A-Ball Ambiguity Part II: the Summer Sequel
Just a few days ago, I published the latest installment in MLG’s 2020 Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) coverage and called it “A-Ball Ambiguity.” I had a good time writing that sprawling piece, and was making plans to write up another one about the fates of the short-season (New York-Penn, Pioneer, and Appalachian) leagues and post it some time in August. I still intend to write that one, but an article (paywalled) from Baseball America published on July 22 dropped some bombshells that relate directly to the Single-A levels. As such, let’s consider this a crisp sequel to A-Ball Ambiguity.
First of all, I must say that J.J. Cooper is locked into this story and has been the leading voice since word of the changes first broke to the public back in October of 2019. He has been presenting these packages of new information responsibly and making me feel that my recent purchase of a BA subscription will be worth it. This latest article sums up the current situation and has phrases like “it is safe to say that some teams that were off last year’s initial public list of 120 teams are now on. It is equally safe to say that others who appeared to be in MLB’s initial proposals are no longer on the list of 120.” These are things that we pretty much knew, but it’s satisfying to hear someone as connected as Cooper validate it. But little could prepare me for the latest twists, starting with this:
“Multiple MLB personnel said they have heard MLB is strongly considering the possibility of flipping high Class A and low Class A leagues. If it did so, the Florida State League, California League and Carolina League would be the low Class A leagues moving forward, while the Northwest, Midwest and South Atlantic leagues would constitute high Class A. There is a possibility that there would be four high Class A leagues in this iteration with a smaller South Atlantic League and a six-team Mid-Atlantic League as well.”
After I retrieved my eyebrows from the ceiling, I continued to read in an effort to gather rationale.
“Such a move could make significant logistical sense. Teams could promote/demote players from a low Class A team in the Florida State League by simply moving them from one clubhouse to another. Such a move would also provide an easier transition as players would remain at their complexes while still getting their first taste of full-season ball. The warmer weather climate of all three low Class A leagues in this plan would also allow players from the Dominican Republic and other Central American countries to adjust to their first season of full-season ball without it also being their first exposure to the bracing cold that often is part of the Midwest League and now potentially the Northwest League in April.”
Ah, the Florida State League! That makes a ton of sense. Cooper’s first point is about how the short-season leagues are being eliminated and how all MLB teams are poised to have no rung on the ladder/gap between the rookie-complex leagues (in this case, the Gulf Coast League) and Low A. So, for instance, a player on the GCL Marlins could be promoted to the Jupiter Hammerheads, but never have to leave the Roger Dean Stadium mega-complex. The anecdote about weather is funny too, but I suspect that some chilly Northern springs are less of a hurdle than cultural acclimation in general, especially in players for whom there is a language barrier. Might as well keep some of these youngsters in the same apartments in the same Floridian cities with the same coaches/trainers for two seasons before releasing them to the harsh realities of Wisconsin or Washington State.
While this proposal would seem to render moot all of our previous discussion about flattening the Single-A levels, a clandestine High-A/Low-A switcheroo is a bit of a shoulder shrug against any perceived hierarchy between the two levels. It would be weird to get used to things like the Great Lakes Loons and Asheville Tourists suddenly being “higher up” than the San Jose Giants or Fayetteville Woodpeckers.
There’s a lot to parse here. I won’t go too far, other than to say that I wonder if we’ll see the Carolina and South Atlantic Leagues basically trade teams around until the best geographic arrangements come together, bearing in mind the affiliations that tie several teams to various leagues/levels.
The proposed flip-flop almost seems like too much of a mind-bender to be true, but especially with the Florida State League factor, it’s not easy to dismiss. And then there’s another very strong reason that this proposal could see the light of day.
“While MLB has considered flipping the Class A leagues, that could open the door for a potential compromise option that has been floated by some MiLB clubs to keep more teams afloat than the proposed 120. In this plan, the Florida State League could play the first half of the season in Florida and then head to the cities of the existing New York-Penn League sites for the second half of the season.”
Gathering jaw off the floor. Continue, J.J.
“FSL clubs aren’t generally big draws overall, but getting fans to games gets even tougher in the second half of the season. By that point many snowbirds have headed back North. Also, the weather gets hot and more humid with regular thunderstorms during the afternoons. In such a scenario, the NY-P would get close to the same number of games as it currently get as a short-season league while the FSL would jettison the worst-performing time of its season.
