Response to PBA Updates

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Back in October, minor league fans everywhere were bowled over by the news that Major League Baseball’s initial proposal for the 2020 Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) included many drastic measures, including a reduction in Player Development Contracts (PDCs) from the current 160 to 120. It also came out that MLB would like to add two new teams (in existing stadiums) and contract two additional low-level minor league PDCs/teams. The headline grabber was (and is) the somewhat inaccurate message that MLB would like to eliminate 42 minor league baseball teams.

I responded to this initial news in a previous article, and we have learned enough since then to justify another response to, well, the responses. Additionally, the list of the 42 teams slated for contraction was made public. That’s the hot topic, so we’ll start there. Without any specific citation or explanation of the source, the minor league online world lit up again when the list was released. As best as I can tell, the first leak was an article in the New York Times that was written by “The New York Times” and contained no explanation of the source. It was simply a list of the 42 teams. A bunch of media outlets picked up the story, but we didn’t learn what happened until Commissioner Rob Manfred spoke about the list publicly.

“We provided to (MiLB president) Pat O’Connor, at his request, and with an assurance from him that he would keep it confidential, which he subsequently broke, a list of the facilities that we felt needed to be upgraded and if they couldn’t be upgraded that we were not prepared to operate in. Yes, we did do that.”

OK, wow! So MLB sent this list of teams to Pat O’Connor, and then O’Connor decided to leak it to the New York Times? Holy cow. We’ll dig into this (along with a bunch of other controversy and drama) later in this article, but for now, let’s examine this list of 42 teams. Here is a simple list of the 42, starting at Double-A and working down to the Rookie level.

1. Binghamton Rumble Ponies
2. Erie SeaWolves
3. Chattanooga Lookouts
4. Jackson Generals
5. Daytona Tortugas
6. Florida Fire Frogs
7. Lancaster JetHawks
8. Frederick Keys
9. Beloit Snappers
10. Burlington Bees
11. Clinton LumberKings
12. Hagerstown Suns
13. Lexington Legends
14. West Virginia Power
15. Auburn Doubledays
16. Batavia Muckdogs
17. Connecticut Tigers
18. Lowell Spinners
19. Mahoning Valley Scrappers
20. Williamsport Crosscutters
21. State College Spikes
22. Staten Island Yankees
23. Vermont Lake Monsters
24. Tri-City Dust Devils
25. Salem-Keizer Volcanoes
26. Bluefield Blue Jays
27. Bristol Pirates
28. Burlington Royals
29. Danville Braves
30. Elizabethton Twins
31. Greeneville Reds
32. Johnson City Cardinals
33. Kingsport Mets
34. Princeton Rays
35. Billings Mustangs
36. Grand Junction Rockies
37. Great Falls Voyagers
38. Idaho Falls Chukars
39. Missoula PaddleHeads
40. Ogden Raptors
41. Orem Owlz
42. Rocky Mountain Vibes

Ballpark Digest added some helpful clarifying notes when they re-published the list in a heavily biased response article.

  • Fresno Grizzlies would shift to Cal League from Pacific Coast League, with St. Paul entering PCL.
  • Pulaski Yankees would move to Class A; Johnson City had previously been mentioned as a candidate to move to Class A as well, but it’s not clear whether this plan is active.
  • Brooklyn Cyclones would move to Eastern League; Hudson Valley Renegades, Tri-City ValleyCats, West Virginia Black Bears and Aberdeen IronBirds would move to Class A.
  • Bowling Green Hot Rods would shift leagues. Beloit’s survival depends on finalizing funding for a new downtown ballpark. If this happens, the Quad Cities River Bandits would be a target.

There is a lot to unpack here. Most of the list was already inferred, but there are some big surprises here. Even though everyone is freaking out about this list, I think it is important to consider that this list was compiled by MLB teams who filled out surveys and sent them to the league office. Generally speaking, everyone has a different interpretation of any given survey, so you can expect that some MLB teams went in with a machete while others went in with a shrug. It’s also the opening shot in a negotiation, so is probably much more harsh that what will happen in the end. But let’s look at this list closely and compare against my speculation in October.

TRIPLE-A

It sounds like the plan is to add the St. Paul Saints to the Pacific Coast League rather than the International League. If that is true, then I wonder how it would work with the previously reported shift from 14 to 20 teams in the Int’l League. Memphis and Nashville are obvious candidates for switching, but what would the other four teams be if St. Paul stays in the PCL? I suppose they could be Wichita, OKC, Round Rock, and San Antonio, but it would be weird to leave Iowa, Omaha, and St. Paul in the Pacific Coast League. I mean, Omaha would be in the same league with Tacoma and Sacramento but not Wichita, while Wichita would be in the same league as Syracuse and Norfolk but not Omaha? So much for travel reduction, I guess.

