Response to the MLB Initial PBA Proposal

 

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On October 18, 2019, Baseball America reported the details of a proposal put forward by Major League Baseball regarding the upcoming new Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) and the story was quickly picked up by major national news providers, including the New York Times and ESPN. Ballpark Digest added a few more details in a subsequent post. The proposal is complicated and multi-faceted, but the biggest headline-grabber is that MLB would like to eliminate upwards of 42 of the current 160 affiliated minor league baseball teams.

To say the absolute least, there is a lot of unpack here. I’ve spent good chunks of several days studying the proposal rumors, staring at spreadsheets, and just trying to wrap my mind around all of this. What blows my mind is that I’ve been periodically working up minor league baseball realignment proposals for many years, and I’ve never considered any scenarios this radical. If anything, the intensity and severity of the changes proposed belie MLB’s motives–start strong and work backward from there. This proposal is the opening shot in what will likely be a contentious and fascinating battle between the Majors and the Minors, and in all likelihood the final agreement will be far less harsh than this proposal. And we can expect a battle. Shortly after the story hit the news, Minor League Baseball President Pat O’Conner publicly expressed his shock and the willingness of minor league leaders to fight back. But even if a watered-down version passes through, this would easily be the biggest shift in the minors since the 1962-1963 upheaval.

My initial reaction was also shock and even a tinge of anger/fear that all-powerful MLB is taking a stick of dynamite to my beloved minors. Looking back on it now, I wonder why I felt so strongly. I can see why MLB would want to make this move, and I can see how at least some of the changes would improve the overall system. Let’s briefly break down MLB’s perceived motives.

  1. Money. Minor league ballplayers are expected to paid better in the near future, with some reports indicating that wages could increase by 50%. That might not seem like much money compared with the ridiculous sums that line MLB coffers, but when you stretch it out to thousands of players, it ain’t nothing either. Speaking of all those players…
  2. Too many players. You don’t need advanced analytics to see that only a select few players on a lower-level minor league club in a given season will even get a cup of coffee at the major league level. Top prospects are identified early, and especially in the case of college players, their journey through the minors is more symbolic than anything else. There is certainly an advantage to casting such a wide net–the rare  late-blooming star player that wouldn’t be discovered otherwise–but the uptick in wages may not make it worth it to fill out those rosters. It can also be inefficient for an MLB team to staff these teams with coaches and trainers. If you’re going to shell out to get good coaches, you want them to be coaching players who have more than a snowball’s chance in hell of being a big-league contributor. It’s all about the prospect.
  3. Precious prospects. MLB clubs don’t want to expose their most valuable commodities to cinder-block locker rooms or leaky toilets or neck crick-inducing bus rides. They may even find they’re better off using the latest technology in safe, controlled environments and eschewing the minors altogether. That sort of mindset makes this proposal seem tame by comparison.
  4. Excessive travel. Bus leagues aren’t as romantic as they used to be, both for top prospects and the teams themselves. If increased player wages are going to lead to tightening purse strings, there’s a strong incentive to reduce travel costs. It’s worth noting that many minor league teams are now owned by MLB clubs, so that may play a part in the expense-cutting clampdown as well. Plus, those prospects need sleeper seats on their bus, right?
  5. Geographic proximity. MLB teams want to be near their affiliates, but this is nothing new. There have long been haves and have-nots in this realm. The Orioles currently have all their affiliates roughly within Baltimore’s TV market area, and others like the Phillies and Braves have sweet setups as well. MLB teams on the West Coast and in the Midwest have to reach a bit, especially at the Double-A Level, where teams are concentrated on the East Coast and the South. But some MLB teams seem to be pushing for more opportunities if they can.
  6. PDC consistency. The two-year PDC carousel may become a thing of the past. MLB clubs want longer agreements, though minor league clubs may fight back since this is one of the few points of leverage that farm clubs have–at least the desirable farm clubs, that is.

So those are the main motives of MLB clubs. And what changes do they propose to address them?