This makes so, so, so much sense. In addition to the climate/attendance factors that Cooper mentions, this shockingly brilliant plan also solves some pressing issues raised by the potential changes to the NY-Penn. Since the list of 42 came out in November, listing 9 NYPL teams as being under siege, there has been significant public and political fuss raised about at least some of them; Lowell, Norwich, and Vermont in particular. The New York Yankees are part owners of Staten Island, and they publicly indicated they had no plans to disband their club. Then there were the teams that were kept off the list, but had no clean fits in other leagues: Hudson Valley, Tri-Cities, and West Virginia. So these 7 teams, and a handful of other in-danger NYPL clubs, would not only be given the chance to maintain their existence–they would be promoted to High-A! What a time to be alive.
I really love this FSL/NYPL split season idea, but it’s not quite as easy as it sounds. There are currently 14 NYPL teams and 12 FSL teams. The FSL could still lose the Tortugas and Fire Frogs, dropping to 10. So two to four NYPL teams would still be left out. But let’s start with the MLB teams that currently have an affiliate in both leagues, and let’s sort of rank them from most to least feasible.
In like Flynn. The Yankees would have the Tampa/Staten Island connection. The Pirates would be able to have both Bradenton and West Virginia, and the Black Bears wouldn’t stretch the map quite as much as they would in the proposed Mid-Atlantic League. Although the Mets are rumored to want to move Brooklyn up to the Eastern League, let’s assume that they would have an affiliate in this version of the NYPL, splitting time with St. Lucie. This could be an easy way to save the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, who have had notable public support and are already affiliated with the Mets.
Seems like a go. The Rays have Port Charlotte, and seem to like what they’ve got going with Hudson Valley–at least, I presume that’s one of the reasons why the Renegades were held off the list of 42. The Phillies would have Clearwater, but could also maintain their central Pennsylvania presence–saving the Williamsport Crosscutters from the ax. The Cardinals would have Palm Beach and could choose to stay with State College. The Tigers have Lakeland in the FSL, but maybe they would try to keep their tempestuous relationship with the Norwich Sea Unicorns.
Kinda iffy. There is one more MLB team that has an affiliate in both the FSL and NYPL. The Marlins are solid with Jupiter, but I can’t imagine they’d be clamoring to hold onto the Batavia Muckdogs. The Muckdogs are still likely to to lose their PDC, and if this proposal comes to pass, the Marlins could be looking for another NYPL team.
So that’s at least six (and maybe eight) NY-Penn League teams poised to be saved by their affiliation with MLB teams who also have FSL teams. But what about the other six teams? One of them is the Aberdeen IronBirds, likely to join the Mally League, so let’s say: what about the other five teams?
Orphans. The Red Sox, despite being a Grapefruit League club, do not have an FSL team, so that’s a bummer for the Lowell Spinners. Lowell has a good shot to stay afloat in the new NY-Penn, but they wouldn’t be a Red Sox affiliate. The Tri-City ValleyCats were kept off the list of 42, but wouldn’t be an affiliate with the Astros anymore. Like the Red Sox, the Astros train in Florida but use the Carolina League. Similar story for the Astros’ West Palm Beach complex mates, the Washington Nationals, but their NY-Penn club–the Auburn Doubledays–are in nearly as much danger as Batavia. The Mahoning Valley Scrappers look sketchy. Cleveland trains in Arizona and the Ohio-based Scrappers stretch the bounds of the NY-Penn and sort of lose their raison d’être if they lose Cleveland. The Vermont Lake Monsters are currently with the A’s (a Cactus League club) and they are a wildcard. They are the northern geographic outlier, but they have had strong public support from Bernie Sanders and other Burlingtonians. If you want a bubble team, it’s the Lake Monsters.
Wildcards. Speaking of wildcards, I think there’s a good shot that some of the teams on the list of 42 who belong to other leagues could find themselves in a new version of the NY-Penn. I mentioned the Rumble Ponies (a natural Mets partner) but the Erie SeaWolves, should they be cut from the Eastern League, would fit in well with the western contingent of the NY-Penn–a league they called home in the nineties. Frederick and Hagerstown could easily slot in, and if so, the Suns could remain a Nationals’ affiliate. Others, like Lexington, West Virginia (Charleston), and the northern Appy League teams are just too far south to make it worthwhile.
