sixth inning.
I can’t help but feel jaded about the complaints on quality of facilities. We’ve been hearing them for decades, usually under threat of relocation, now contraction. Some are valid. Nobody misses Bakersfield or High Desert. (Their fans do, but that’s a different story.) But 25 of the 42 teams on the original contraction list play in stadiums built since 1990
, and ten are in post-2000 ballparks. If MLB wants fewer minor leaguers, so be it, but blaming inferior parks is a ruse.
Sure, the current system is messy, and players could benefit from revisions, but the tone of many of MLB’s arguments smacks of resentment that minor league teams are making money off the “free talent” supplied by MLB. Outcomes for the Rangers and Their Current Affiliates
Relative to most clubs, the effects of contraction on the Rangers should be mild. The Rangers were one of few clubs without an affiliate on the original contraction list, and they have either permanent or rock-solid relationships with three of their four full-season affiliates.
As I’ve expressed to a few readers via email, I think there’s a good chance that Texas’s prospects have already played their last game in Spokane. Transition to low-A would benefit the Indians and the city, which can easily support full-season ball and would be associated with a western club. (Not the Mariners, who I expect would remain with nearby Everett, but somebody out that way.)
The Rangers own high-A Down East and low-A Hickory. On the original cut list, full-season teams owned by their parent clubs were almost completely unthreatened by contraction, regardless of facilities, location or support. To be blunt, I think both teams would be on the cut list if privately owned. Don’t get me wrong; Hickory and Down East are perfectly acceptable venues for developing Texas’s prospects. But in the context of contraction, they play in older stadiums and don’t draw many fans relative to their peers.
Would you believe Frisco’s Dr Pepper Ballpark is the second-oldest in the Texas League? No matter. The park remains top-notch and draws well. I expect the relationship between the Riders and Rangers to extend well into the future.
That leaves AAA. If Sugar Land does indeed matriculate to affiliated ball and the AAA level, the only parent club that makes sense is the Astros. That would require Round Rock to find a new partner, which, most logically, would be the Rangers. Coincidentally, Express part-owner Nolan Ryan and the Rangers are on their best terms in years, and he abruptly severed ties with the Astros after owner Jim Crane replaced Reid Ryan with his own son as Houston’s President of Business Operations. A reunion makes sense, something I would have never countenanced a year ago. On the other hand, Texas’s current AAA partner in Nashville has a terrific stadium, a milder climate, and plenty of quick flights to DFW and other MLB locations. Obviously, I’m biased toward the Rangers returning to Round Rock, but I can’t deny the logic behind the Rangers staying put if they and Nashville agree.
Sugar Land’s stadium doesn’t meet AAA requirements, but MLB won’t let Page 236 of the Professional Baseball Agreement stall its plans. Like Round Rock’s Dell Diamond, which was constructed to AA specs and later upgraded, Sugar Land probably could build additional permanent seating on the outfield berm.
Unless MLB institutes a cap on minor league teams and players, my suspicion is the rookie complex leagues will continue to grow and perhaps bifurcate into lower and upper levels, the latter of which would essentially replace the short-season leagues marked for elimination. When I began covering minor league ball in 2007, the complexes contained 24 rookie squads. Last year, the number was 39. Contra the argument for fewer players, several clubs (including the smaller-market Brewers, Athletics, Indians and Padres) have fielded additional rookie-level teams in recent years. Maybe the Rangers will join them.
I wouldn’t hazard to guess how and when this actually plays out. We’re in the midst of unprecedented times. Clubs and MiLB teams are forbidden from discussing affiliations until existing contracts have expired. That won’t occur before September, but for some minor league clubs nominally on the chopping block, their very existence depends on arranging an agreement with an MLB club right now. The Original Elimination List (Which Has Almost Certainly Changed)
AA: Binghamton, Chattanooga, Erie, Jackson
High-A: Daytona, Florida, Frederick, Lancaster
Low-A: Burlington, Clinton, Hagerstown, Lexington, Quad Cities, West Virginia Power
All teams in Appalachian, Northwest, NY-Penn, and Pioneer Leagues EXCEPT: Aberdeen, Boise, Brooklyn, Everett, Eugene, Hillsboro, Hudson Valley, Pulaski, Spokane, Tri-City ValleyCats, Vancouver, West Virginia Black Bears Sources and Additional Reading (Mostly Subscription Links)
Baseball America: All 42 Teams Reportedly Up For Elimination In MLB's Minor League Reduction Proposal
J.J. Cooper, Baseball America: MLB Threat Pushes Negotiations With MiLB To Another Level
J.J. Cooper, Baseball America: Which MiLB Teams Are On The List To Be Eliminated? It's Impossible To Say
J.J. Cooper, Baseball America: Sources: MiLB Ready To Agree To Significant Reduction In Teams
J.J. Cooper, Baseball America: 'The Wild West:' MiLB Teams On Chopping Block Scramble To Find MLB Partner
Keith Law, The Athletic: Even with baseball shut down, specter of minor-league contraction looms
Craig Edwards, FanGraphs.com: Untangling A Minor League Mess, Parts One
, and Three
Robert Arthur, Baseball Prospectus: MLB’s Minor League Plan Would Cut Off Four Million Fans
Noah Arthur, Baseball Prospectus: Coronavirus is an Existential Threat to Minor League Baseball
Dan Berry, New York Times: Across the Country, Minor League Towns Face Major League Threat
Bill Madden, New York Daily News: Rob Manfred’s plan to destroy minor league baseball
Robert Sanchez, Sports Illustrated: Minor League Baseball Is In Crisis