Early Dispatches from a PBA-Free World

The Professional Baseball Agreement expired on the last day of September. Technically speaking, affiliated baseball has not existed for about one week. Now that the deadline is crossed, the sense of urgency to forge a new PBA isn’t as clear and present. Everyone, especially minor league team owners trying to sell season tickets and advertising, would like to get a new deal done. But MLB can now wait until after the World Series and the elections pass before rolling out anything too controversial. While the new PBA has been relegated to the back-burner, we’ve at least been given a few news bites to chew on. It seems like a good time to ease out of the “Last Month Mini” phase of PBA coverage and get back into the periodic MLG commentaries that touch on a variety of topics. 

Making Everyone Appy

I thoroughly covered this in the latest OMNI, but the Appalachian League is officially a summer collegiate league. This is relevant to the overall discussion because it’s a feel-good story. Fans of all ten Appy League teams will get to keep high-quality baseball around and have new brands to enjoy. Pulaski was rumored to be getting a bump up to full-season ball, but it looks like they are content to stay where they are. 

Most everyone seems satisfied with this, and MLB was able to easily provide a home for 10 of the 42 (or more) teams slated to lose their Player Development Contract (PDC). This is key for MLB as they try to mitigate the PR damage that this saga has already wrought. J.J. Cooper, in a recent article for Baseball America, expanded on this idea:

“MLB is believed to be continuing to talk to the Pioneer League and teams in the Northeast (primarily New York-Penn League teams) in attempts to develop agreeable non-affiliated solutions for those teams as well. If such plans can be agreed to, MLB could announce the future plans for the vast majority of teams left out of the 120. Doing so would provide a public relations benefit for MLB, as instead of speculation about the future of the teams left out of MLB’s plans, those questions would be answered first, shifting focus away from the 120 clubs that will remain in affiliated ball.”

Cooper hits the nail on the head. MLB has taken such a beating in the press with this story that they are carefully unveiling their plan and accounting for the teams that are losing their PDC. Ten down, 32-ish to go. 

You’ve Got a Freund in Me

freund logos

The primary topic of Cooper’s article is that MLB has hired Peter Freund to oversee the transition to a new PBA and a reshaped minor leagues. Freund is the principal owner of the Memphis Redbirds and Williamsport Crosscutters, and he also has stakes in the Charleston RiverDogs and, interestingly enough, the New York Yankees. 

Cooper’s minor league sources indicated that the hiring was a surprise, but perhaps a welcome development. D.G. Elmore, head of the minor league negotiating committee was quoted as saying: “I’m a huge Peter Freund fan. He’s terrific. He’s involved in a lot of leagues. I think he will be a great addition to the MLB team.

As you can imagine, my mind went immediately to the teams that Freund has a stake in. Memphis is notable because if there is indeed a third centrally-located Triple-A league, the Redbirds would likely be a part. A more remote possibility would be Memphis and Nashville’s addition to the International League, but it’s more likely that Freund’s presence would help to build cohesion with the new league. 

Williamsport is very interesting. Freund isn’t going to negotiate the value out of one of his properties, but the question is whether he will spearhead a new non-affiliated league in the northeast or if he can help pull off the rumored split-season arrangement with the Florida State League. In that scenario, the Crosscutters could stay affiliated with the Phillies, who would ship their players from Clearwater to Williamsport in June. If that idea has even a shred of validity at this point, Freund would be the guy to push it along. 

Freund’s minority shares in the RiverDogs and Yankees tell me that the affiliation between the two is likely to continue. So long as Charleston is at a different level than Somerset or Tampa, this seems doable. Freund’s Yankee connection could play a hand in everything from Somerset’s transition to the survival of the Staten Island Yankees to the FSL becoming a springtime low-A league. 

R.I.P. MiLB®

In extremely unsurprising news, MLB officially announced that minor league baseball headquarters will transfer to New York City and operate as a branch of the majors. Interestingly, this news from MLB suits was bundled up with the Freund announcement.

What does this really mean? I honestly don’t get it. I think it’s incorrect to say that Minor League Baseball (the entity) is moving to New York. MLB doesn’t own MiLB® and they certainly don’t control the leagues that are a part of MiLB. As I understand it, with no PBA in place, MiLB still exists as a united entity, but has no affiliation with MLB. So basically, MiLB is (at least temporarily) an aggregation of thirteen independent leagues. So in order for MLB to “control” these thirteen independent leagues, they would need to forge a new agreement, i.e. a new PBA. 

I’m being a little pedantic here. There’s a good chance that the framework of a new PBA has already been put together. Maybe they’re just working out some details or legalities, or maybe they’re just stalling–ready to make an announcement in November after the Series and the elections. But without an agreement, MLB would have no authority to “move” the offices of MiLB because they don’t control MiLB. They have every right to set up a new minor league unit in New York and rebuild the minors, and I think that’s a more accurate way of stating it. 

In all practicality, though, MiLB is no more. Once an agreement is signed, MiLB–if it continues to exist as an aggregate entity–will be a branch of MLB. We all knew this was coming. Now it’s just official. Sort of.  

Naturally Speaking

Naturals logo

Finally, I want to talk about an announcement that seems innocuous enough. In March 2021, the Kansas City Royals will be playing an exhibition game against their Double-A affiliate–the Northwest Arkansas Naturals–at the Naturals’ home ballpark in Springdale, Arkansas. The Royals, like all clubs, are seeking to recoup lost pandemic revenue and understandably want to grow their fanbase in the NW Arkansas region. 

This news is relevant to the PBA discussion because it all but assures that the Naturals will continue to make their home in the Texas League moving forward. Now, nobody really expected the club to lose their PDC, but these times are so desperate that the list of vulnerable teams cuts deeper than it ever has in the past. I briefly mentioned the Naturals in a PBA piece back in August. Here’s what I said then:

“The Texas League has no real weak links. The Northwest Arkansas Naturals are maybe a bit of a stretch for Double-A in terms of market size, but the Royals seem happy with their proximity. The Midland RockHounds are getting a little long in the fang, but the A’s have been happy with them. If the A’s are happy, they must be doing something right. The Texas League is much more likely to swell up to ten teams than it is to stay at eight.

The new development is simply that the Naturals have moved from “possibly vulnerable” to “safe.” If, for some bizarre slider puzzle reason, the TL is forced to cut a team, Midland would probably be the most likely candidate. But if the Double-A level in general needs to drop teams, the Southern and Eastern Leagues are much more likely to lose them. Fans of the Montgomery Biscuits or New Hampshire Fisher Cats or Portland Sea Dogs or Mississippi Braves should be slightly–slightly–more concerned after the Northwest Arkansas announcement. 

The minor league world remains as uncertain as ever. Let’s hope for the best possible arrangement.