On ESPN and the Eastern League

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We finally got some PBA reporting beyond J.J. Cooper’s brilliant work at Baseball America, and this one is a bit of a doozy. ESPN, the worldwide something-or-other, published a giant overview article about the PBA that was written by “ESPN staff.” The piece is very broad and seemingly designed for readers who are just learning about the topic now. It’s mostly pretty darn boring. 

However, because of the company’s unparalleled access and brand clout, they were able to get many quotes from franchise owners throughout the minors. Many of these quotes are eyebrow-raisers, with owners calling out Rob Manfred and/or Pat O’Conner, or just venting bitterness. The most strident of these quotes probably comes from Orem Owlz owner Jeff Katofsky: 

“I’ve always thought the plan has been to let the agreement expire. Manfred doesn’t want to be the commissioner of Major League Baseball. He wants to be called ‘Commissioner of Baseball.”

It’s easy to take that quote with a sizable grain from the Great Salt Lake just up the road from Orem. Katofsky is the guy who said that the Owlz were moving to Colorado a few years back, then oops, I guess not. But that gives you a good sense of the dire tone of most of these quotes. It could be true that MLB plans to let the PBA expire, but it still seems just as likely that they hammer something out in negotiations. But enough about public hate-mongering. Let’s check out some of the quotes that correlate to this series here on Minor League Geek. First we have this nugget. 

Four teams on the original cut list are in New York, including the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, currently the Mets’ Double-A affiliate. Owner John Hughes said he felt helpless when he learned his team would be replaced by the Brooklyn Cyclones, the Mets’ current Rookie League team. That team would be operated by the Mets’ chief operating officer and owner, Jeff Wilpon, whose family is selling the major league team. The Mets declined to comment.

Since last fall, it was rumored that the Cyclones would be bumping up to Double-A, and it’s been at least as long that we knew the Rumble Ponies were being targeted for demotion or contraction. It didn’t take much to put the two pieces together, but this is the first time that I’ve seen it explicitly stated that Binghamton’s Eastern League exodus is a one-for-one switcheroo with Brooklyn. It’s important to know that when considering not only the Eastern League’s future, but that of the whole Double-A level. Now we know for sure. Here’s another juicy tidbit: 

And what was 42 teams last year might become 43, as a third unaffiliated team, the Somerset Patriots in New Jersey, is being considered as a potential New York Yankees affiliate.

We’ve known about Somerset since J.J. Cooper dropped the news back in June, but Cooper’s mention essentially ended at “the Atlantic League’s Somerset Patriots being the team most likely to be brought into affiliated ball.” Now we know that it’s the Yankees (and not the Mets or Phillies) who have their eye on the Patriots. I didn’t think too much about this, though, as I’ve expected the Patriots to be added to the new Mid-Atlantic League. And if the Mally League were in a separate level from the Florida State League, the Yanks would choose Somerset over a Carolina/South Atlantic League team. Simple. 

But then I came across this article on NJ.com where the reporter quotes an anonymous source within the Trenton Thunder organization, and the overall theme is that Somerset is poised to join the Eastern League. The Trenton Thunder, meanwhile, would lose their parent club. It’s not the best-reported or written article of all time, and includes head-scratchers like: 

“The Yankees aren’t going to have two minor-league teams in New Jersey,” a Thunder official told NJ Advance Media.

Nonsensical statements like that tempt me to dismiss the whole works, but the article mentions how in the past, the Yankees have been unsatisfied with the playing surface at the ballpark in Trenton, although the Thunder have done recent satisfactory improvements. Another recent, well-ordered piece from another Jersey website does a great job of expressing how apparently top-notch Somerset’s playing surface is, including anecdotes about Joe Torre and Don Zimmer admiring the groundskeeping. Couple that with the university medical facility attached to the Patriots’ HQ, and you can easily see how Somerset could be a more desirable Double-A locale than Trenton, despite the Thunder’s fan-focused vitality. 

So let’s take this at face value and see where Trenton could land. I guess it’s possible that Somerset and Trenton could both play in the Eastern League, but it’s hard to see that working out. As ESPN pointed out, the Rumble Ponies are being replaced by Brooklyn. The Erie SeaWolves don’t seem to be going anywhere anymore, despite having been on the list of 42 in the past. Heck, they’re busy with construction as we speak. As much as I feel icky doing this, we have to go deeper to find unexpectedly vulnerable teams in the Eastern League. And I thought the EL was safe. 

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The Richmond Flying Squirrels are certainly a wildcard. For one, they stretch the map significantly southward. For another, they have a weird relationship with the Giants, who may have new Texas League options in the new PBA. Most notably, the Squirrels play at “the Diamond,” an oversized 1980s-vintage stadium that the Braves abandoned long ago. It’s not too hard to imagine Richmond getting booted out of Double-A for now–whether demoted to the Carolina/Mally League or even leaving the minors completely. But Richmond has a rich baseball future, and by the time their new ballpark finally comes along, it’s easy to see them being bumped up to Triple-A when MLB expands. 

There may be some unexpected vulnerability on the northern side of the map as well. The New Hampshire Fisher Cats are a solid, even-keeled team whose ballpark isn’t too old and whose MLB affiliation is stable, if not ironclad. They may be the most forgettable team in the league, which is a strength in normal times but a potential vulnerability in 2020. But if we lost New Hampshire, the EL would have a more striking geographic outlier in New England: the Portland Sea Dogs. 

Boy, if there were ever a vulnerable team that escaped my notice in this discussion, it has to be Portland. Ever since Hadlock Field opened in 1994, the Sea Dogs have been the kind of team that the minor leagues can hold up proudly. Their affiliation with the locally-loved Red Sox (going on twenty years now) has led them to be one of the strongest and best-drawing clubs in the circuit. On the other hand, their facility is getting old and coastal Maine extends the map to far northern reaches. But the real x-factor is that affiliation with Boston. While there are no rumors of the sort, you have to wonder if Boston would prefer Hartford and their sparking new facility. I remember once seeing a map of sports fandom and noting that Connecticut is split about 50/50 between Boston and New York fans. Maybe the BoSox would like to stake their claim and foster fans in a large city right in the center of the Nutmeg State. Or maybe, because of that very reason, the Yard Goats would prefer a neutral parent club. They certainly have one in the Rockies, but I find it hard to believe that Colorado sticks with the EL in the long-term–especially with new options potentially opening up in the Texas League. 

Beyond those two, there are teams like Akron, Bowie, and Harrisburg. All have some sort of strike against them–location, mediocre marketing, old facilities–but their MLB parents seem happy with them, and that’s what matters most these days. 

So, are we really staring down the barrel of Trenton losing affiliated baseball? Au contraire, mon frère. Check out this map that shows the five teams–Wilmington, Lakewood, Delmarva, Aberdeen, Fredericksburg–that I expect will constitute the core of the new “mid-atlantic league,” which is expected to operate at one of the two Single-A levels. 

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For the sixth team, I’ve tossed around possibilities like Hudson Valley, who were specifically withheld from the old list of 42. But once Cooper broke the Somerset story, I’ve been slotting the Somerset Patriots into the Mally League. But look at this map, in which I added a red star for Somerset and and a light blue star for Trenton. 

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Both cities fit cleanly into the map and make for a dense circuit. But of the two, Trenton is a slightly better fit. The Mally League, assuming it comes to pass, is likely to be a six-team league. That sixth team has got to come from somewhere. Since June, I’ve assumed it was going to be Somerset. Now I’m wondering if it could be Trenton. 

Maybe the Eastern League isn’t immune to the big shake-up that’s coming for all the minor leagues.