Mixing up the Carolina and Sally Leagues

While the details of the new PBA and the changing minor leagues remain behind closed doors, there’s one thing that can be guaranteed: the Carolina League and the South Atlantic League are going to be different. There are a few reasons for this. 

One reason is simple contraction of the number of PDCs. Although last fall’s list of 42 is old news a year later, there was one Carolina League team (Frederick Keys) and three Sally League teams (Hagerstown, Lexington, West Virginia) on the chopping block. Geographic efficiency is a key factor cited by MLB in its revisioning of the minors, and both leagues have become sprawled out across the southeast and mid-atlantic regions. A few decades of unchecked expansion and relocation have given us a Sally League that stretches from Rome, Georgia, to Lakewood, New Jersey. A new “Mid-Atlantic League” is long-rumored to be in the works, and if it comes to pass, both of the leagues’ pools of teams are likely to be dipped into in order to fill it out the Mally League.

Another factor that could lead to change is the expectation that teams will be promoted and demoted up and down the minor league chain. Cities like Pulaski, VA, and Aberdeen, MD, may have their teams get the bump up to full season ball, while others could slide from Double-A on down. Here’s a map of the current South Atlantic League (orange) teams and the current Carolina League (yellow) teams. 

sally and carolina

Now let’s check out a map for which I’ve used my award-winning Microsoft Paint skills to X out the four teams slated for PDC severance and added in a few other teams. The teal marker is for Pulaski, which has been long-rumored to be promoted from the Appalachian League to full-season ball. The dark blue is for Aberdeen, where the IronBirds are expected to get a bump. The three red markers are for current Double-A teams–the Chattanooga Lookouts, Richmond Flying Squirrels, and Trenton Thunder. 

carolina sally1

I put Chattanooga on here because the more I look at it, the more I think that their exodus from the Southern League is an inevitability. I get into the details here, but the short version is that the Double-A level is probably going to need to drop two teams, and the Southern League seems the most likely source. I guess it’s possible that some random team like Montgomery or Biloxi could join the Jackson Generals out the door, but Chattanooga remains vulnerable. Their clubhouses reportedly can’t be expanded in the way that MLB teams supposedly desire, and that could eclipse their storied history and fan popularity. But let’s be optimistic and say that even if they leave Double-A, they could find a home in one of the Single-A leagues. As you can see, they are a natural travel partner with the Rome Braves in the west, and not too far from Asheville and Greenville. If the numbers of teams within leagues need ‘Nooga to even out, it could be a good option. 

I included Richmond despite there being no indication that they are going to be swapped out of Double-A. However, they are a southerly outlier in the Eastern League map, have an old facility, and have no natural parent club lining up for their services. Richmond is definitely a Triple-A caliber city, so maybe if they are demoted, it would be a temporary arrangement. Perhaps they could pull a new ballpark together and join the International League when MLB expands in a few years. Their 2020 fate could also be tied to the other team I included on this map–Trenton. Recent news (covered here) suggests that the Somerset Patriots could be added to the Eastern League as a Yankees affiliate. Up till recently, I assumed the Patriots were earmarked for the Mid-Atlantic League, but the Eastern League seems most likely at this point. For now, let’s view that red marker on the northeast corner of the map as being representative of Somerset and/or Trenton. Most likely, only one of those two will be in the Eastern League while the other is in the Mally League. However, I can envision a scenario in which both Somerset and Trenton are in the Eastern League, necessitating the removal of an EL team. With Erie seemingly off the board, I think Richmond (as well as Portland and New Hampshire) could be unexpectedly vulnerable. 

Let me get back on track–this article is not about the future of the Mally League. I’ve covered that elsewhere, but one glance at the map will tell you that the future of that yet-to-exist circuit is directly related to the fate of both the Carolina and Sally Leagues. The Carolina’s Wilmington Blue Rocks seem to be a shoe-in for the Mally, and the Fredericksburg Nationals seem like they could go either way. It’s a similar set-up with Lakewood and Delmarva in the Sally League, though in Delmarva’s case, if they don’t land in the Mally, I’d expect them to switch to the Carolina League. 