Though it wasn’t mentioned in the immediate aftermath of the November list leak, a follow-up article strongly hints that the new Sugar Land franchise could be a Triple-A team. The path isn’t paved as well as that of St. Paul, but it could be a possibility. Since Tacoma has not been mentioned to this discussion, I’ll assume they are safe with Seattle. The only other team I can think of is the San Antonio Missions, who are new to Triple-A. When the planned move from Colorado Springs to Texas was announced a few years ago, it was expected that San Antonio would be building a new ballpark. That has been put on the backburner with no recent news of note. The Brewers seem OK with the Missions (certainly better than with the Sky Sox) and the franchise had a slightly better year attendance-wise than they did at Double-A. But maybe the club would be moved to Sugar Land? The Houston Astros have been distancing themselves from Nolan Ryan’s family, who operate the Astros’ current Round Rock Express at Triple-A, as well as their Double-A affiliate in Corpus Christi. Meanwhile, the owner of the Atlantic League’s Sugar Land Skeeters is a partial owner of the Astros. It’s a possibility that the Skeeters end up at Triple-A, but for now, I’ll assume that the Texas League is the most likely landing spot for Sugar Land, if they do indeed join the affiliated ranks.

But the big news here is that Fresno would be the team demoted in favor of St. Paul. I’ll give myself a little pat on the back for what I wrote last month: “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.” “Fresno may be better-suited for the California League long-term.” These little victories make the mistakes  and mis-guesses that I made more palatable.

DOUBLE-A

Speaking of misjudgments, here’s another thing I wrote last month. “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.” 

Cringe. Two Southern League Teams were targeted in the list of 42. The Jackson Generals were not surprising. I’ve had them on the Endangered Teams list since the New Orleans Baby Cakes to Wichita announcement in early 2018. Simpler times–it was published then that a Southern League team would be moving straight to NOLA once the Triple-A franchise left town. Jackson was the most obvious candidate, and now it’s even more obvious why the move to NOLA didn’t happen in 2019. My jaw about dropped when I saw the Chattanooga Lookouts on the list. I don’t follow ballpark developments too closely, but I thought that Chattanooga was building a new park. Turns out that was just discussion, and their current park must not meet the standards of the Reds or Twins or whoever outed them in the surveys. But still, the Lookouts are an institution and they are not going anywhere. Worst case, the brand pops up in an independent league, but I personally doubt that they are leaving the Southern League. The Lookouts front office has been adamant that they aren’t going anywhere.

In the Eastern League, Binghamton and Erie are on the list. No surprise there–both are on the Endangered List and have been targeted for years. Erie has been outspoken about the millions they’ve poured out in renovations, including a new playing surface installed to meet the Detroit Tigers’ request. Yikes. That likely won’t be enough to save them from losing the PDC with the Tigers.

We also need to talk about the new teams that would need to be added to make the number of Double-A teams reach the 30 that we are currently considering. Presumably, one of these could be the addition of the Sugar Land Skeeters to the Texas League. Another would be the Brooklyn Cyclones, who are reportedly heading to the Eastern League. I also think that Chattanooga is likely to not go anywhere. That could preclude Sugar Land from entering the fray, but it is easy to see another lower-level team added in their place. Either way, Double-A would need one to two more additional teams. Potential candidates for the Eastern League could be the Wilmington Blue Rocks or maybe even a team like Fredericksburg, with their shiny new stadium. The Hudson Valley Renegades, Tri-City ValleyCats, and West Virginia Black Bears would seriously stretch the geography of any leagues other than the Eastern League, but supposedly they are going to Single-A rather than Double-A. We shall see.

The Texas League and Southern League present an interesting dynamic. Ballpark Digest mentions that Bowling Green is expected to shift out of the Midwest League. This makes obvious sense, but it wouldn’t make much sense to add them back to the Sally League, especially if Lexington is on the list. But the Southern League could be an option for the Hot Rods. They would be the northernmost team in the league, but still relatively close to the Tennessee Smokies and Rocket City Trash Pandas. They are also fairly close to Chattanooga and Jackson, for what it’s worth. Let’s say that the Texas League and Southern League both add one team. That would put them both at nine teams, and it’s essentially unheard of for a league to operate with an odd number of teams. (Although, just about anything is on the table at this point, right?) One solution to this would be to add the Mississippi Braves to the Texas League. It certainly wouldn’t improve the geographic distance issue, but the Jackson (MS) area had a team in the TL as recently as 1999. Plus if Sugar Land (near Houston) is added, that’s another club that would stretch the league’s footprint in the southeast, not too far from Mississippi. Another option would be to assign the Arkansas Travelers to the Southern League. Or just bring back the Dixie Association and let the teams bunch up in compact divisions.

