J.J. Brings the Technical Deets

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Now that the World Series is complete, we’ll have lots of minor league rumors mixed in with the typical off-season chatter. It seems that J.J. Cooper at Baseball America was sitting on a few articles, because they’ve been coming out rapid-fire. Let’s get to parsing. 

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First up are some items on the more technical side. On October 29, Cooper detailed the ballpark upgrades that MLB expects to see. After a year of vague notions of “inadequate facilities,” minor league owners finally have some concrete guidelines. The only provisions that casual fans will be able to notice are updated lighting standards and an expanded batter’s eye. Like requirements for the playing surface or pitcher’s mound, MLB is understandably going to be strict about making sure that the lighting is sufficient for players to be able to play at night and safely see the ball. 

Beyond that, the upgrades are mostly what we expected–happening behind the scenes. Clubhouses, both home and visitor, must reach a minimum square footage. There must be two separate food prep and eating areas for home and visitors. There must be weight rooms, indoor batting cages and pitching tunnels, womens’ locker rooms, and lockable storage for MLB personnel. Given the rumor mill of the past year, none of these items are too surprising.

Cooper makes a few key observations that may determine whether or not some teams make the list of 120. He mentions that there could be a significant cost difference for clubhouse expansion between those who have their clubhouses on ground level and those who have below-ground clubhouses. He states that stadiums built in the 1990s are generally far below the threshold for these new standards, but also notes that many new parks may fall short as well: “some minor league owners noted teams in older stadiums may have fewer issues than teams in newer facilities. Their point was that it might be easier to get municipal help to contribute to upgrades for a paid-off facility built decades ago than it will be for newer stadiums still being paid off.” That’s pretty crazy to think about. I wonder about stadiums in places like Beloit or Kannapolis or Wichita or Worcester–facilities that haven’t even seen a game yet. Will they need to ask for more money? Will they need to take a sledgehammer to walls that were just put up? Wild stuff. 

There’s also this nugget: “more than one minor league owner wondered if it would be possible that a team could decline a spot among the 120 remaining affiliated teams because they could see the new facility standards as simply too costly to meet.” Yes, if I were a minor league owner in a smaller market in the middle of a pandemic, I might think that a summer collegiate circuit would look just about as appealing as having to meet these many strict and costly standards. 

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Another article, published on November 2, is all about travel. We knew travel costs would be going up for minor league teams, but this seems pretty astronomical. Every road trip will require two buses, and if it’s more than 250 miles, one of the buses has to be a sleeper. Any trip more than 50 miles would require a hotel stay. Any trip beyond 350 miles would require travel on an off day or air travel. Speaking of planes, air travel would be required for than 550 miles. 

There are also some tweaks to scheduling, such as not allowing games to start too late or too early, and MLB is making a point to reserve the right to approve the minor league schedules–likely reducing the overall number of games. Speaking of game-reduction, having to accommodate long bus trips on off days is going to crunch the schedule as well. How about some reduced revenue to go along with the added costs? Yikes. 

This also further underlines how important it is going to be to have geographically-dense leagues, and some teams may need to bow out due to the geographic challenges presented. Cooper specifically mentions these:

“In the Northwest League, the Spokane Indians are more than 350 miles from all but two other teams in the league and the Boise Hawks are more than 350 miles from all but one of the other teams in the league.”

It’s telling that he mentioned both Spokane and Boise. Could those be the two left out of the league? I’ve written plenty about the NWL this year, and won’t dig into too deep here, but it’s certainly plausible that those are the two. Boise in particular has been vulnerable since Keith Law mentioned them back in the winter. For what it’s worth, both cities could theoretically join the Pioneer League–whatever becomes of it. 

“In the Midwest League, the Bowling Green Hot Rods are more than 350 miles from all but Dayton and Fort Wayne.”

Bowling Green needs to join the Southern League, eh? We all know that. But another Midwest League team would have to go with them (in addition to the Burlington/Clinton loss) in order to maintain even-numbered leagues, and your guess is as good as mine. Quad Cities? Great Lakes?

“But the league that will likely be most affected is the Texas League. Midland and Amarillo are more than 350 miles from every other opponent except each other. For Corpus Christi, every single road trip is further than 350 miles.”

As for the Texas League, the bottom line is that those three teams will just have to pay out more money. Midland is in the most compromised position, big picture, but the TL is a strong group and I expect things to continue as they are. 

Hearing that MLB is taking over control of the schedule makes me think that divisions and scheduling could get weird. I wrote about competitive integrity in the minors recently, and honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me to see things like three-team divisions or having inter-divisional games severely cut down or even eliminated. We could see teams within a given league each having a different total number of games. It seems blasphemous to say that, but few would notice the difference. And if MLB chooses to eliminate minor league playoffs, then we’re just looking at games being staged for entertainment on a given night rather than for competitive standings. The current truth is closer to that than most would admit. Hopefully they’ll at least keep track of the score. 

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The juiciest news that Cooper dropped since the Series is concerning the New York-Penn League. Although things are not fully formed at this point, it appears that the NY-Penn is slated to simply become a summer collegiate league in a similar fashion to what happened with the Appalachian League.

While the Appy League will be for freshman and sophomore players, the new NY-Penn will be a bizarre setup in which college seniors go to play in the league after the end of the regular college season in May, and then compete in sort of a showcase situation in prep for the draft–which will now be held over the All-Star break in July. After the draft, the rosters may be overhauled and then the teams limp toward an early August end. 

While the Appalachian League was a turnkey switchover with all ten teams buying into the new plan, the NY-Penn will certainly be a mixed bag. Some teams are expected to be brought into full-season ball, with Brooklyn going to the Eastern League and Aberdeen expected to join the new mid-Atlantic league. Hudson Valley seems likely to make the switch as well, and the Pirates aren’t going to want to let go of the West Virginia Black Bears. Of course, Morgantown is more than 250 miles away from the nearest teams expected to be included in the new mid-Atlantic league or Carolina League. Time to buy a new sleeper bus, I guess. 

The big bummer for me here is that this means that the rumored split-season arrangement with the Florida State League was little more than a pipe dream. I’m sure the logistics were insurmountably difficult, but the concept was terrific. 

The reality is that this new proposal is going to be a tough pill to swallow for a lot of these teams, and it’s difficult to see how many will sign up. Some may simply join existing summer collegiate leagues where they can at least rake in revenue from a full summer schedule. Others, especially in bigger markets like Staten Island and Tri-City, may opt to join the full-season Atlantic League or the summer indy Frontier League. 

Even without the uncertainties of the pandemic, a huge portion of minor league teams (half?) are now stuck between a rock and hard place. Some will be able to grit their teeth and open their wallet in order to stay on the bus, while others will be left at the wayside.