Written by: Michael Schneider (@mikecschneider)
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Tuesday, August 20th of last summer was a scorching-hot, humid day in Frederick, Maryland. After work, I picked up my son and we headed to the Frederick Keys baseball game. I had moved to Frederick shortly after my son was born in 2003, and we have been going to Keys games for years. After getting a quick bite to eat, we arrived at Harry Grove Stadium under dark, threatening skies.
As the Keys starting pitcher, Blaine Knight, took the mound, the idea that we were watching the last half inning we may ever see of the Keys would have seemed preposterous at the time. Ryan Zimmerman was playing for the Potomac Nationals in a rehab game; he would be playing in the World Series a couple months later. He walked in his only plate appearance. Knight struggled badly with his control and was fortunate to escape the inning allowing only two runs. Before the PNats took the field, it started to pour and the ground crew came running in to put on the tarp.
The Frederick Keys have been the Orioles High-A affiliate since 1989 and have led the Carolina League in attendance seven out of the last eight seasons. The Keys were going on a road trip after this series and only had the final weekend of the season remaining at home. I was going to be out of town and would miss the series, so this was going to be my last game of the season.
It rained hard for about thirty minutes and cleared up, but it was decided that the field was too wet to continue and they would have a make-up doubleheader the next day.
The current agreement between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball is set to expire at the end of the 2020 baseball season. In October 2019, J.J. Cooper of Baseball America broke the story that, in ongoing negotiations, Major League Baseball was proposing that Short Season leagues would be eliminated ($). This move would limit each Major League organization to four minor league affiliates. Each team would be limited to one Low-A, High-A, Double-A and Triple-A affiliate, meaning there would be a total of 120 minor league teams. There are currently 162 minor league teams, excluding the complex teams (Arizona and Gulf Coast Leagues) and the Dominican Summer League.
The idea to eliminate Short Season leagues apparently originated from then-Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow and his proteges Mike Elias and David Stearns, who now run the Orioles and Brewers. It was felt that player development at the lower levels could be done just as well in instructional environments at team complexes.
In November 2019, The New York Times published a list of the forty two teams that would be contracted. There was considerable resistance to the idea of contracting about twenty five percent of the minor leagues, centering on the idea that each of the teams listed in the contraction article are important institutions in their respective cities. This past winter, then presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was particularly vocal in his opposition to minor league contraction.
This all took a backseat when the United States and much of the world began dealing with the COVID-19 crisis in March. Social distancing has become a priority, and social gatherings—including virtually all sporting events—are postponed or cancelled.
This is a strange and unprecedented time. Even for those of us that have been fortunate enough to avoid the coronavirus, there is much that is currently on hold. The Minor League Baseball season is very much in doubt. Without large television contracts, there is little point to playing games without fans, and it is unlikely that it will be deemed safe to attend sporting events in time for a 2020 minor league season.
It is possible that much of the player development in 2020 for minor leaguers could come at team complexes later in the summer assuming COVID-19 restrictions are eventually and appropriately loosened. Ironically, this would be testing the theory that prospects can develop as well without playing in formal games, which is partially driving the impending minor league contraction.
The coronavirus crisis could not have come at a worse time for Minor League Baseball. Any chance of government support to prevent minor league contraction was likely lost as the government is dealing with more important issues. Like many businesses, 2020 is going to be a difficult year for professional baseball financially, which makes contraction more understandable.
Several weeks ago, the Major League Players Union, whose priority is current Major League Baseball players, agreed to reduce the 2020 MLB Draft to as few as five rounds in exchange for an agreement on service time considerations for a shortened or cancelled season. Make no mistake: this is the first step in lessening the total number of players in an organization. Within the last week, it was rumored that there is a groundwork for an agreement between MLB and MILB to reduce the minor leagues to 120 teams. The purpose of this article is to look at the minor league landscape. It is not to speculate whether specific teams will or will not be eliminated.
There have been changes from the original list of contracted teams. However, nothing solid has been leaked on what the changes are. It is no longer a question of if there will be contraction, but a question of which teams will be eliminated and when the final decision will be announced.
Many of the teams that are contracted would be in line to join a newly formed ‘Dream League’. This would largely be for undrafted prospects who do not possess a contract with a big league organization. Players in the Dream League would be provided with an opportunity to play and potentially be scouted and signed by a major league organization. This would be similar to independent leagues, but it will presumably be more closely aligned with Major League Baseball. However, the Dream League teams would not be tied to a specific MLB organization. Because of this, much of the allure of going to a minor league game to see a young up-and-coming top prospect would be missing.
In Cooper’s article last October ($), he quoted MLB Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem as saying, “From the perspective of MLB clubs, our principal goals are upgrading the minor league facilities that we believe have inadequate standards for potential MLB players, improving the working conditions for MiLB players, including their compensation, improving transportation and hotel accommodations, providing better geographic affiliations between major league clubs and their affiliates, as well as better geographic lineups of leagues to reduce player travel.”
