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We’re creeping into late August. The days are getting shorter, much like the amount of time remaining until the current Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) expires. The air is getting cooler, much like the perceived negotiating atmosphere between MLB and MiLB.
This is a big story with many smaller side-stories following alongside. One of these is J.J. Cooper’s ascendancy. He is not only the primary reporter on this beat–he is basically the only reporter. Back in the winter and spring, outlets like the Athletic, the New York Times, and even the freaking Today Show were covering the dramatic tale of minor league “contraction.” Nowadays, it’s basically just Cooper at Baseball America and me responding to whatever he tosses to us. Since I last wrote, he’s posted three more informative missives that help set the table before the wild fun begins. Let’s explore.
Apparently there is more than one important vote coming up this fall, and both have questionably-weighted electoral systems. I loved reading this very technical explanation of the PBA ratification vote rules. As it turns out, a PBA is only ratified if it receives 75% of votes from minor league owners. That number is very high considering the significant discord within the minors regarding the PBA, which is something that Cooper has been reporting on throughout the summer. But that ratification target is not as simple as getting the votes of 75% of minor league owners–it’s a weighted vote by league, with much more power in the hands of the higher levels.
At Triple-A, the Pacific Coast League and International League have a whopping six votes each. The three Double-A leagues each have three votes. At Single-A (both high and low) the five leagues each have two votes. In Short-Season A, one vote is given to each of the two leagues. Likewise for Rookie, but with the twist that the Gulf Coast League gets a vote along with the Pioneer and Appalachian Leagues. That’s a total of 36 votes with 27 required for passage. This set-up (devised years/decades ago) heavily favors the Triple-A leagues.
Let’s break it down by league/level and let the conjecture flow freely.
International League. The IL is the safest league in the minors. No teams are slated for contraction or even demotion to lower levels. The one element worth mentioning is the proposed addition of a third Triple-A league which could pull some teams from the IL, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. A few teams (Gwinnett, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Syracuse, etc.) are owned by MLB teams, so assuming that MLB owners are in agreement about the to-be-drafted PBA proposal, the IL’s six votes seem destined to go to approve what MLB puts forward.
Pacific Coast League. The PCL is a league that stands to be significantly altered by the new PBA. The league itself could be split in two, there could be two or more new teams added, and at least three teams (Fresno, San Antonio, Wichita) have been rumored for demotion to lower levels. There are a few franchises that are either owned or de facto controlled by MLB clubs, but not quite to the extent of the IL. These six important votes could swing either way.
Eastern League. Like the IL, the EL is mostly protected from the rumored changes. It seems more likely by the day that Erie will not be booted, and if Binghamton is, they would likely get a soft landing. The other EL teams are probably more interested in selling advertising and tickets for 2021 than they are in winning a moral victory against MLB. I suspect their three votes go for quick passage of a PBA.
Southern League. There’s one team in the SL (the M-Braves) owned by a big-league club, and a few others that seem happy with the status quo. On the flip side, there are two teams (Chattanooga and Jackson) that were at least at one point slated for some sort of demotion or relegation. These are three more swing votes.
Texas League. The TL not only doesn’t have any teams expected to lose their PDC, the league may stand to gain teams (i.e. San Antonio and Wichita) as a result of realignment. Add in the MLB influence in Corpus Christi and Springfield, and it seems clear that the TL would vote to approve an MLB-happy PBA.
A-Ball. There are way too many balls in the air to get a read on what direction the five A-ball leagues and their combined ten votes may go. The Florida State League is an obvious two votes on the MLB side, and I think the potential benefits for the Sally League (including a possible bump to high-A) could veer that way as well. The California League stands to lose a team or two, and there’s a threat of demotion to low-A, so let’s say their two votes go to a more status quo MiLB structure. The Carolina League is somewhat similar, but with the added specter of losing teams to the proposed Mid-Atlantic League. But then again, the Carolina is a pretty MLB-heavy league. The Midwest League is a swing–benefits to voting yes could include promotion to high A and geographic efficiency, but on the the other side, there will be at least two teams (Burlington and Clinton) booted out and there is a higher percentage of teams that are less inherently attached to MLB clubs.