  1. Reduce the affiliated minors from 160 teams to 120 teams, with a simple four affiliates-per-team setup. There is no public list of teams in the cross-hairs, but MLB supposedly administered a survey for all major league teams earlier this year asking them to identify which facilities they consider to be lacking. The results must’ve been gnarly, because the machete is out.
  2. Eliminate the short-season leagues. More MLB teams are building spring training palaces, and there has been an increasing emphasis on Complex Rookies leagues–the Arizona and Gulf Coast League. MLB proposes that short season options be limited to one Complex Rookie team per MLB team, and disbanding the Appalachian League, New-York Penn League, and Pioneer League. It’s kind of insane for MLB to suggest that they could wave a magic wand and eliminate three leagues that have significant history. The Appy League is over 100 years old and the other two aren’t far behind. The leagues should survive, even they lose their teams’ parent clubs and operate more like independent leagues.
  3. Eliminate a bunch of other teams. It sounds like there could be cuts here and there up and down the minors. The higher levels are mostly exempt, but the Eastern League, California League, Carolina League, Midwest League, and especially the South Atlantic League could get picked over as well.
  4. Create a “Dream League” for the newly non-affiliated teams. The idea is that the teams in the league would be basically like independent league teams, but would have some loose partnership with MLB itself rather than individual team affiliates. This sounds baffling at first glance, but it seems less wacky if you ignore the embarrassing “Dream League” moniker. If there is an incentive to reduce travel costs, the notion of one Dream League is laughable. Instead, imagine if the Appy, NY-Penn, and Pioneer continued to operate with the same league names and some of the same teams, but with a non-affiliated structure. If MLB is willing to share costs, this may be more desirable for the clubs than going straight indy or summer collegiate. There may be some other teams that are thrown into the mix as well, possibly necessitating another new non-affiliated league–maybe the New England League?
  5. Move the Northwest League to full-season ball. The rainy NWL may see some games in April. I’ve thought about this a ton over the years, but I remember once studying rainfall charts and determining the the Pioneer League might be better for full-season ball, especially now with more-vital markets like Colorado Springs. But I don’t think “vitality” really matters that much, and maybe MLB feels that NWL facilities are better. The Ballpark Digest post also suggests that the league could be cut down to six teams.
  6. Create a Mid-Atlantic League at the Low-A level. This seems to be a simple idea meant to reduce long bus trips. I expect it will include the northerly teams in the South Atlantic League, though it may cut inland to places like West Virginia or Kentucky. But once you get that far inland, there’s still a sprawled-out map. What teams would fill out the Mally League? It’s very unclear at this point. A follow-up article by Ballpark Digest says: “any proposal to flatten out two levels of Single-A ball to further address player travel would certainly have its adherents.” This makes perfect sense to me. Why have a “High A” and “Low A”? Why not just have sixty teams at Class A, arrange it for optimum geographic efficiency, and then go nuts with PDCs. It was kind of like this in the latter 20th century, and even up until the early 2000s, you’d see things like the Oakland A’s having two Cali League affiliates. It must have been great for A’s fans to watch ModestoVisalia games back in the day. Why not let the Orioles have two affiliates (say, Frederick and Delmarva) in the Mally League? In practice the “moving up the ladder” idea is meaningless. MLB teams send their players wherever they want anyway, so why not flatten out Class A?
  7. Shuffle a bunch of teams up and down. In the proposal, several teams would be relegated to lower-level leagues, with financial compensation for a move. Some others would be promoted.
  8. Add two new teams. Specifically, independent-league franchises from St. Paul, MN and Sugar Land, Texas would be added. We don’t know precisely which leagues they would be added to, but we’ll cover that in a bit.
  9. Restructure Triple-A. A great way to reduce travel costs is having the Pacific Coast League teams within a time zone or two from the Pacific Coast, eh? In this proposal, the PCL would go from 16 to 10 teams, and the International League would go from 14 to 20. Finally, Nashville and Memphis will be with Charlotte and Louisville rather than Tacoma and Fresno. This is a long time coming. Losing the American Association in 1997 was a blow to Triple-A travel budgets. I doubt a new third Triple-A league will be coming back, but you never know.

