A Thorough Examination of the Midwest League
The future of the Midwest League has been one of the most confounding riddles in this past year of minor league speculation. Essentially, all we really know for sure is that the league is going to be promoted to Class-A Advanced. It’s not even clear how many teams are going to be in the league, and once that question is answered, we don’t know which teams may unexpectedly lose their PDC. On top of that, there’s a good handful of MLB affiliation mysteries.
As we draw ever nearer to the unveiling of the 120, I want to take the time to consider each team currently in the MWL, and review what we know, what we hear, and what I think. First, let’s do it team-by-team in alphabetical order. Since most of the latest rumors come courtesy of Ballpark Digest’s ever-changing “affiliate dance” page, I’ll post the screenshot clipping of what is by each team on that page, as of today–Nov. 21, 2020.
The Snappers were one of the first teams to jump off the old list of 42. Quint Studer purchased the beleaguered franchise, the stadium deal was finalized, and now the ballpark is being constructed as the team ponders a new nickname. As wonderful as it was to see a team be saved, it also threw a monkey wrench into the gears of what appeared to be a mostly-formed plan for the MWL last fall. We’ll touch on that throughout this article, but for now, there isn’t much to say other than that Beloit is in the clear. Oh, except for parent club. As recently as May, it was strongly hinted that the A’s would return, but then we got rumors of Oakland to Vancouver. A number of teams may be in play for Beloit.
Oh boy. Here’s a sticky team if we’ve seen one. Last fall, we received word that the Reds wanted to move Bowling Green up to the Southern League, and I’ve been grappling with the puzzle of which other team would leave the league in order to balance the MWL at an even number. But some of the latest rumors seem to indicate that the status quo will be maintained. Ballpark Digest lists Chattanooga as “expected to renew” with Cincy, which hints at the Bowling Green-to-SL idea being scuttled. Also, that mysterious other-team-to-leave-the-MWL has yet to surface. The Hot Rods could very well stay in their spot as geographic outlier in the southern reaches of the MWL, and a parent club could be their current Rays or some random team like the Braves or Royals. On the other hand, the affiliate dance indicates that the situation is still unsettled, and very recent tweet quotes South Bend Cubs’ president Joe Hart hinting that Bowling Green is “possibly going to another league.” Possibly.
This one is quite straight-forward, but not in a good way. The Bees were on the list of 42 and nothing has come along to save them. They are all but guaranteed to fly away to the non-affiliated ranks.
Ah, the first of the “regional buddy” pairings. All signs indicate that the Minnesota Twins will continue with the Kernels, a team that was announced to be saved by Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley many months ago.
For the fate of the LumberKings, see Bees, Burlington, two spots above. Those two Iowa clubs have long ensured that the MWL will be reduced to at least 14 teams.
Here’s another one of those heartwarming regional buddy setups. Dragons and Reds forever.
This is a murkier category–the MWL teams that have had good relationships with westerly MLB teams, but now face the magnetic pull of sharing a level with the Northwest League. TinCap fans need not worry, though, as Fort Wayne is a solid enterprise through and through. If pressed to guess, I’d say they continue with San Diego.
It’s fitting that the Loons come right after Fort Wayne, as their situation with the Dodgers is very similar. Recently a newspaper in Los Angeles ran a story about the Dodgers linking with the NWL’s Spokane Indians, but it was quickly refuted. In fact, J.J. Cooper specifically stated that “a source with direct knowledge tells me that the report of the Dodgers affiliating with Spokane for high Class A in 2021 is incorrect.” Since Cooper didn’t use language like “nothing’s official yet,” etc., it implies to me that the Dodgers will not be with Spokane. Sure, they could land with another Northwest League team, but Great Lakes remains very much in play for L.A. They are an interesting team to watch, though, as there are factors that make them vulnerable, like geographic extremity, and protective factors such as owner William Stavropoulos being on the PBA negotiating committee. (Is the PBA negotiating team still a thing?)