Short-Season/Rookie. Let’s assume the New York-Penn League votes against a proposal that could disband or at least severely alter their circuit. Ditto the Pioneer League. The Northwest League is on the swing side–they’re theoretically safe (and promoted!) but at least two of their eight teams are expected to be eliminated. The Appalachian League is mostly MLB team-owned, so that’s one vote to whatever MLB wants. It’s eyebrow-raising that the Gulf Coast League even gets a vote, but obviously that’s also going to MLB. As Cooper explains, this is sort of a grandfathered-in situation from the 1960s, when it wasn’t necessarily obvious that the GCL would be an exclusively MLB-complex league fifty years later. Or maybe they just needed a way to make for a clean 75% number of 27/36.
Let’s tally, with a full disclaimer that I’m fully talking out of my backside.
MLB-favorable PBA: IL + EL + TL + FSL + SAL + Appy + GCL = 18 votes
Current MiLB-favorable PBA: Cali + NYP + Pioneer = 4 votes
Perceived swing votes: PCL + SL + Carolina + MWL + NWL = 14 votes
I think it’s safe to say that about 50% of votes are cleanly in favor of MLB proposals, but that’s certainly not 75%. Even if half of the perceived swing votes go toward MLB, that’s still not quite three-quarters of total votes. If I were a campaign manager on either side, I would focus intensely on the Pacific Coast League and their six electoral votes.
At the beginning of August, MiLB president Pat O’Conner made headlines (OK, headline) when he chose to swap out the negotiating team on the MiLB side. Eight days later, Minor League Baseball’s Board of Trustees swapped out the O’Conner’s new group in favor of a return to the old group. A few days after that, O’Conner approved the Trustees’ group but added a member. This underlines the lack of unity throughout the minors and also hints that O’Conner’s power may be slipping. But I’m not here to gawk at the drama. I’m curious about who is in the negotiating group, and Cooper was able to share the names. Let’s review.
The original group, that has been working with MLB since at least the spring, consisted of Joe Finley, Marv Goldklang, Andy Sandler, Tom Volpe, and D.G. Elmore. While we unfortunately don’t know the full roster of O’Conner’s replacement group, Cooper did learn that Elmore was a part of it. Also, when O’Conner approved the return to the previous group, he added Durham Bulls’ owner Jim Goodmon. Then the Trustees added Great Lakes Loons owner William Stavropoulos and Winston-Salem Dash owner Billy Prim. Meanwhile, Joe Finley (Lehigh Valley IronPigs, Trenton Thunder) and Andy Sandler (Kannapolis Cannon Ballers) were absent from the new group. So, who are all these guys?
Marv Goldklang. Goldklang’s fingerprints have been all over major, minor, summer collegiate, and independent league baseball for the last thirty years or so. He’s part-owner of the New York Yankees, Charleston RiverDogs, Hudson Valley Renegades, and the Pittsfield Suns of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League. In the past, the Goldklang Group (which includes Bill Murray) was involved with the indy St. Paul Saints, the FSL’s Fort Myers Miracle, and the old Butte Copper Kings. Goldklang’s presence on the team makes a lot of sense, especially considering his long-tenured experience with multiple facets of baseball. More practically speaking, he is essentially representing (vis-à-vis the RiverDogs and Renegades) the South Atlantic and New York-Penn League. He also has stakes in PBA possibilities such as the FSL/NY-Penn split season proposal, the possible flipping of high-A and low-A, and the creation of the Mid-Atlantic League. Furthermore, although he no longer owns the Saints, they have been long-rumored to be included in the new Triple-A arrangement. Goldklang is a force.