 

OK, there’s my “brief” overview. Now let’s get to the fun part–trying to get which teams will get the ax!

Side note: one thing I’ve read in some other response pieces to this proposal is that minor league teams are safe or in danger based on factors like size of market. attendance, branding, or general team vitality. For the most part, these things are irrelevant to MLB clubs. They are more focused on things like top-notch training facilities, consistency of data, and travel logistics–both intraleague and in proximity to the major league club or other minor league clubs. Team vitality can certainly enhance a minor league club’s ability to meet MLB’s concerns, but it is not necessarily a major concern itself.

I’m going to go league-by-league and share thoughts and perceptions. Let’s start at the bottom.

APPALACHIAN LEAGUE

Ballpark Digest suggests that the Pulaski Yankees and Johnson City Cardinals may be kept in the affiliated ranks and bumped up to full season. Pulaski did a major renovation recently, and were even named minor league franchise of the year, so I could see them making it. One glitch is that I doubt the New York Yankees would choose them over Charleston, a team I assume will be kept in the Sally League. As for Johnson City, I don’t see what significantly separates them from the other old Appy teams. The Cincinnati Reds recently bought Greeneville, but there’s no way they are giving up Dayton. Long story short: there will likely be major cuts here.

PIONEER LEAGUE

I think the Great Falls Voyagers and Orem Owlz are toast. Missoula, on the verge of a new team identity, is also very vulnerable. Colorado Springs is the latest star in the Pioneer, but their high altitude essentially precludes them from being highly desirable for MLB clubs. Ogden, Billings, and Idaho Falls are vital teams and it would be a shame to see them go. Grand Junction is a wildcard. They are owned by the Rockies and would the MLB club pay to operate a “Dream League” team that doesn’t have Rockies prospects on the roster? I’ll be keeping a close eye on the old Pioneer League.

NEW YORK-PENN LEAGUE

Choice quote from the Ballpark Digest post: “Two NY-Penn League teams would potentially move to the Double-A Eastern League and replacing existing teams there, while at least one other NY-Penn League team would be shifted up to the Carolina League and replace an existing team there.” I’m pretty sure that one of the upward movers is the Brooklyn Cyclones and am tempted to think the other would be the Staten Island Yankees–though the New York Yankees (Staten’s owners) may be happy with Trenton at Double-A. As for the Carolina League, it would have to be either the Aberdeen IronBirds or the West Virginia Black Bears, though I don’t know which one is the better candidate. Aberdeen’s power stems from their connection to the Ripken family and the Orioles, but Baltimore wouldn’t be able to affiliate with both Aberdeen and Frederick in the Carolina League unless Class A is flattened out. Also their facility is about twenty years old. West Virginia, with their newer facilities, could be the one, though they would stretch the Carolina League’s geographic footprint even more than it already is. There are plenty of vulnerable teams in the old NY-Penn. Batavia and Auburn would be two of the first to go. The New Englanders in Vermont and Lowell stretch the league’s map, and one article lists Lowell as being specifically targeted.

NORTHWEST LEAGUE

As I mentioned earlier, the NWL is going to full season, and it sounds like it will be at the Low A level. For years, I’ve thought about how the Low A level (and Double-A) give West Coast MLB teams such a disadvantage–I mean Iowa is the furthest east that affiliates go at this level. The Ballpark Digest article plainly mentions that the league would drop two teams? Which two? I think all eight teams have some level of vulnerability, on the surface, the most vulnerable are Tri-Cites, Salem-Keizer, and Everett. Boise and Spokane play in pretty old stadiums and stretch the geography a bit, and Boise would be able to join the Pioneer Dream League pretty easily. I think affiliation plays a role as well. Is Vancouver and their old concrete park safe due to their connection with Toronto? Or would the Jays stick with Lansing in the Midwest League?

