Odd-Numbered Leagues and Competitive Integrity

When I did the series of “Last Month Minis” in September, my tentative plan was to cap the whole works with a complete plan for how I could best see the new PBA coming together. I had had a few aha moments while putting spreadsheets together, but I wasn’t about to share a dream scenario if I didn’t think it was a good one. Nothing I put together fit quite right. It would come close, but there would be some persnickety detail (like Bowling Green to the Southern League) that would throw the whole thing off-kilter. 

One of the most difficult factors to contend with has been the notion of each of the minor leagues needing to have an even number of teams. Outside of the NHL’s 31 franchises–a prominent, if temporary, example–it is difficult to find instances of odd-numbered leagues. It’s happened a few times in minor league baseball history, but is very rare indeed. There are some good reasons that we commonly see even numbered leagues, as it helps with balanced scheduling and competitive integrity within a given league. But in a new MLB-controlled PBA, things like scheduling and competitive integrity will likely be bumped down the priority list.

There is no PBA at this time, and MLB has a blank slate to build a new minor league system. If the rumors of the past nine months or so are true, then the primary method for team selection will be the preferences of the MLB clubs. It’s been reported that MLB has simply asked each big league club to list their ideal affiliates and use that as a jumping-off point. Out of necessity, there will be some parameters, and the overall structure (Triple-A, Double-A, etc.) and the substance of the leagues themselves will likely remain intact. Importantly, there’s a strong likelihood that, at least at the higher levels, we’ll continue to have a strict “30 teams for 30 teams” rule.

But if only, say, seven or nine MLB teams want affiliates in a given league, why would an extra unwanted team be forced into the mix simply to bring it up to eight or ten? Another reason is geography. Let’s say you have nine teams in a dense geographic cluster, but in order to get up to ten, you would need to extend the league’s footprint significantly. Better to roll with nine, right? 

There are a few leagues that I can see odd numbers being beneficial. 

At Triple-A, there is a maddening crunch that happens if the Fresno Grizzlies are sent to the California League and a new central-US league is created. I detail it here, but the thrust is that there would be only seven teams in Pacific and Mountain time zone regions, and to get it to six or eight, you’d have to disrupt geographic efficiency significantly or demote teams to get the puzzle to fit. A Fresno-free PCL, unless they do something creative like a placeholder team, would be best arranged as a seven-team combo of Tacoma, Sacramento, Reno, Las Vegas, Salt Lake, Albuquerque, and El Paso. (If Fresno does somehow stay in the PCL, the issue is kicked to the California League, which would then be looking at seven.)

But if the PCL goes to seven, and the Triple-A level requires 30-for-30 affiliates, then another league also has to be odd-numbered. There are some ways that the International League could be disrupted by adding teams like Jacksonville (more here) or Nashville, but if the PCL gets odd, it’s more likely that the new central-US league could roll with seven or nine teams. Assuming the IL stays undisturbed at fourteen, I could see the new league being a nine-team group of St. Paul, Iowa, Omaha, Wichita, OKC, Round Rock, Sugar Land, Memphis, and Nashville. Maybe that would create oddness in Double-A, where two of the San Antonio/Wichita/Round Rock/El Paso group could be added to the Texas League, but the crunch in the PCL could necessitate some sort of finagling. 

Speaking of oddness at Double-A, the Southern League remains a conundrum. If Bowling Green is added and Jackson is ousted, that’s one thing. If Jacksonville is somehow promoted to Triple-A, that’s another. But what if no MLB team wants Chattanooga, or they are demoted to the Sally League? What if something out of left field (like Daytona getting a bump up) becomes an option? What about New Orleans? It’s hard to get a read on the SL, but if we follow the old list of 42, it’s simply Bowling Green in, Jackson and Chattanooga out. That’s nine teams. 

While many of the other leagues have more flexibility with team exchange vis-à-vis promotion and demotion, the Midwest League is another tangled mess. At one point, it was bye-bye Burlington, Clinton, Beloit, and Bowling Green–three losing their PDC and one getting a bump to the Southern League. When Beloit was finishing their stadium deal, the rumor was that Quad Cities would be their replacement. But Quad Cities seems at least somewhat safe, and if an MLB team decides they want the River Bandits, then why should they get the boot? Could a thirteen-team league be in the works?

 

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There’s a weird elephant in the room with minor league baseball, and I suspect that most baseball fans who have been to a bush league game have sensed it–bluntly stated, most people don’t care who wins or loses. It certainly varies city-to-city, but generally speaking, you’ll find only a pocket group of folks in the box seats who cheer and boo and follow league standings. Most baseball fans are keyed into catching a glimpse of a prospect who may someday work their way all the way up the chain to the bigs, especially if your local team is an affiliate of your favorite big-league team.  Watching the next Mike Trout or Juan Soto in action is more thrilling than seeing Rancho Cucamonga or Hagerstown take an 11-8 victory. As for the majority of game-goers? Check the lines at the bouncy house or merch store or beer garden. The game may be the warm hearth to gather around, but most aren’t intently watching the flames. 

The reason I bring this up, of course, is that “competitive integrity” in terms of balanced divisions and uniform scheduling, isn’t really that important. As for divisions, minor leagues like the International or New-York Penn have had uneven divisions for years–two clusters of four and one of six. So why not have a league with, say, four in one division and five in another? It could also be useful for tightening up geography and reducing travel days. 

Although I haven’t heard even a whisper of this, I wouldn’t be surprised to see minor league playoffs severely reduced or, in some cases, totally eliminated in the new PBA. This becomes a sticky subject every September, when players at the higher levels are sometimes busy scrapping it out in playoffs when they could be needed for the big club at a moment’s notice. The Triple-A championship in particular stretches into mid-September, a time when the MLB-ready contributors have been called up, further skewing the notion of competitive integrity. 

In some ways, such as potentially eliminating minor league all-star games, MLB is hinting that they are willing to confront the elephant in the room. Over the decades, minor league baseball has drifted far from its competitive roots and is now poised to fully make the transition to a developmental system. Whether on the field or on the schedule, competitive integrity in the minors is likely to become a thing of the past. But I’ll still be going to games. You can find me over by the bounce house.