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More Details Emerge on MLB’s Assault on Hometown Baseball

BB&T Ballpark at Historic Bowman Field

We’re seeing more information about Major League Baseball’s plan on contracting 42 Minor League Baseball teams and overhauling player development, bring more functions in-house while eliminating entry-level circuits.

With the PBA agreement between MLB and MiLB set to expire at the end of the 2020 season, MLB is proposing to contract 42 existing MiLB teams, add two markets (St. Paul and Sugar Land) currently served by independent-baseball teams, shift teams from current classifications, and raise some existing short-season teams to full-season leagues. (We have a list of teams slated for elimination and upgrades at the end of this article.) The moves would leave Minor League Baseball with 118 guaranteed teams, down from the current lineup of 170 franchises. There would also be a realignment of existing leagues, with a new Mid-Atlantic Class-A league proposal as well as a third Triple-A league.

The proposal, as also described by MLB and MiLB insiders in course of interviews over the past month, would also overhaul player development, with MLB teams assuming a larger role in the initial training of prospects. The player draft would be moved from June to August, with contracted players reporting to camps and undergoing instruction before beginning their professional on-field careers the following year. (Player contracts would not kick in until the season after they are signed.) This is being called the “Houston plan” for player development, named for the Houston Astros staffers proposing it. For a college player whose season ends in May with a conference tourney, they’d cool their jets until the fall and then hit the field again the following April. In addition, the draft would be trimmed to 20 rounds from the current 40, limiting the number of players under minor-league contracts to 150 players.

(Speaking of the draft: Would the players union not object to a development plan that basically calls for draftees to give up a year under contract? It seems a little credulous that any plan that calls for players to not be under contract immediately would fly on the player side. Now, the players union has never been particularly interested in protecting minor-league players, but this may be the act that gets them involved in the public debate.)

One prime argument for this change: the analytics experts who say they are confident enough in their abilities to identify and develop talent without the messy business of actually having players prove it on the field. (Ask Tyler Kolek, Carlos Rodon and Brady Aikenthe top three selections in the 2014 draft—how well that’s worked out.) Unlike pro football and basketball, success in the pro baseball ranks isn’t as projectable as the analytics folks would argue. In a sense, player development in the pro ranks is a volume business. A Raul Ibanez, drafted in the 36th round (1,006th overall) in 1992, or a Mike Piazza, selected by the Dodgers in the 62nd round in 1988, or a Luke Voit, selected by the Cardinals in the 22nd round of the 2013 draft, would be overlooked in the new system. Same with the likes of a Mark Buehrle, Mark Grace, Dusty Baker, Roy Oswalt, Jorge Posada, Ken Griffey, Kenny Rogers and Orlando Hudson—all drafted in the later (20+) rounds of the MLB draft.

The counter argument is that many of the 42 cities losing affiliated teams would instead join up with an ill-defined Dream League, with some vague MLB ties and some unspecified MLB administrative support. Those undrafted diamonds in the rough could begin their career at that level, and then sign with an MLB system once they prove their worth. No one on either the MLB or MiLB side is taking the Dream League seriously (the running gag both on the MLB and MiLB sides: MLB is dreaming if they expect the proposed league to succeed). A more likely outcome has a set of former MiLB team owners joining together to launch yet more summer-collegiate circuits, which has no burden of payroll and a season concentrated in the best baseball months: late May-early August. Independent baseball with a very slight MLB connection, as opposed to a full affiliation, is not a very compelling economic sell in Vermont or Missoula or Elizabethton, and there’s little financial reward to buying into MLB’s offloaded player development.

So, what happens to those teams and cities carrying debts on team purchase and ballpark construction? Tough break. MLB has been clear that it has never been involved in planning or playing for MiLB ballparks—even though cities, counties and states have been spending money to develop MLB ballplayers. From Bill Madden:

“I don’t see any way we can do something like this,” a major league official told me. “My God, we’ll be sued all over the place from these cities that have built or refurbished ballparks with taxpayer money, and this will really put our anti-trust exemption in jeopardy. It’s crazy.”

But a minor league clubowner who has been sitting across the table from [MLB Deputy Commissioner Dan] Halem in these so-far fruitless negotiations on the new PBA is not so sure.

“I cannot believe the arrogance of these people,” he said. “They don’t care about lawsuits or anything. They think they’re bullet proof. They’ve told us, ‘We’re doing this and there’s no discussion about it, and if you don’t like it, we’ll form our own minor leagues.’”

Indeed, it’s this arrogance that really rankles many in the Minor League Baseball world. One major complaint repeated time after time: MLB is ostensibly making these changes because of facility concerns, but at no point did the MLB negotiating team set down clear facility standards. It is true that MLB clubhouse needs have changed dramatically in the last decade, as teams add more coaches and nutritional experts to the mix. A well-appointed MiLB clubhouse will sport not just a locker area, but also dedicated coaches’ rooms, a lounge, a kitchen, a large workout area and a video/computer room. But adding these spaces to most ballparks is not considered a huge expense: we’re talking cinderblock construction with decent finishes. By not laying out a minimum player facility standard and allowing teams to meet it in order to maintain affiliation, MLB officials are open to the charge of not negotiating in good faith. The lack of standards and a plan to let MiLB owners and communities meet them undercuts the whole MLB facilities rationale. (We went into the whole facilities issue in our initial coverage of the proposal.) As one MiLB owner said, these selections were made randomly and in haste.

