Picking Apart “One Baseball”

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As part of the ongoing Minor League Geek PBA coverage, I had been meaning to write a piece about the Short Season/Rookie levels in a similar manner to the one I recently put together about Single-A. As I was planning this, a July article by J.J. Cooper highlighted some larger-scale considerations about the minor leagues that relate to those lowest levels of the minors. As such, this piece is sort of an amalgam of those two ideas.

First, let’s talk about “One Baseball.” I completely missed this when it happened, but apparently in 2015, Rob Manfred spoke about his vision for the future of baseball: “Our tagline for this effort is ‘One Baseball.’ We want one umbrella effort, with Major League Baseball at the top of it, but involving college, high school and various youth programs. Going forward, we have to attack the youth and amateur market in a single unified and coherent way.

Yeeks. Any proclamation that includes the (admittedly cherry-picked) phrase “…we have to attack the youth…” is a bit concerning, but I’m not here to write an opinion piece about Rob Manfred’s motives. What Cooper poignantly illustrates in his article is that this philosophy is likely a major driving force behind the proposed changes in the new PBA. For nearly a year, I’ve assumed that Manfred was merely speaking on behalf of MLB team owners and working to carry out their wishes. Now that I see this over-arching goal, some new connections emerge.

For example, Cooper points out that “MLB’s push to eliminate the rookie and short-season leagues in Minor League Baseball, along with a reduction in the number of rounds of the draft, can also be viewed as benefiting college baseball. Those are items that college coaches in some cases have long requested.” This is important! The prevailing narrative in this PBA saga is that 42 teams are targeted for “contraction” (i.e. PDC severance) as part of one draconian cost-saving motive. In reality, it’s the convergence of a few disparate motives and external factors that are conveniently tied into an expiring contract. One of these motives is now fully clear.

Cooper continues: “MLB’s recent moves, such pushing the MLB draft later and cutting its number of rounds and trying to eliminate short-season and rookie ball, are all ones that have been met by near universal acclaim from college baseball coaches, as these moves all put further emphasis on college baseball being the primary development vehicle for North American players aged 18 to 21.” I can’t claim to understand why these things are important for college coaches (maybe they want their jobs to continue all summer long?) but what’s important is that these factors are important, and serve the vision of “One Baseball.” I’d venture a guess that most MLB teams are more comfortable with a given year’s pool of prized young college prospects safely training on campus through most of the summer (certainly through the proposed late-ish July draft) and then possibly transitioning to the Complex leagues and/or fall ball.

Let’s safely assume that short-season minor league baseball is toast. I’m crossing my fingers that the recently-revealed brilliant idea to save the New York-Penn League survives the vetting process. If you are unfamiliar, the gist is that the NY-Penn would be sort of a sister league to the Florida State League, wherein the FSL shuts down at some point in the summer (likely June) and then some of the players and presumably the coaches move up to the NY-Penn. For instance, the Yankees have their affiliation with the Tampa Tarpons, but then the team sort of becomes the Staten Island Yankees for half the year. So I am going to assume/hope that is the case, and we’ll ignore the NY-Penn for now. The Northwest League, even though there are many unanswered questions, is (mostly) surviving and moving to Single-A, possibly in tandem with a new Arizona-based league similar to the FSL/NY-Penn arrangement.

But what will happen to the Appalachian League and the Pioneer League? And for that matter, what about the dozen or so other teams at higher levels that are likely to lose their PDC? There are some potential answers lurking in the One Baseball philosophy.

 

 

The Appalachian League of Summer Collegiate Wood-Bat Baseball

Regarding the old Appy League, consider this tidbit from Cooper: “MLB has looked at setting up a summer wood-bat league or leagues for rising sophomores, likely to be played in the cities that have previously hosted Appalachian League teams. It already has ties to the summer wood bat Cape Cod League, which it sends financial support. It could develop further ties with other existing wood-bat leagues.

There are already many summer wood-bat leagues across North America, and a handful of them (at least before Covid) were thriving and expanding. As such, my knee-jerk reaction is to question the necessity of another wood-bat league. But there are certainly advantages to simply flipping the switch and making the Appalachian League a summer collegiate circuit–not least of which is that it would provide a worthy concession to the Appy League cities that are bracing for losing their baseball team.