Tom Volpe. Volpe heads 7th Inning Stretch, LLC, the group that owns the California League’s Stockton Ports, the South Atlantic League’s Delmarva Shorebirds, and the Northwest League’s Everett AquaSox. While all three of these teams are expected to survive and hopefully thrive in the era of the new PBA, they are all affected by proposed changes. The Cali League will see at least one team (Lancaster) leave the circuit, and could be affected by a further reduction of teams as well as a possible change to low A. Delmarva is likely to become a charter member of the Mid-Atlantic (or whatever it will be called) League, and Volpe’s presence on the board could shape the future of the Mally. The AquaSox are about as safe as you can get in the to-be-reduced NWL, but the league is certainly front-and-center during the dramatic reshaping of A-ball that we are likely to see. There are also factors such as the possible split season with a new spring league in Arizona, in a format similar to the FSL/NY-Penn proposal.
D.G. Elmore. It makes sense that Elmore would be the one person included in all versions of the negotiating team. He/his ownership group owns, by my count, seven (seven!) affiliated minor league baseball teams at nearly all levels of the minors: the San Antonio Missions (PCL), Amarillo Sod Poodles (TL), Inland Empire 66ers (Cali), Lynchburg Hillcats (Carolina), Eugene Emeralds (NWL), and two Pioneer League clubs–the Idaho Falls Chukars and Rocky Mountain Vibes. The San Antonio Missions are of particular interest in the PBA, as they have been rumored to possibly be moving to the Texas League and are also a stakeholder in a potential swing league that, as we recently learned, controls six electoral votes. Inland Empire, Lynchburg, and Eugene all seem safe in the expected future, though all represent leagues that will be experiencing change. Lastly, the Chukars and Vibes are in a league that is expected to either fizzle or be converted to a non-affiliated league. Elmore’s voice is that discussion is paramount.
Jim Goodmon. Goodmon heads Capitol Broadcasting Company, Inc., a media powerhouse in eastern North Carolina. He also owns a little team called the Durham Bulls, who belong to the International League with its shiny six electoral votes. O’Conner’s choice to add Goodmon to the final negotiating team suggests that the Bulls may favor the MiLB status quo, but that’s pure conjecture.
William Stavropoulos. Stavropoulos’s Michigan Baseball Foundation owns the Midwest League’s Great Lakes Loons as well as their home stadium, Dow Diamond. Stavropoulos’s addition to the team may be more important than what meets the eye, and not merely as a representative of the Midwest League or due to his past experiencing heading a giant company like Dow Chemical. As I’ve been running through many scenarios for realigned minor leagues, I’ve identified the Loons as an unexpectedly vulnerable team. Ever since Beloit got their new stadium deal, the plan for the MWL has been up in the air. Burlington and Clinton are leaving, but if the Bowling Green Hot Rods are truly going to be promoted to the Southern League, then another club would also be in the crosshairs. For a while, the backup was the Quad Cities River Bandits, but Chuck Grassley declared them safe, and furthermore, this would make for geographic imbalance in the league–likely causing South Bend to shift to a western division and doing little to improve the travel toll in the league. If Bowling Green goes, you pretty much have to take another easterly MWL team out with them. The best candidate is probably the northernmost Michigan club with an aging stadium and no natural MLB parent club–the Loons. But with Stavropoulos on the team, the Loons are probably safe. By extension, the Hot Rods are probably staying in the MWL. But we’ll see.
Billy Prim. Prim runs the Carolina League’s Winston-Salem Dash. The Dash are somewhat significant in the current climate, especially in terms of the rumored flipping of the Carolina League and Sally League. I always think of the Dash in relation to the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers, as they are both vital White Sox affiliates located right at the junction of where most of the Carolina League and South Atlantic League teams meet up on the map. The two teams won’t likely be in the same league despite their proximity. In my opinion, there is a strong case to be made for switching these leagues, although neither league would look the same at the end of the process. For now, it looks likely that any plan to do so would have to go through Billy Prim first.
This is some dry material, but you’re reading it this far, you’re right there with me. This technical information–factors like the electoral votes and the members of the team–could very well have far-reaching implications for the future of minor league baseball. I’ll get to the fun stuff in some upcoming articles. For now, let’s let this boring information simmer in our summer souls. Thanks for reading.