The Cougars are a more loosely-connected version of the TinCaps/Loons, but the Diamondbacks are “expected to renew” with Hillsboro in the Northwest League. This all but assures that if Kane County survives in affiliated ball, they would need a new parent club to swoop in. We’re in a situation where the Midwest League pretty much needs to trim four teams in order to accommodate the other leagues. The Cougars do a great job of packing fans into an older ballpark year after year. I can’t say I know what the clubhouses look like, though, and whether or not they’ve got an MLB suitor lined up to replace Arizona. It’s also not hard to imagine them being shifted into one of the two independent “partner leagues” that have Chicago-area clusters.
The Captains have had a great thing going with Cleveland. The only thing that’s keeping me from calling them a “regional buddy” team is that Ballpark Digest hasn’t noted that they are expected to renew. I suppose it’s also worth mentioning that they are an eastern geographic outlier in the MWL. But then again, Cleveland chose Lake County to host their alternate training site in 2020, and that speaks to their comfort level with the Captains’ training facilities.
Lansing is one of those teams where they could either be totally safe or totally vulnerable depending on the whims of their parent club across the border. Ballpark Digest lists the Lugnuts as going to the “Blue Jays?” and the continued partnership of the two seemed more secure when word leaked out about Oakland potentially shifting to Vancouver. But I wouldn’t rest assured about Lansing. There seems to be at least a narrow chance that Toronto retains the Canadians and leaves the Lugnuts in the lurch–possibly to make the Lemonade League a permanent thing. I wouldn’t bet on it, though.
The Chiefs are kind of an odd one–tossed back and forth between the Cubs and the Cardinals since the 1980s. St. Louis doesn’t seem to be all that attached to Peoria, although it’s not easy to see an obviously better option (Quad Cities?) in the Midwest League. Dozer Park was originally built in 2002–I have no idea what condition the clubhouses and such are in. It’s worth noting that BPD doesn’t have them expected to auto-renew with the Cardinals.
In a fall of speculative newspaper articles that should never have been published, the Quad City Times published a notable exception. Their piece about the River Bandits from early November stands out among the best. It also provides strong reassurance to fans in the Quad Cities that their team will stay in the MWL. There’s also some recent talk about the Astros staying in the Midwest League. While that’s far from a guarantee that Houston would be with Quad Cities, inertia wins out more often than not. The River Bandits seem quite safe to me.
Regional buddy situation. No question marks and nothing to see here.
Regional buddy (including alternate site in 2020) but the BPD question mark doesn’t escape notice. You can also bet that other MLB teams gripe about the travel distance and cold early-season games. Also, Fox Cities Stadium is vintage 1994, and if memory serves, the ballpark’s clubhouses may be difficult to expand without cutting into the parking lot. But the Brewers and Rattlers have become joined at the hip. Especially in this new era of minor league baseball where having enough money to have a great facility and pamper the prospects is much more important than population size or attendance, if the Rattlers leave the Midwest League, Triple-A wouldn’t be out of the question. Or it could go the other way. If the Brewers snake the Rattlers in favor of, let’s say, the new ballpark in Beloit, anything’s possible.
Let’s group ’em.
Regional buddies that are basically guaranteed to renew:
- Cedar Rapids (MIN)
- Dayton (CIN)
- South Bend (CHC)
- West Michigan (DET)
Regional buddies that are seem very likely to renew:
- Lake County (CLE)
- Wisconsin (MIL)
Regional-ish buddies that seem likely-ish to renew:
- Lansing (TOR)
- Peoria (STL)
Teams reported or fully expected to be safe, but not necessarily due to specific affiliation:
- Beloit (tbd)
- Quad Cities (maybe HOU)
Teams that seem kinda safe, with supposedly-happy west coast MLB affiliation that may be stretched due to the Northwest League:
- Fort Wayne (SDP)
- Great Lakes (LAD)
Teams we haven’t heard a peep about, and are expected to lose their current parent:
- Kane County
Teams that maybe (probably?) will be shifted to another league:
- Bowling Green
Teams that we’ll miss:
Your guess is as good as mine.