Major League Baseball, meanwhile, would have a league that is already mostly owned by MLB clubs that plays in a geographically dense footprint–especially the five teams around the eastern point of Tennessee. Maybe there are other opportunities to develop local facilities and essentially make for a new third training complex region, not unlike setups in Florida or Arizona. I don’t expect a third Spring Training site, per se, but there could be room to develop the Appy League into something that effectively bridges gaps between still-in-college prospects and major league-caliber training. There has been talk of a potential “Florida Fall League” to complement the current Arizona Fall League, but the Appy could provide a new more hurricane-safe option long term. Can you imagine the Tennessee Fall League?

It’s still not clear to me how this new collegiate Appy League would operate. It would be odd, and potentially a conflict of interest, to have the teams remain properties of various MLB clubs. Currently at least six of the Appy’s ten teams (the Danville Braves, Princeton Rays, Bristol Pirates, Greeneville Reds, Johnson City Cardinals, and Kingsport Mets) are completely or partially owned by their MLB parent clubs. If that ownership prevails through the new PBA, would the MLB teams have exclusive rights to choose which college players go to their squad? Isn’t that, like, tampering or something?

In my mind, the ideal setup would be to have the franchises either sold to neutral parties or maybe have some sort of process of chopping up ownership among MLB teams. For example, if there were ten teams in the league, each team’s valuation would be divided in three and shared by three MLB teams. In either case, the league would benefit from establishing independent brand identities and engaging better in the local communities. If the cards are played right, everyone can be happy.

Would every team make the cut? The Pulaski franchise is rumored to be getting a promotion in the new PBA. The Carolina League is the best geographic fit, and how cool would it be to see the old Pulaski Counts identity resurrected? Losing Pulaski tilts the geography even more to the west than it already was, and maybe this would necessitate Danville and Burlington being left out of the mix–possibly getting a severance check and finding a home in the Atlantic League or the summer collegiate Coastal Plain League. More on that phenomenon in a bit.

 

 

The Pioneer “Dream” League

Before we chat about the Pioneer League, here’s a primer on a few other possible leagues from Cooper in the BA piece: “MLB is also expected to create a showcase league for older college players as well, allowing rising seniors who are seen as draftable prospects to play in a league after their college season ends, showcasing their talents in advance of the MLB draft (which will take place later than now) while retaining eligibility to return to school for their senior year if they do not sign to go pro.” 

If you’re like me and don’t really follow college baseball, the College World Series (I looked it up) typically wraps up in late June, around the time of the MLB draft. The draft is expected to be pushed back about a month, and without the pressure of the draft, it seems likely the One Baseball model will allow the college season to extend into July. So this “showcase league” may only be a few weeks long. If so, there’s not really a need to create a new league, strictly speaking, and it would be weird to tell cities on the PBA chopping block that “hey, you’re not losing baseball! You get to have a two-week showcase in the summer.” MLB could just do the showcase league in Florida (especially if the FSL teams vacate) and/or Arizona and have scrimmages at the training complexes or whatever. Or, to borrow an idea from Cooper in a recent podcast episode, maybe you could have a cluster of indy teams around Chicago (the Dogs, Schaumburg Boomers, Joilet Slammers, Milwaukee Milkmen, etc.) do some sort of showcase. But either way, I’d hardly call this idea minor league baseball. Moving on.

From Cooper: “The status of the proposed MLB “dream league,” which was described by MLB officials as a league for undrafted players, is less clear at this point. But whether through coordination with existing independent leagues or setting up leagues of its own, MLB has discussed ways to have non-drafted players surface through various leagues.”

Remember the Dream League? When Cooper first broke this story back in October 2019 (which feels like a decade ago) the Dream League was mentioned as sort of a down-the-list bullet point. We were all reeling from the shock of the switch to 120 PDCs, and for an MLG like me, things like the Northwest League going to Single-A and indy teams (Sugar Land, St. Paul) moving into Triple-A were screaming for attention. As everyone fumed at Rob Manfred, the notion of a “Dream League,” due in no small part to its embarrassing moniker, was met with eye-rolls and comments like “yeah, it would be a dream for the teams to stay in business.”

But there’s more to the conversation. Especially with a dramatically shortened draft, there is a pressing need to have places for these guys to go in order to keep their baseball (sigh) dream alive. But this is also a convenient opportunity to keep the dream of the old Pioneer League alive. The Pioneer, with its aged facilities, spread-out geography, and variable altitudes, is never going to be a good developmental league in the age of analytics. But it seems like a great option to offer to these jaded twenty-somethings who weren’t drafted. Let them play in Idaho Falls, Billings, Ogden, and even the thin air of Colorado Springs. Long bus rides? Tough beans, tough guys.