Magically, MLB teams with MiLB investments end up coming out ahead or, at the least, not losing a team. In Modesto, where city officials are pushing for a Thurman Field replacement in the city’s downtown as part of long-term development, the Cal League’s Nuts—with the Seattle Mariners being the majority owner—continue play (although, after this, it’s hard to see the city agreeing to spend any money on a new ballpark), while Lancaster goes away and the Fresno Grizzlies shift to the Cal League. Similarly, the New York Mets enjoy an upgrade of their Brooklyn Cyclones from the NY-Penn League to the Eastern League. The Milwaukee Brewers, owner of the Carolina Mudcats, avoid contraction and a loss on their investment despite a very real facilities challenge in Zebulon. Surprise: The Brewers are one of the teams pushing for the contraction (along with the Astros, Rockies and Orioles), but their investment in the Mudcats is not lost. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Giants and Texas Rangers would not lose their investments in the San Jose Giants (Cal League) and Down East Wood Ducks (Carolina League) despite facility issues in both markets.

Here are the 42 teams slated for elimination, along with teams that would survive and be shifted to a different classification. This is a very preliminary list, and many are warning that there are likely to be changes once MLB teams weigh in on potential future affiliates (worth noting: the commissioner’s office has already assigned new affiliates to MLB teams losing existing affiliates from this list):

Eastern League (Double-A)
Binghamton Rumble Ponies
Erie SeaWolves

Southern League (Double-A)
Chattanooga Lookouts
Jackson Generals

Florida State League (High-A)
Daytona Tortugas
Florida Fire Frogs

California League (High-A)*
Lancaster JetHawks

Carolina League (High-A)
Frederick Keys

Midwest League (Low-A) @
Beloit Snappers
Burlington Bees
Clinton LumberKings

South Atlantic League (Low-A)
Hagerstown Suns
Lexington Legends
West Virginia Power

New York-Penn League (Short Season A) #
Auburn Doubledays
Batavia Muckdogs
Connecticut Tigers
Lowell Spinners
Mahoning Valley Scrappers
Williamsport Crosscutters
State College Spikes
Staten Island Yankees
Vermont Lake Monsters

Northwest League (Short Season A)
Tri-City Dust Devils
Salem-Keizer Volcanoes

Appalachian League (Rookie) ^
Bluefield Blue Jays
Bristol Pirates
Burlington Royals
Danville Braves
Elizabethton Twins
Greeneville Reds
Johnson City Cardinals
Kingsport Mets
Princeton Rays

Pioneer League (Rookie)
Billings Mustangs
Grand Junction Rockies
Great Falls Voyagers
Idaho Falls Chukars
Missoula PaddleHeads
Ogden Raptors
Orem Owlz
Rocky Mountain Vibes

* Fresno Grizzlies would shift to Cal League from Pacific Coast League, with St. Paul entering PCL. Another current PCL team would shift to Class AA to make room for a new Sugar Land team.

^ Pulaski Yankees would move to Class A; Johnson City had previously been mentioned as a candidate to move to Class A as well, but it’s not clear whether this plan is active.

# Brooklyn Cyclones would move to Eastern League; Hudson Valley Renegades, Tri-City ValleyCats, West Virginia Black Bears and Aberdeen IronBirds would move to Class A.

@ Bowling Green Hot Rods would shift leagues, possibly to Class AA. Beloit’s survival depends on finalizing funding for a new downtown ballpark. If this happens, the Quad Cities River Bandits would be a target.

Be warned that this is not necessarily a final lineup, as MLB teams are providing some additional input to what teams stay and go. And there’s certainly no unanimity among Major League Baseball front-office personnel on the current proposal, as the national ramifications slowly sink in.

Which is not surprising: MLB seems to be totally tone-deaf right now on the PR front (witness the Brandon Taubman affair, the sign-stealing kerfuffle and more), and the proposal to knock off 42 hometown teams seems to have been made without the slightest inkling of how it would be received by fans and politicos. Many MLB teams were sold on the notion of this plan when it was pitched by the commissioner’s office as an elimination of short-season ball (which comes up periodically: the Appalachian League has been fighting for its survival for decades now), but now that the specifics are being exposed, reality is setting in. This would not only give baseball a black eye with the elimination of 42 teams, it will also impact the remaining MiLB franchises: it will be virtually impossible in the future to obtain civic support for a new facility, and it will give plenty of ammunition to those opposing any sort of public investment in a ballpark. If MLB had come to negotiate the new PBA with some specific proposals in mind—let’s upgrade player facilities, eliminate the Rookie leagues and realign leagues to decrease travel time and player wear and tear by scaling back the number of games—there would have been a relatively easy path toward an agreement.

Image courtesy Williamsport Crosscutters.

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