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Details of MLB takeover of MiLB emerge

Minor League Baseball logoIt’s crunch time in the takeover of MiLB by MLB, with sweeping changes to Class A leagues, unresolved transitions for the Pioneer and NY-Penn Leagues, and plenty of new affiliations—but still no final list of the 120 teams comprising the future of Minor League Baseball.

It’s never been a secret that MLB’s takeover of Minor League Baseball would involve plenty of change. In some ways, there’s been less change than many pundits predicted, and most of the discussed league realignments are focused on the Class A leagues, driven by a variety of factors. After talking on background with several MiLB owners and MiLB/MLB C suite execs about what they’re expecting and been told, we can pass along many details about the upcoming 2021 season and beyond. Nothing is finalized, of course, and changes can be made in a final agreement. Here’s what we’re looking at today in terms of Class A alignments:

California League (8 teams)
Florida State League (10 teams)
Sally League (12 teams)

Midwest League
Northwest League
Carolina League
New Mid-Atlantic League

The California League would remain at eight teams, while the Florida State League would cut back to 10 teams and the Sally League to 12 teams. It’s less clear how the new High-A circuits would be arranged, save a cutback to the Northwest League to six teams, and there may be teams moving between the Low-A Sally League and the High-A Carolina League and a new Mid-Atlantic League. In particular, the Carolina League may end up being a real Carolina League.

Why move the Cal League to Low A from High A? Purely to make the numbers across all of Minor League Baseball. There’s only room for six teams when all the other High-A slots are filled, so the decision was made to shift the Northwest League—which will be filled by affiliates of West Coast MLB teams—to High A. This is also the rationale for moving the Midwest League to High A and the Florida State League to Low A.

We will also see some gymnastics in the High-A level, partly to address travel and partly to address existing ownership situations and affiliations. Some teams, like the Chicago White Sox and the Baltimore Orioles, want to maintain their existing affiliation structures; the White Sox, in fact, will likely see no changes to its full-season affiliates.

There should be less change on the Triple-A and Double-A fronts. Three Triple-A teams—San Antonio, Fresno and Wichita—have been designated to move from Triple-A to Double-A’s Texas League or (in the case of Fresno) to what will be the Low-A Cal League. Taking their place: St. Paul, where the Minnesota Twins could affiliate with the St. Paul Saints; Sugar Land and Jacksonville, which will become the Miami Marlins’ top affiliate. Miami is one of the winners in the realignment, with a Triple-A affiliate just up the coast and the addition of Pensacola as a Double-A affiliate. Texas and Houston are also winners, with league alignments designed to protect their investments in High-A and Low-A markets.

We’ve seen the Appalachian League transitioning to summer-collegiate play in partnership with USA Baseball under a proposed three-year agreement, and a similar proposal was made to owners in the Short Season A NY-Penn League, where Prep Baseball Report would administer the league. Prep Baseball Report runs high-school and 13-and-under tournaments in the region, but the aim here is for college seniors to be routed to the NY-Penn League, with juniors routed to the Cape Cod League (which is pretty much how it happens now anyway), and freshmen and sophomore routed to the Appalachian League. Unlike the Appalachian League, which involves a three-year commitment from MLB and USA Baseball, the NY-Penn League commitment from MLB and Prep Baseball Report involves five years.

But MLB did not go to any great efforts to make this an attractive offer. Subsidies to Appalachian League teams are expected to continue, but none were presented to NY-Penn League owners. (Other affiliated teams not in the NY-Penn League but ultimately contracted may be invited into the NY-Penn League effort as well.) MLB is talking a shorter 76-game season, cutting team revenues by at least a quarter million annually. A short-season league would become a really short-season league.

Which is why a new NY-Penn League is not a sure thing. Some teams in the NY-Penn League will be moved to a new Mid-Atlantic League or the Carolina League, and one, Brooklyn, is expected to shift to the Class AA Eastern League. Given the geography, we expect a few teams at some point to explore other options, including moves to an independent league like the Atlantic League or the Frontier League (probably not until 2022 until the earliest, however), or shifting to other summer-collegiate leagues that may be a better geographic fit. Indeed, things are also unsettled on the independent-baseball front as well in terms of season launches, league lineups and season schedules. With the 2020 MiLB season not expected to start until the beginning of May, it will be interesting to see if the Atlantic League sticks to its traditional 140-game schedule beginning in April. There are several summer-collegiate leagues operating in the NY-Penn League footprint. Alternately, it’s likely that a few current NY-Penn League teams could end up folding, with other operators looking at entering those markets.

Options, alas, are not being presented to the eight teams of the Rookie Pioneer League. Owners there have proposed running the Pioneer League as an independent league with hard age caps, focusing on undrafted players who are still considered prospects—those players who in the past would have been drafted in the 25th round and assigned to the Pioneer League. That’s received a chilly reception in MLB offices, and there’s been no proposal from MLB to help with any transition to summer collegiate, either. Despite MLB’s promises to take care of every current MiLB team, that promise apparently doesn’t extend to Ogden, Colorado Springs or Billings.

One thing that’s hindered talks: MLB still declines to release a list of the chosen 120 teams. Realistically, there aren’t open slots for 120 teams: by the time you remove the MiLB teams either owned by MLB teams or operating with significant, publicized or unpublicized investments by MLB teams, the number is far closer to 90 open slots, even though some of those teams with MLB ties are likely to go away as well. And that’s not even counting the several MiLB teams whose ownership groups include individual investors who are also investors in MLB teams—the sort of relationships that have affected affiliate agreements in the past. Add in the two or three independent markets that will become affiliated markets. Right now there are 130 owners who think their teams will survive the upcoming contraction; we expect plenty of shock and surprise when that’s not the case.

As of now nothing is finalized, including the new licensing terms MLB will be imposing, as the old MiLB franchise system is abandoned. While there has been some talk between MLB and team owners about these terms, a final agreement has not been presented.

With all this recent activity, there are still many details to be finalized. No one is expecting schedules any time soon, and insiders don’t expect to see them until the end of the year. This means that the sales season that usually begins before the end of the prior season won’t realistically begin until January. That delay affects teams on a wide range of transactions, ranging from season-ticket sales and renewals to sponsorship and promo deals: hard to set a promo date when you don’t have a date, much less a length of a season, a final list of opponents or a starting date for the season. And the delays affect other entities doing business with MiLB teams. One prominent entertainment vendor told us he’s had no bookings yet for 2021—and normally he’d have several in hand this time of year. Like everyone else, the success of his business will depend on decisions made in MLB’s New York offices.

As we noted, nothing laid out here is final, and there may be tweaks along the way. But with the information presented to owners, we can see what sort of operating environment MLB is envisioning for Minor League Baseball and the new summer-collegiate leagues: an environment where MLB still keeps control of player development, without the cost of paying the salaries of a full farm system.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the potential relationship between the Twins and the St. Paul Saints.

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