 

CLASS A-ADVANCED

Will Class-A Advanced even be a level in the future? One anecdote says that a move to flatten Class A has its “adherents,” and this would provide the opportunity for teams to have multiple affiliates at the same level or even the same league, which has happened as recently as 2002. Another report has the Daytona Tortugas co-owner saying that eventually major league teams want to cut down the number of PDCs to 90, presumably with only thirty at the Class A level. Of course, by then, MLB may have 32 teams so there would possibly be 96 PDCs. But let’s focus on what we know today.

Speaking of the Tortugas, Daytona was on the list alongside their Florida State brethren–the currently homeless Florida Fire Frogs. I did a pretty good job predicting this one last month: “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.” So we are looking at a ten-team FSL.

A bigger surprise came from the Carolina League. I knew there would be upheaval, but the Frederick Keys were nowhere near my radar screen. The Orioles must be very unhappy with Frederick’s amenities, because they are waving goodbye to a vital, high-drawing team in their backyard. With the Nationals competing for more fans in the region, you would think the O’s would try to hold onto their desirable set of Maryland affiliates. The Keys are only team on the list from the Carolina League, and that is telling. The league won’t likely operate with nine teams, and our High-A deficit is now at three teams.

In the California League, Fresno drops down from Triple-A to replace the Lancaster JetHawks. This is neither surprising nor heart-wrenching. The JetHawks play in a very offense-heavy location and they are the hot potato that nobody wants during each PDC cycle. The Rockies and Brewers engaged in a bidding war for ownership of the Carolina Mudcats in 2016, and the main impetus for this was that neither team wanted to send their players to Lancaster. The Cali League would remain at eight teams.

But what about that deficit of three teams? Neither the FSL or the Cali League would be adding teams, so I think one of three things would need to happen: 1) The Carolina League simply gets three new teams. Candidates could be Greensboro, Pulaski, West Virginia Black Bears, or even Richmond. 2) The new Mid-Atlantic League is a High-A league, with some teams (Wilmington, Fredericksburg, Salem, Lynchburg) crossing over, while others (Lakewood, Delmarva, Aberdeen, etc.) are added. The numbers don’t quite work out here, though it’s too early in this process to split those kind of hairs. 3) Class A is flattened out. Simply put, the teams that make sense in the Carolina League play there. Those in the Mid-Atlantic area play there. Those in the South Atlantic area play in the Sally. It would be radical, but why not go for it?

 

SINGLE-A

That’s a good segue to talk about the Sally League. Earlier reports had the Sally being slashed from 14 to 6 teams, though only three (Hagerstown, Lexington, West Virginia) are on the list. Delmarva and Lakewood are likely earmarked for the Mid-Atlantic League. Some (like Greensboro) may jump up to the Carolina League. But still, we are not that close to six teams, and I’d expect that the Sally would be more likely to land at 8 or 10 teams in the end.

In the Midwest League, it’s not at all surprising that Beloit, Burlington, and Clinton are all on the list. The Snappers are in the process of getting approval to build a new park, and the Ballpark Digest notes mention that if they do build such a facility, the Quad Cities River Bandits would be a target. All these teams have some history and it would be sad to see them go, but the cities may be better served by having teams that play in the summer collegiate Northwoods League, where they wouldn’t have powerful entities breathing down their neck demanding higher attendance and facility upgrades. As mentioned earlier, Bowling Green would be made to “shift leagues.” It’s very unclear which league they would go to, but I could see it being the Southern League if not a return to the Sally. One thing to watch is the West Virginia Black Bears. I doubt that they become the most southeasterly MWL team, but they are about as close to Lake County and Dayton as they are to the presumptive Mid-Atlantic League teams.

LOWER LEVELS

In the Northwest League, it’s about what was expected. Two teams are axed (Tri-City and Salem-Keizer) and the new six-team league joins Class A. Both of those markets would be a good fit for the summer collegiate West Coast League. It would be a shame for the Volcanoes to lose connection to the Giants, but fans will still have baseball. In Pasco, I don’t think many fans would notice the difference when their team is no longer a Padres affiliate. It will be OK.

The New York-Penn League is more of a bloodbath. Nine teams would lose PDCs and the other five would supposedly find homes in other leagues. I am baffled by the list of teams that are not on the list (especially Tri-City and West Virginia) and just as baffled by the Staten Island Yankees being on the list. According to a New York Post article, the Staten Island ballpark is difficult for visiting teams to access and there is a lack of housing options for players. OK, didn’t know that. Also, attendance hasn’t been terrific and the team has been mentioned in relocation rumors for years. With that being said, New York Yankees president Randy Levine said “We have been assured today that there have been no decisions made regarding the elimination of the Staten Island Yankees. We support the Staten Island Yankees and their facility, and people should give the negotiations a chance to conclude before speculating on any outcome.”