I haven’t yet heard rumors about this sort of setup, but I had my suspicions rise this spring when Keith Law dropped the nugget that the Northwest League’s Boise Hawks are now as vulnerable as teams like the Tri-City Dust Devils. It’s all about the geography, baby. Boise is closer to some of the Pioneer League teams than they are to some Northwest League teams, and offering Idaho’s capital this concession would also allow the NWL to slim down to a smaller footprint. Another anecdote (dropped by Cooper and mentioned here) was that not all Pacific and Mountain Time Zone-based MLB teams are interested in the Northwest League. The newly-proposed Arizona-to-Northwest setup may ease that issue enough to allow the league to operate at six teams, but if not, maybe we’d see the league cut down to a mere four teams. If so, a team like Spokane (relatively close to Missoula and Great Falls, MT) may be shifted to the Pioneer League. But that’s all just guessing.

As for the current Pioneer League teams, there are still a few question marks. Two years ago, the Orem Owlz were a feather’z breadth away from being moved to Pueblo, Colorado. I can’t imagine the pandemic has helped the cause of the Owlz. Speaking of the Centennial State, the Colorado Rockies currently own the Grand Junction franchise, which wouldn’t fly in a non-affiliated dream league. Meanwhile, Colorado Springs needs the Pioneer League. MLB has essentially promised that all teams losing their PDCs would get a new home, but the Pioneer League is the only geographically-viable option for Colorado Springs outside of the fringy indy Pecos League. (I have to mention that this is a city that had a Triple-A team as recently as 2018, and now they’re lucky if they can get in on the dream league for undrafted players. Yeesh!) Now, if Grand Junction were to fizzle out of existence, then Colorado Springs would be on even more of a geographic island than they already are. So how about move the Owlz to Grand Junction and call it good? That’s only seven teams, but maybe a team could eventually return to a Wyoming city like Casper or Cheyenne. The Wyoming Wild Things? Oh, wait, that moniker is already used by an independent team in the Frontier League. What a great segue into the next section of this article.

 

 

Declarations for Indepedents

There were some other elements to Cooper’s One Baseball article that certainly caught my attention. Regarding changing relationships with the independent leagues:

At the same time it was negotiating with Minor League Baseball, MLB began talking to the major independent leagues quite publicly at the 2019 Winter Meetings in San Diego. At the time, the prevailing thought was that the independent leagues could offer a backstop of potential markets and stadiums if MLB opted to walk away from Minor League Baseball at the end of the PBA.

The conversations appear to have gone further and in a different direction. It is expected that, as part of its takeover of control of MiLB, it is also looking to enter into a much closer relationship with at least the Atlantic League, American Association and Frontier League, and possibly other independent leagues. While those leagues will not be affiliated ball, they will have significantly closer ties with MLB. It is possible that independent baseball will be renamed in the process to signify the newfound relationship with MLB.

The walls that have divided affiliated and independent baseball would blur significantly under this new plan. The current territorial rules that have long prevented many independent league markets from being in affiliated ball are expected to be torn up.

This is such a big change, and if this were to happen, what better year than 2020? I know I said I wasn’t going to soapbox, but isn’t it at least a little concerning that MLB’s seemingly-benevolent push to take the indy leagues under its wing also stamps out the only thing resembling free-market competition–however insignificant it is?

Anyway, the first domino to fall happened before the 2019 season, when the Atlantic League partnered with MLB to test out robo-umps, extra runners in extra innings, etc. Up to that point, MLB had essentially ignored the indy leagues beyond the occasion player signing and anomalies like the Minnesota Twins and St. Paul Saints having a loose marketing partnership. Speaking of the American Association’s Saints, they are expected–along with the Atlantic League’s Sugar Land Skeeters–to join affiliated Triple-A. That bit of news, leaked last fall when the PBA story booted up, was the second big domino. Now it sounds like all the major indy leagues are jumping into the minor league mix in some fashion. What a time to be alive.

Not only would the indy leagues provide the aforementioned pool of teams to draw from in order to furnish farm systems for future MLB expansion teams, there could be another arrangement set up. Cooper:

“Minor league teams among the 120 full-season clubs MLB expects to work with beginning in 2021 who fail to meet all of the standards will be offered a provisional or shorter-term license. Baseball America has been unable to learn exactly how long those provisional licenses would be, but multiple people said they expected they would be between three to five years. If at the end of its provisional period, the facilities have not been upgraded to meet MLB’s desires, the team could lose its license to operate as an affiliated team. But with MLB playing a much larger role in coordinating leagues at various levels of baseball beyond affiliated ball, such a move would likely lead to the city and team that loses its license dropping down to either independent or summer amateur ball, rather than simply losing baseball overall.

