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MiLB: We’re in the endgame now

BB&T Ballpark at Historic Bowman Field

With negotiations set to resume via conference call on April 22, the future of Minor League Baseball as an independent entity is up in the air, with Major League Baseball looking to take over most or all of its operations as well as eliminating 40 MiLB teams, including all of short-season ball.

That MLB was seeking to contract 40 teams was unveiled last fall, with follow-up details emerging in December and January. Emails between the two sides have been exchanged over the last few months, with MLB firming up its position on what it sees as the future of minor-league ball. In prior meetings, MLB negotiators explicitly asked why their teams need MiLB at all, and there has always been the possibility MLB could completely walk away from the MLB/MiLB relationship when the current Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) expires in September and launch its farm system for 2021. That threat still exists.

We do know this much: MLB is firm on its demand for a 120-team farm system, with all of Rookie or Short-Season A leagues and most of those teams going away. Six of the eight Northwest League teams would survive in a Low-A West Coast league, and potentially four to six NY-Penn League teams would constitute part of a new Low-A league. Some teams at the High-A leagues would move a level down; some teams at the Low-A leagues would move a level up. The goal, say MLB negotiators, is to keep the best ballparks and the best geographic fits as part of their new minor-league vision.

MiLB negotiators, meanwhile, have proposed a one-year extension of the current PBA and the continued existence of the St. Petersburg MiLB offices, probably in a scaled-down form. But with the coronavirus pandemic closing down professional baseball indefinitely, there’s no doubt MiLB negotiators are in a weakened position. (Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic and the anticipation that it will take months if not years for the sport to economically recover is now cover for MLB to solidify its demands. At a time when many in America are anticipating changes in coming years, the coronavirus pandemic is providing political shelter for MLB to push for these extensive changes.) Insiders with direct knowledge of the proposals in both MLB and MiLB peg the survival of Minor League Baseball as an operating entity and its associated leagues at 50-50. MLB would perform the following acts:

  • Develop its own franchise system. This could include the likely inclusion of St. Paul (MN) and Sugar Land (TX) as Triple-A-level markets, the potential addition of a New Orleans team, and two or three current Triple-A markets demoted, including the previously identified Fresno Grizzlies (Class AAA; Pacific Coast League).
  • Allocate affiliates. MiLB teams would have no say over their parent teams. While you would see many existing relationships endure, you’ll never see a situation where the Washington Nationals are affiliated with a West Coast team.
  • Eliminate a layer of management between MLB teams and MiLB teams. League offices and league personnel would go away, overseen by coordinators at MLB headquarters. St. Pete would be replaced by Park Avenue. MLB did away with its two league offices as business entities after the 1999 season, and the sport does not appear to have suffered.
  • Play a larger role in MiLB business decisions. MLB teams would have more power to dictate terms to MiLB teams when it comes to facilities and operations. Don’t be surprised if MLB mandates every MiLB team adopt technology, for instance, or demands to use MiLB customer data for their own marketing efforts. MLB teams would also be in a position to dictate ballpark improvements.

Coming up with 40 teams to contract is not subject yet to a final decision, but eliminating the Appalachian League and the Pioneer League accounts for 18 of the 40 teams. Another 10 teams would be eliminated from the NY-Penn League, as well as two from the Northwest League. That’s 30 right there, and finding 10 more in Class AA, High A and Low A would account for the rest. (The list of teams to be potentially contracted now differs slightly from the original contraction list proposed by MLB and is not final.) Unlike prior talks where the notion of buying out contracted teams and paying teams to move down and charge them to move up was under consideration, it doesn’t appear these financial moves are currently being considered. There has been talk of keeping the Rookie Appalachian League as a summer-collegiate league, though it’s not clear that would happen with the current model of MLB ownership. In short, the development work outside players drafted and signed in a future 20-round draft would be shifted to independent leagues and summer-collegiate leagues, who could potentially expand operations into a longer season.

One piece of data that may be somewhat of a softened blow: many in MLB, including negotiators, expect expansion to have sooner than later, potentially adding eight teams to the MLB affiliate mix in the future. There is a simple economic argument for expansion to happen. Without MLB at all this season, the sport stands to lose at least $4 billion in expected revenue in 2020, less if games are played in Florida and Arizona. Billions in expansion fees will help address that shortfall. And that gives eight contracted markets a shot at a new MiLB team: traditionally, an MiLB farm system begins play one year before the expansion MLB team debuts.

As noted, there is a phone conference scheduled for April 22 to discuss these issues. And none of this is written in stone, but the quest for MLB to assume more control over MiLB is clear.

Both MLB and MiLB officials have spoken over the years about their special partnership as stewards of professional baseball across the country. But the truth is different. At the end of the day, MiLB is a vendor to MLB, albeit in a very important area, and this is a move that gives total control of a key vendor to MLB.

Image courtesy Williamsport Crosscutters.

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