Another factor is that there are four MLB teams with teams in the FSL but no current relation to the NYPL: Minnesota/Fort Myers Mighty Mussels, Toronto/Dunedin Blue Jays, Atlanta/Florida Fire Frogs, and Cincinnati/Daytona Tortugas. The Frogs and the Tortugas have been on the list of 42, and I think that their parent clubs’ lack of involvement in the NYPL makes them even more likely to lose their PDC. As for the Twins and Blue Jays? It would be easy enough to join them up with one of the orphans.
Since we’re in this deep, how about an uneducated guess about how this would look?
Let’s say we have a ten-team FSL and a ten-team NY-Penn, with the axed teams from the NY-Penn being the Muckdogs, Doubledays, and Scrappers. If Erie/Hagerstown/Frederick get into the mix, they would displace another team such as the Lake Monsters or Spinners.
The arrangement might look something like:
Yankees: Tampa and Staten Island
Pirates: Bradenton and West Virginia
Phillies: Clearwater and Williamsport
Cardinals: Palm Beach and State College
Rays: Charlotte and Hudson Valley
Tigers: Lakeland and Norwich
Mets: St. Lucie and Brooklyn (or Binghamton or a random New York team like Tri-City or even Hudson Valley)
Marlins: Jupiter and Tri-City/Vermont/Lowell/team added from higher level
Twins: Fort Myers and Tri-City/Vermont/Lowell/team added from higher level
Blue Jays: Dunedin and Tri-City/Vermont/Lowell/team added from higher level (hey, Erie isn’t far from Toronto. Then again Vermont isn’t far from Canada.)
OK! That is plenty enough speculating on this front. We have one more topic to go through.
OK, this one isn’t quite as dramatic, but it does shed a lot of light on some of the pressing questions I covered at length in Part I. Take it away, Mr. Cooper:
“A similar case could be made with Arizona complexes and the Northwest League. Baseball America has learned that there are Northwest League teams that are not sure if they want to switch to full-season ball. A similar plan could conceivably be laid out where teams could play at their complexes in Arizona from April through mid-June and then head to the Northwest League.”
Aha! This reminds me of an article I read in the fall (and can’t find now) where a member of the Everett Aquasox’s front office mentioned how there’s only so much that can be done to improve their facility. He made a joke about how they aren’t going to be putting a retractable roof on Funko Field any time soon. I mostly ignored this article since the Aquasox have never been a prime candidate for contraction, but now that I think about it, it was just as much a comment on the Pacific Northwest’s notoriously wet spring weather. This may not be the case for all NWL teams, but certainly Everett, Vancouver, Eugene, Hillsboro, and the likely-to-be-axed Salem-Keizer are all in the rainy zone. It may be untenable for them to try to operate their business as a full-season enterprise. Now there’s a practical problem for you!
Couple this with another bit about the Northwest League that Cooper mentioned in a previous article (covered at length in Part I) in which the notion is floated that there are only five MLB teams interested in the NWL. This latest proposal could also serve the purpose of convincing at least six MLB teams to get with the the Arizona/Northwest program.
It’s not a bad pitch, really. At the conclusion of minor league spring training, the six Cactus League teams designate a group of players to be their (apparently) High-A squad. They have these players travel to, or simply stay in, Arizona through the late spring. Mostly, they’d be lifting weights and eating healthy and, like, moving around with sensors on, but the six teams could also stage a mini-season. Sort of an abbreviated spring version of the AZL. Then the players pack up and move north just before the full AZL crew comes to town, and arrive just in time for the typically sunny and beautiful Pacific Northwestern summer.
I spilled plenty of words last week about which MLB teams may be interested in NWL teams, but this latest development straightens up the fringes of that discussion. For starters, any MLB team that affiliates with an NWL team would also have to be a Cactus League team. The main team affected here is the Vancouver Canadians, who would lose the Toronto Blue Jays. This isn’t a death sentence for the Canadians, though, and Cooper’s latest article outlines a structure that would have the NWL at six teams. I flirted with the idea of reducing the league to four teams, a proposal that could make the Canadians vulnerable, but that was pure speculation and these latest developments make it sound even more like I was talking to my own echo. Since Vancouver hasn’t actually been mentioned as a team in danger, let’s assume they’re safe. But Toronto wouldn’t likely be involved with this new Northwest League. They have the Lansing Lugnuts just across the border.