Similarly, MLB’s coordination and association with multiple levels of baseball would provide a ready group of potential cities and stadiums to move up to affiliated ball. A nearby independent team with a facility that meets MLB’s standards could slide into affiliated ball while the affiliated team moves to independent ball, much like the way teams in European soccer leagues move up or down with relegation (although in this case, the moves would be determined by MLB, not by on-field success or failure).”

That seems a little bit “wait, what about this idea,” but it does make sense (short-term and long-term) that MLB would want options for their unwanted puppies. There’s probably a vague sense of what’s “good for the game” in terms of keeping quality baseball games going in small cities, and of course there are the public relations considerations that come from leaving municipalities empty-handed. We saw the ugliest version of the PR firestorm this past winter, when presidential candidates and other prominent public figures were bemoaning MLB’s perceived greed. That was a thing before Covid took over.

The rubber meets the road now, in 2020, and and also as we look forward (hopefully) to baseball in 2021. As I mentioned earlier, there are about a dozen random minor league teams beyond the Rookie levels that are likely to lose their PDC in the new PBA, and many of these could slot into indy or other leagues that currently exist.

There’s another relevant factor that Cooper brought up in another recent piece for BA: “Teams eliminated from the current minor leagues would receive an approximately $100,000 a year subsidy if they continued to play in another league. The exact amount of that subsidy could be subject to further adjustments, but multiple MiLB teams have noted they would likely need some financial support to successfully operate in non-affiliated leagues. That’s especially true for teams which end up in professional leagues where the teams are responsible for player compensation.” In today’s world, that doesn’t seem like a bad deal to me, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a handful of teams are content to operate in some sort of non-affiliated-yet-tangentially-related-to-MLB indy league, and get a nice big check every year. For MLB, this can potentially make realignment much less painful.

I’m not a writer by trade. This is a hobby and I do this for pleasure. If you’re reading these words, I’m surprised. Send me an email. I don’t promote my site, and I can’t imagine there are many people who are willing, in this day and age, to still be following along with this dry topic, sans images, 3,000 words in. I could write whatever I want to at this point, even if that is a bad habit for me to lapse into should I ever be charged to write for money. I’ve hit this point of absurdity with many of my recent pieces here at MLG, and since I’m this far in, let me potentially embarrass myself by forecasting the fates of some teams that may (or absolutely may not) be losing their PDC this fall. Hell, let’s take a look at the erroneous list of 42, nine months after it was unveiled. How do my thoughts differ now from then?

 

 

Conjecture Corner

Let’s take this level-by-level, starting from the top. 

 

TRIPLE-A

While we’ll see some demotion (Fresno, maybe San Antonio/Wichita) of Triple-A team(s), there are not any that will are expected to lose their PDCs if a PBA is indeed signed.

 

DOUBLE-A

Binghamton Rumble Ponies. If I had to guess, maybe the Brooklyn Cyclones and Rumble Ponies essentially swap places. Brooklyn becomes the Double-A affiliate of the Mets and the Ponies become the FSL/NY-Penn counterpart to St. Lucie at the Single-A level.

Erie SeaWolves. I could see Erie going a few different ways, but most likely, they stay put in the Eastern League. The public outcry we’ve seen, especially considering their recent expensive public-funded renovations, may carry the day. Otherwise, they could easily join the NY-Penn, should it survive in altered form. A back-pocket option in a One Baseball world is the indy Frontier League, where Erie could slot into the geographic footprint.

Chattanooga Lookouts. I’m still surprised that the Lookouts were ever on the list of 42, and I do expect them to stay in the Southern League. If booted out, the South Atlantic League, especially a more compact southwesterly Sally League, could be a fit. ‘Nooga is pretty close to Rome, Georgia, and not too far from Asheville, Greenville, and Augusta. The Lookouts (I’m assuming the name is preserved) would not easily slot into any of the indy leagues, but the Atlantic League is building up their North Carolina contingent, and that could be a last resort for MLB to place Chattanooga. But I think they stay put.

Jackson Generals. The Generals are a team that I can’t see surviving in affiliated ball. The franchise could move (New Orleans?) or they could find a solid home in the Frontier League.

