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MLB announces plans for Appalachian reincarnation as wood-bat league

Burlington Athletic Stadium

Big changes are in store across Minor League Baseball this year. The first shoe dropped Tuesday with the announcement that the Appalachian League will relaunch in 2021 as a summer college wood-bat league specifically designed for rising freshman and sophomores, operated with the support of MLB and USA Baseball

The announcement was made by Major League Baseball officials, along with Appalachian League President Dan Moushon and USA Baseball President Mike Gaski, The “Appy,” which was founded in 1911, had been a Rookie-level league under the National Association umbrella, albeit one with a unique operating structure: All 10 teams were owned by Major League Baseball teams.

The new league will be part of MLB’s Prospect Development Pipeline, and coaching assignments and the stocking of rosters will be handled by USA Baseball. Former Major Leaguer and MLB Network analyst Harold Reynolds, who has reportedly been very involved with this project, said that the league expects to attract top-level talent due to their ties to USA Baseball and MLB. Reynolds estimated that as many as half of the roughly 300 players expected to play in the Appy League next year will reach the big leagues during their professional careers, a much higher percentage than is typical of Rookie-level baseball.

All ten current Appy League cities are said to be committed to the new format, including Pulaski, VA, which had reportedly been in line for a full-season Single-A team, despite a population of less than 40,000 people. Eight of the ten teams are expected to be run by the same local operating groups that previously managed the teams. The two MLB-operated affiliates, Kingsport, TN (by the Mets), and Danville, VA (by the Braves), will be run by new local operators in the planned configuration.

The teams will create new local identities, including team names and logos, which will replace the parent club names that have previously been the standard in the league. This will certainly be a boon in new souvenir and apparel revenues for the clubs, although it will also come with the cost of developing the logos, providing uniforms, replacing signage and printed materials, and host of other small costs. Currently the league is working with MLB—and not MiLB—on the new looks.

The league expects to play a 54-game season, similar to many other summer-collegiate leagues, with an All-Star game played mid-season. The summer-college schedule is an improvement; starting at the beginning of June, a couple weeks earlier than the short-season schedule, and ending in mid-August, before high-school football is in full swing.

It is also expected that with the Appy’s small geographic footprint and proximity to USA Baseball’s home in Cary, NC that the players will be routinely seen by USAB and MLB scouts. USA Baseball and MLB are also expected to offer additional training, educational programs and evaluations opportunities to players in the league.

Making Ends Meet

There appear to be quite a few details still to be nailed down on the financial side. There does not appear to be a specified length of time for MLB’s support for this new structure, although league president Dan Moushon pointed out that the league had previously operated year-to-year, with bylaws that allowed MLB and their teams to shut the league down at any time with six-month notice.

As an editorial and economic note, it’s worth pointing out that this lack of long-term certainty is part of what often slowed the pace of facility improvements in the league, something MLB listed as a reason to shut down all the non-complex short-season leagues. It was also ironic to hear officials praise the Appalachian League’s short travel times, as well as the league’s strong and improving facilities, after MLB’s claims that long travel times and inadequate facilities were key reasons to axe the short-season leagues.

Political leaders including West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin joined the call, expressing thanks and praising MLB’s efforts to retain baseball in his state, and a pre-recorded video promoting the league featured team operators and local officials from Johnson City, Burlington, and Mercer County, which includes Bluefield and Princeton.

What’s Next?

As MLB continues its inexorable march toward complete control of a new, pared-down minor-league structure, Tuesday’s announcement indicates that their “Appalachian League Problem” is being put to bed. Ten down, 32 to go! While it’s obvious there are still a host of details to work out, the Appy was identified by Morgan Sword, MLB’s Executive Vice President, Baseball Economics & Operations, as “the first” league to become this type of developmental league.

Could this type of arrangement be on tap for any of the other teams on MLB’s hit list? Geography would seem to say “no,” as the other teams are scattered around the country, or offer extreme travel even if they are in adjacent states or markets.

Some of the cities in the Appalachian League, including Burlington and Danville, certainly could have joined other leagues, such as the Coastal Plain League, if they were prepared to pony up a franchise fee. Some type of summer-collegiate league was the obvious choice for most of these cities, and as one of the founders of the Coastal Plain League, I can say with confidence that a summer-collegiate team can be a great asset to a community.

It’s also indisputable that there is a certain cachet attached to being part of affiliated professional baseball. Local names and logos are great, but at the lower levels of baseball, a Major League team name certainly makes it clear that your team is affiliated. There is also a difference in the economic impact; parent teams can easily spend up to $200,000 directly on local expenses like bus, hotels and catered meals, and the like. In a traditional summer-collegiate league like the Coastal Plain League, local revenues must be generated to pay for these type of costs. At this point, it’s unclear what financial support will be offered by MLB to teams in the Appy League.

Regardless, if the plans announced come to fruition, this new scheme may well deliver a very high level of baseball to communities that are losing their MiLB teams. Most have tremendous amounts of money invested in their facilities, and this presents a good opportunity to utilize those facilities to deliver economic activity and quality of life to their communities. Anyone who loves the game and cares for any of the communities in the league will be pulling for this plan to succeed.

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