MIDWEST LEAGUE

Speaking of the MWL, the Ballpark Digest article says that the league will lose “some” teams. Generally speaking, the MWL’s weakest teams are those in the Western Division of the 16-team league, especially the Burlington Bees and Clinton LumberKings. The Beloit Snappers are finalizing a stadium deal, though this PBA proposal could throw a monkey wrench in the gears. Quad Cities is a fairly vital franchise, though their facility has suffered from flooding in recent years. Geographically speaking, the MWL is one of the most sprawled out leagues in the minors. The footprint is stretched in the northwest with Wisconsin, south with Bowling Green, and east with Lake County, but none of those three teams are prime candidates for contraction. Could Bowling Green or even Dayton be candidates for the Mid-Atlantic League?

SOUTH ATLANTIC LEAGUE

The 14-team Sally League would be slashed to only six teams. That is brutal, and it could come to pass. The Lakewood BlueClaws and Delmarva Shorebirds are obvious candidates for the Mally League. Hagerstown too, but the Suns are hanging on by a thread as is, and I can’t see them surviving a 42 team cut-down. The West Virginia Power are another team that I could see being vulnerable, though they are a Mally candidate as well. Lexington is a vital franchise, but they really stretch the western limits of the league. As for the truly southern Sally teams, Asheville plays in an ancient facility is probably the most vulnerable, despite the fact that they just renewed their lease through 2021. Hickory is owned by the Rangers now. I’m not sure if that protects them from the chopping block, but they’d be a chop candidate as well. All the other teams are pretty dang strong. Unless some teams get promoted to the Carolina League (definitely possible) I don’t see how the league can be cut down to only six.

CALIFORNIA LEAGUE

It sounds like some Cali League teams are going away. I can see thing going two ways. One would be a simple chop-down to six teams, with some of the least desirable spots being axed. Another scenario would see a Pacific Coast League team added and replacing an axed team, keeping the league at eight teams. Either way, someone has a target on their back. The Lancaster JetHawks haven’t been a desirable affiliate due to their reputation for elevated offensive stats. When the Milwaukee Brewers were faced with the prospect of being stuck with Lancaster in the 2016 PDC season, they impulsively outbid the Rockies and bought the Carolina Mudcats. Visalia has an old park and dwindling vitality. I’d put them at second most vulnerable in the league.

CAROLINA LEAGUE

The Carolina League was mentioned in regards to a NY-Penn League club making the jump up the ladder, and “some other teams having to shift.” The most vulnerable team in the Carolina League is probably the Lynchburg Hillcats, who may might get the Dream League treatment, possibly rolled in with the old Appy League teams. There is a geography issue in the league as well, with Fredericksburg, Frederick, and Wilmington stretching very far north of the Carolinas. Could those three become a part of the Mally League? And maybe the 3-4 lost teams would be replaced by some of the brighter stars (Columbia, Greenville, etc.) of the eviscerated Sally League? It’s way too early to get a read one way or the other, but the Carolina League could end up at the epicenter of this upheaval.

FLORIDA STATE LEAGUE

The FSL is basically a full-season complex league these days, and the only teams that don’t play in their parent club’s spring training facility are the Daytona Tortugas (Reds) and the Florida Fire Frogs (Braves). Daytona has an old stadium and they are geographically distant from the others, but they aren’t exactly on life support. It might be tough for the FSL to let go of that market, but it could certainly happen. The Fire Frogs are a wildcard. They are homeless as of this writing, and the latest rumor is that they may move to Cocoa, Florida. I think it’s safe to say that unless Cocoa Baseball Club, LLC find a way to get a new stadium, the franchise would at least be considered for contraction. If they’re gone, maybe Daytona would go too. I haven’t the slightest idea what the clubhouse and training facilities in Daytona are like, but if they were to contract, it would be nice market for an indy league to land. Daytona would be a nice complement to Jacksonville in the Southern League as well. Who knows?