The Astros were the only other Grapefruit League team I was even entertaining for an NWL team, and they would be out of the mix. I expect Houston to either stay with Quad Cities (assuming they’re safe) or make a play for a Sally League affiliate to pair with their Carolina League team–similar to the Rangers and White Sox.
Let’s briefly break down the list of potential teams, looking through this new Arizona-tinted lens. There are fifteen MLB candidates, but they’re easy to thin out.
Cactus Leaguers who aren’t likely to be going with the NWL because they are strongly attached to a Midwest League team: Brewers, Cubs, Indians, Reds, and A’s. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised to see a capricious (at least in terms of minor league affiliates) club like the Cubs or A’s jump into the mix, but for now, I’m going to assume that they are content with the MWL. This assumes that Oakland’s discussions with Beloit (mentioned in Part I) remain strong.
We’re down to 10 candidates.
Cactus Leaguers who aren’t going to be going with the NWL because they are strongly attached to a South Atlantic League team: White Sox and Rangers
That’s 8, but let’s stop counting and instead pivot to those who are likely to jump at the NWL.
Cactus Leaguers who are prime candidates for the new NWL: Angels and Mariners
Now pick four from this crew and you’ve got your six.
Cactus Leaguers who could seemingly go either way: Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Giants, Padres, Rockies, and Royals
Down the road, I’d love to say that I guessed right and have proof. The risk of looking like an idiot hasn’t stopped me in life so far, so for now, I’ll say Mariners, Angels, D’Backs, Dodgers, Giants, and Royals. Part of my reasoning is shared facilities in Arizona. For instance, the Mariners and Padres are both at Peoria Sports Complex, and my completely uneducated guess is that it would get crowded there in April when you have extended spring training and a part-time AZL club for each of the two MLB tenants. The same applies to the D’Backs and Rockies at Salt River, and I think the D’Backs are more likely to jump in with this plan than Colorado is.
Some of those may not be obvious candidates (wouldn’t the Royals prefer a Midwest League team?) but this new arrangement may be much more appealing to MLB teams than the previous idea of simply shipping your precious prospects to the *gasp* rainy Pacific Northwest. It’s a smart pivot of a proposal.
The last thing I’ll say about this bombshell is that it doesn’t really make sense to have the Arizona/Northwest League at High-A rather than Low-A. Some of Cooper’s reasons for the Florida State League idea, especially regarding Latin American players, hold true for this idea as well. If the Northwest League were only one rung above the AZL complex league, it would allow for the “keeping a guy around the complex for as long as possible” method. Otherwise, you’d have a guy, say, go from the AZL Mariners one year to the Modesto Nuts the next year and then back to Arizona the next spring before a summer jump to the Northwest. It’s certainly doable, but it’s a different method than the FSL proposal. And I guess the weather’s nicer for those fresh-faced young baseballers.
But if the Northwest League were kept at Low A, I believe that the balance of 30 teams could be worked out with the FSL and a combination of Carolina and South Atlantic League teams. But maybe there’s some legal reason why it would be easier to just flip the Single-A levels. Who knows? Certainly not the MLG.
One lingering thought
Before I go, there is one more thought I had about these new arrangements. It seems that if the plans work out, it could be a tremendous competitive advantage for the MLB teams that are included in the mix. The Carolina Leaguers wouldn’t have access to the same pampering process as those that follow the new Complex-to-A Ball plan. I can see MLB teams that have recently bought Carolina League franchises (Houston, Milwaukee, Texas) being like, “wait, I paid good money for this and the other guys are getting a better deal for free!”
Indeed, there are a few teams that come out looking like bandits in this scenario. Consider a team like the Yankees, a perennial target of conspiratorial favoritism. Their youngsters step off the plane in Tampa, stay there for two years (with half a season in Staten Island) receiving top-level training and acclimation, then ascend through New York’s carefully curated selection of high-level affiliates. Sounds pretty privileged if you ask me.
That’s all for now. Speaking of the Yankees, they are playing the Nationals today (Cole vs. Scherzer!) in the first regular season baseball game since the world turned upside down. Tonight, on this date of July 23, 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci will throw out the ceremonial first pitch and we’ll all see what happens.
Till I put up that August article, take care and be well.