 

CLASS A-ADVANCED

Daytona Tortugas and Florida Fire Frogs. I’m lumping these two Florida State League franchises together, because their fates are intertwined and their options are similar. If the FSL goes the NY-Penn route, I think both of these clubs are goners. Daytona Beach does not host a current spring-training facility and they have no built-in parent club. For the Fire Frogs, they could be saved by the Braves, but then the league would be an uneven eleven teams, which could cause disruption in other Single-A leagues. Atlanta has avoided the New York-Penn League for years, and I think they’d rather just sign on with a Carolina/Sally League club than keep the Frogs hopping. But if both teams are out, where would they go? Maybe the Atlantic League would expand (significantly) south, or maybe they would get a severance check and set up in the Florida Collegiate League or even the Coastal Plain League.

Lancaster JetHawks. The poor old JetHawks are toast. Fresno needs a home, and the other seven California League teams are pretty strong. We’re not likely to have a 9-team league, and Lancaster (with its bloated offense numbers) appears much less desirable than the next most vulnerable–probably Visalia. As for the JetHawks? Well, the Pecos League (which really needs renaming) expanded west a few years back, and that’s really the only option. The Bakersfield Train Robbers and Wasco Reserves are the SoCal neighbors for Lancaster. Speaking of the Pecos League, it’s probably too, uh, Wild West for One Baseball. Some Pecos League teams play in high school parks and only draw a couple hundred fans per game. I can’t see MLB stepping in to save the league just because they promised a home for the JetHawks. Unless they double down and add Colorado Springs as well, I guess.

Frederick Keys. Assuming the Keys are indeed leaving the affiliated ranks, their best landing spot would the Atlantic League, though the Frontier would suffice as well. But wherever they go, they should be paired with a neighboring team that is expected to leave from one level below….

 

SINGLE-A

Hagerstown Suns. See Frederick Keys, above.

Lexington Legends and West Virginia Power. I’m lumping these two together because I expect both to lose their PDC, and I expect both to find a home in the Frontier League. Heck, the Legends have been playing Covid-ball against the Frontier’s Florence Y’alls. That’s a nice way to transition to a new chapter for the Legends, and I expect the Power to follow alongside–though they are eastern enough to roughly fit into the Atlantic League map as well.

Beloit Snappers. They’re building a ballpark and will not lose their PDC. This causes a bit of a crunch in the Midwest League, though, and it has ripple effects in other areas–might as well use this space to discuss these. The MWL will likely be reduced to either fourteen or twelve teams. Going to twelve makes other Single-A pieces fit together much better, but if the Snappers are staying, then four other MWL teams would have to go in order to hit twelve. We know two of those (below) and another one, the Bowling Green Hot Rods, are long-rumored to be getting a bump to the Double-A Southern League. So which other team would be booted? At one point, Quad Cities was mentioned as the Beloit alternate, but then Senator Chuck Grassley publicly announced that the River Bandits were safe. I still think they’re most likely, but there could be another surprise team (Kane County? Great Lakes?) that loses their PDC.

Burlington Bees and Clinton LumberKings. It’ll be sad to see these two go. If they go indy, either the American Association or Frontier League could take them. If they go summer collegiate, the Northwoods League would be a good fit. These options also apply to both Quad Cities and Kane County if they are booted. In the case of the Great Lakes Loons, the Northwoods League would be ideal.

 

SHORT-SEASON/ROOKIE

Appalachian League. I covered this in detail above. Pulaski is expected to get the bump up to full season A and a couple of teams may move to other leagues, but I expect the Appy League to continue as some sort of collegiate wood-bat league.

Pioneer League. Perhaps we have a candidate for the new “dream” league? And maybe with another team or two tacked on.

Northwest League. Two teams are expected to be cut out. One is likely Salem-Keizer, and the other is reportedly a toss-up between Tri-City and Boise. In terms of geography, Boise may be the best option, and they could easily join the new Pioneer League.

New York-Penn League. Assuming the split-season FSL plan comes to fruition, as many as ten or twelve NY-Penn League teams could be saved. Some of the others (Brooklyn, Aberdeen, etc.) that are expected to join full-season ball. I still think that a few teams will miss the cut, with Auburn, Batavia, Mahoning Valley, and Vermont probably the most vulnerable.

 

Alright, friends. I have spoken my peace and then some. I’ll keep up with PBA stuff as it comes down the pike. Till then, be safe and enjoy the small things.

 

 

 

 

 

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