So how do we split up the teams? Flexibility is a requirement in this new minor league world, and luckily, there are a few different arrangements. Before we start, we should establish a few things. It’s possible that the entire Single-A level system could experience one of two seismic shifts: 1. A flattening out of the levels (as in, no high and low A) that would allow for MLB teams to have, say, two affiliates in any two leagues as it suits their needs, or 2. a flip-flop of High A and Low A. This latter point is covered here in all its complexity, but for now, let’s assume that the current MiLB negotiation committee more or less gets their wish to keep as many teams as possible at their current levels.

It’s also good to remember that some of these teams are either owned or otherwise shepherded by MLB clubs. In particular, I expect the Rangers to still have access to both Hickory and Down East, the White Sox to have both Kannapolis and Winston-Salem, the Red Sox to have Greenville and Salem, and the Brewers to have the Carolina Mudcats at a level that differs from the Midwest League. Beyond that, it’s all about geographic efficiency and fitting everything together. With that in mind, let’s put down the first purple line of demarcation between those Chicago affiliates–Kannapolis to the south and Winston-Salem to the north. This line also separates Texas and Boston’s affiliates. 

carolina sally line1The first thing you’ll likely notice is that there is an orange Sally League marker in Carolina League territory. That’s the Greensboro Grasshoppers, who are poised for a jump to the CL for more than just geographic reasons. They are a brand brimming with vitality, and aren’t really affected by their parent club in any significant way. It doesn’t really matter which of the two leagues that they’re in, so they might as well be in with their closer neighbors in the Carolina League. 

Broadly speaking, what we see is the potential for a dense Sally League that occupies more of the southwestern portion of the region. The new Carolina League covers more or less the same footprint that it does now, but is a little more condensed. Let’s go ahead and extend that purple line northwest. 

carolina sally line2

The main takeaway from this part of the map is that if Pulaski does indeed re-emerge in full season ball, the Carolina League is the best fit. It’s not hard for me to imagine a team the Braves signing on with Pulaski. High A is the only level Atlanta has some instability over the years. Of course, maybe the Carolina League won’t be at High A anymore. Let’s ignore that and move onto the more interesting part of the map. But before we get to the coast, let’s consider the importance of having an even number of teams in each league. The list of teams may have some flexibility–especially with that undefined Mally League just to the north. But even numbers for the leagues are crucial. Let’s have a look. 

With the caveat that it’s an idea from my own head and has no corroboration elsewhere, let’s look at a Sally League that includes Chattanooga. We would definitely have the Lookouts together with the Rome Braves, the Asheville Tourists, Greenville Drive, Hickory Crawdads, Kannapolis Cannon Ballers, August GreenJackets, and probably the Columbia Fireflies. That’s eight teams, and if the other moving pieces in this slider puzzle dictate that the Sally League should be at eight, that’s a doable scenario–even if the Carolina would have a weird little tail to the south. Better than that, in my opinion, would be to basically extend the purple line to the ocean and include Charleston and add Myrtle Beach–basically trade the Grasshoppers for the Pelicans. A ten-team Sally would look nice. Check it out. 

carolina sally line3

If that’s the case, then the Carolina League could shrink back to its pre-2017 eight-team size. In addition to the Greensboro/Myrtle Beach swap, Pulaski is added and Fredericksburg is ceded to the Mally League. 

carolina sally line4

That’s a neat setup, but it’s dependent on my unsubstantiated idea that Chattanooga should join the Sally League. What happens if there are no Lookouts? Assuming no further contraction of teams like Asheville or Lynchburg or Pulaski, we might see an eight-team SAL and a ten-team Carolina that retains Myrtle Beach and Fredericksburg. 

carolina sally line5

It’s doable. Either way, flexibility is key. If you were to place a bet on which of these scenarios we’ll see play out, the smart bet is to take the field. The most likely scenario is that none of these scenarios will come to pass. We should find out in a few weeks. Or months. 

Till then, be well and thanks for reading.