EASTERN LEAGUE

There are a few vulnerable teams in the EL. The Erie SeaWolves have been the target of relocation rumors for years, and they may be asked how the Dream League sounds. Binghamton is another iffy team. They’ve staved off the hatchet with Rumble Pony publicity and then Tim Tebow, but the luster is fading. And MLB teams just care about the facilities and travel, right? I have a hunch that the Brooklyn Cyclones could replace the Rumble Ponies as the Mets’ Double-A affiliate. The articles hint at another former NY-Penn club coming up as well. Maybe Staten Island? Maybe Hudson Valley? Let me inspect all their weight rooms and get back to you. Another team worth mentioning here is Richmond. As this article points out, the Flying Squrrels have a target on their back for a few reasons. For one, they play in an old stadium that the Braves abandoned in favor of a shinier object several years ago, and efforts to build a new park have been blocked repeatedly. For another, they are an affiliate of the Giants, who play on the opposite coast. Oh, and they’re the southernmost team in the EL by a decent stretch. MLB will pry the Richmond market out of MiLB’s cold, dead hands, but the Squirrels could be demoted to the new Mally League. But it would have to be an even number of teams in the league, so if you relegate Richmond another team would have to go too. Bowie’s an obvious choice, but the Orioles may not want, uh, all their affiliates in the Mally League. The other teams are all pretty strong. Akron’s park is now over twenty years old and they haven’t done a major renovation since. They are by far the westernmost team and would probably be better in the Midwest League. But that might upset Cleveland. This is tough!

SOUTHERN LEAGUE

I really have nothing to say about the Southern League. I don’t think they’ll be touched. The only thing I could see is if one of the weaker teams (maybe Jackson?) were bounced in favor of a new Texas League club, with one TL club (maybe Arkansas) switching over to the SL. The Southern League’s about as safe as you can get these days.

TEXAS LEAGUE

The Texas League is strong from tip to toe, and some of the pickiest MLB teams (Astros, A’s, Dodgers, Cardinals, etc.) have their Double-A club there. But we need to talk about Sugar Land. The rumors all say that there is a push to poach the Sugar Land, TX market from the Atlantic League. The Skeeters play in a nice park built in 2012 and draw huge crowds. They must have nice facilities as well if MLB is this interested. I think the market could work at Triple-A, but the TL is the most obvious geographic location. In some world, it would make sense to add Sugar Land and then have the Arkansas Travelers join the Southern League. Or bring back the Dixie Association and make the divisions as efficient as possible.

INTERNATIONAL LEAGUE

Here’s another very solid league that I don’t expect to lose any teams. What the IL would do is gain teams–probably six. Since there’s not expected to be a third league at Triple-A, it makes good sense to send Nashville and Memphis for sure. Then you get into the Central Time zone clubs that were perfect for the American Association–Iowa, Omaha, Wichita, and OKC. If St. Paul does join the Triple-A ranks, the IL would be the likely destination–probably necessitating Oklahoma City staying in the Pacific Coast League.

PACIFIC COAST LEAGUE

I get why the St. Paul Saints would be a good addition to Triple-A, but what team is going to be relegated? The top candidates in my mind are the Tacoma Rainiers and Fresno Grizzlies, but maybe they have better facilities than I think. What about the Iowa Cubs? Hard to say. Tacoma plays in an old park and is by far the most geographically distant club. They could be relegated to the Northwest League. Fresno may be better-suited for the California League long-term. Sugar Land could land in the PCL as well, and I’d guess Houston would pick them and Texas would go back to Round Rock. That would free up Nashville for Washington and leave Fresno parent-less. Now adding St. Paul and Sugar Land to Triple-A? That would certainly shake things up. But new teams or not, change is coming for the PCL.

Change is coming for all the minor leagues. Though I don’t expect this initial proposal to make it past the Winter Meetings, I will be intently watching over the next 10 months or so until the PBA is signed. Till then, thank you for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

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