Halem does not mention the politics that influence the decision on which minor league teams to contract. If you consider that most minor league teams are small businesses, one can only assume that the owner of a minor league team—and how much influence they have—is an important factor in whether a minor league franchise is considered for contraction. Minor league teams that are owned by major league teams seem to be safe. There is not a comprehensive list but the Braves own Gwinnett, Mississippi and Rome. The Cardinals own their Double-A affiliate in Springfield. The Brewers own the Carolina Mudcats. The Rangers own the Down East Wood Ducks. Cal Ripken Jr. owning the Aberdeen Iron Birds assumedly helps its chance to join a full season league and avoid elimination.
Much of the information regarding minor league facilities is not readily available, so I am not going to attempt to address this. However, the age of the minor league stadiums and recent renovation do give some hint of the quality of minor league facilities.
Often, the location of some minor league affiliates (as it relates to the location of their big league team) can be extremely inconvenient. Having leagues with teams that are close to one another geographically reduces player travel between cities within the league, but that convenience becomes an inconvenience when some of the teams in that league are affiliates to a big league team that is hundreds (sometimes thousands) of miles away.
Currently Triple-A teams are reasonably spread out throughout the country. However, the other full season leagues are presently in more limited pockets of the country.
There appears to only be minimal impact to Triple-A teams. Currently, there are fourteen teams in the International League and sixteen teams in the Pacific Coast League. The rumored plan is to move six teams from the Pacific Coast League to the International League. That would put twenty teams in the International League and only ten in the Pacific Coast League. The assumption is that the Pacific Coast League would primarily be teams on the west coast and that this will reduce some travel. There were no Triple-A teams on the initial list of teams to be contracted. However, in April there was a report ($) that two independent league teams (St. Paul and Sugar Land) could become Triple-A teams.
Below is a list of Triple-A teams and the distance to their major league affiliate.
*The Red Sox Triple-A affiliate will be moving to a new stadium in Worcester, MA in 2021.
Pacific Coast League
The Washington Nationals having a Triple-A team in Fresno really sticks out. Ideally, there would be a way to switch the National Triple-A team in Fresno with the Giants Double-A team in Richmond, but below we will show why a Double-A team on the West Coast is currently not workable.
States With Current Double-A Teams
There are no Double-A teams on the West Coast and only the eight teams in the Texas League are west of the Mississippi. While it would be nice for Seattle to have a Double-A team closer than Little Rock, Arkansas, unless a whole Double-A league is moved to the West Coast, the travel would simply make it unrealistic.
Below are tables for the three Double-A Leagues. The teams that are highlighted in yellow were on the initial lists of teams to be contracted.
States With Current High-A Teams
All High-A affiliates are either in West Coast or East Coast states. There are six teams in the Carolina League that have major league affiliates that are in the middle of the country and at least 700 miles away.
For the Florida State League, the distance is not as important as whether the major league team’s Spring Training facility is located in the same city. Daytona, the Cincinnati Reds’ High-A affiliate, was included on the original list of contacted teams. The Reds Spring Training facility is in Arizona.
The Braves have an unsettled situation with their Florida State League team. The Florida Flying Frogs played the last three seasons in Osceola County with little attendance. Osceola County actually paid the team to buy out their lease so they can renovate the stadium into a soccer-only field. It was not until January that it was decided that the team would play 2020 at the Braves spring training complex in North Port. However, this is just temporary and even if there was no minor league contraction, the Braves would be looking for new High-A affiliation moving forward.
Florida State League
States With Current Low-A Teams
Low-A currently only has two large leagues (Midwest and South Atlantic) that encompass an affiliated team for all thirty organizations. This means that the travel is over a very large area. In addition, there are no teams west of Iowa, so all the western MLB teams are a considerable distance from their Low-A affiliate.
From the initial list of 42 teams that were on the contraction list, six are Low-A teams. The plan appears to transfer six teams in the short season Northwest League to a full season league and to split the northern teams in the South Atlantic League into a new Mid-Atlantic League. These two changes will add some teams in the west and help to reduce travel distance within the league.
South Atlantic (Sally) League
The following are teams that are not currently in an affiliated full season league that could be retained and transitioned to a full season league as part of the reorganization. Six of these are teams are from the Northwest League. Brooklyn (Mets) and Aberdeen (Orioles) are tied to specific major league teams.
There are four safe conclusions about minor league realignment as of now.
- There are going to be major changes to minor league baseball.
- A lot is still unknown and there is likely quite a bit happening behind the scenes as we speak.
- There is not a perfect solution, and some geographical and travel issues will likely remain regardless of the resolution.
- This effects will be wide-stretching. Fewer players are going to receive a chance to pursue their dream of playing professional baseball for a major league organization. The minor leagues can offer a sense of pride for a city that is not easily duplicated. Minor league teams employ a number of people, sometimes in communities with limited opportunities. At a time when baseball desperately needs to grow its fandom, less people will be naturally exposed to baseball due to this contraction.
Follow P365 Prospect Analyst Michael Schneider on Twitter! @mikecschneider
Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365