As for the NY-Penn teams facing the ax, the markets could join collegiate leagues like the Perfect Game League, but I could see a New York-Penn “Dream” League continuing, possibly with new additions such as Erie or Binghamton.

The Pioneer League is completely stripped of PDCs. If this comes to pass, I expect that the non-affiliated Pioneer League will continue to operate essentially as they do now, but as a Dream League or collegiate league, or indy league.

The Appalachian League, as expected, is also toast, minus the Pulaski Yankees who will go to Class A–either the Sally League, Carolina League, or the Mally League, I guess. I am fascinated to see what will happen with the Appy League. Six of the ten teams are owned by MLB clubs. Will they continue to operate their clubs as a Dream League? Will they sell them off? Will they all get unique nicknames? The great Miles Wolff, who owns the Burlington Royals, will be attending the Winter Meetings in December. He told a North Carolina paper that “it will be an interesting time over the next few months.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

MID-ATLANTIC LEAGUE

I’ve already mentioned the Mally League throughout this (already too long) article, but the list of 42 hasn’t done much to clarify which teams will be in the Mally and whether it will be a Class A or Class A-Advanced league. If I had to guess, I would say Lakewood, Delmarva, and Aberdeen are in for sure, with other potentials being Wilmington, Fredericksburg, Lynchburg, Salem, Pulaski, West Virginia, Hudson Valley, and even Tri-City–way up there in Albany, New York. Way too many x-factors to get a good read on the situation, and a lot could change in the next year.

The teams I was most surprised to see on the list:

  • Chattanooga Lookouts. I mentioned this in the Double-A section above, but wow, I would be shocked if Chattanooga were booted from the Southern League.
  • Frederick Keys. Who knew? Frederick is possibly the most profitable team in the Carolina League, with high attendance draws and an in-market parent club. Maybe their weight room sucks?
  • Lexington Legends. Lexington always seemed to me like a team that has its act together, but I suppose it makes sense to get rid of them at the same time as the West Virginia Power. Geographic islands are very vulnerable right now.
  • Staten Island Yankees. Mentioned this above. We’ll see.
  • Williamsport Crosscutters. In the big picture of the NY-Penn’s evisceration, I guess it’s not too surprising that all these interior-state short-season clubs (State College, Auburn, etc.) are in the cross-hairs, but it’s still surprising to think that the in-state Phillies wrote a negative review in their survey. Harsh.

The teams I was most surprised see spared from the list:

  • Lynchburg Hillcats. I can’t purport to know much about the Hillcats’ facilities, but they have been mentioned in relocation rumors for years. They also don’t have a built-in parent club, as Cleveland is their third MLB club this decade.
  • Tri-City ValleyCats. This is no knock against the ValleyCats, who are a perfectly vital NY-Penn franchise. But for one thing, they are an Astros affiliate (see below) and for another, there is no easy place to put them in the higher levels. They would be a good northern outpost for Eastern League teams like New Hampshire and Portland to vie against, especially as they are losing Binghamton. But they don’t fit cleaning in the Mid-Atlantic League or really any other Class A league, the level they are supposedly going to.
  • West Virginia Black Bears. On one hand, the Black Bears play in a nice, new facility on the WVU campus. On the other hand, they share this facility with the Mountaineers’ college baseball program, and will competing for turf time in April and May. Compounding the issue is that they have no other teams very close to them. In fact, most of their closest current minor league markets (Charleston, WV; Hagerstown, MD; Frederick, MD; State College, PA; Mahoning Valley, OH) are on the list of 42. They would either be (by a good margin) the westernmost team in the Mally League or the southeasternmost team in the Midwest League.
  • Asheville Tourists. When the first rumors said that the Sally League was dropping from 14 to 6, I thought for sure Asheville and their ancient McCormick Field were toast. I guess not. Maybe there’s a nice kitchen there.
  • Pulaski Yankees. While rumors were thick that Pulaski (the most vital team in the Appy League) would be the league’s lone survivor, I’m still shocked that they would maintain a PDC while many others on the list would not. Would it stay the Yankees? And would the Yanks choose them in favor of the RiverDogs if it comes to it?

NOTES ABOUT MLB TEAMS

Some of the reports that came out identified four MLB teams as being those most aggressively pushing for this change: the Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers, Colorado Rockies, and Baltimore Orioles. The Astros are not a surprise at all, especially as they were highlighted in the ridiculous “Do We Even Need Minor League Baseball?” article published by FiveThirtyEight earlier this fall, with their front office seemingly aiming for a minor league revamp much more extreme than this PBA proposal. Furthermore, I remember hearing (at least anecdotally) several years ago that ‘Stros owner Jim Crane is a fan of the “put all the teams in the spring training complex” idea.

The Brewers and Rockies aren’t too surprising either. The Brewers’ brass have ties to Houston’s philosophies, but more than that–Milwaukee and Colorado are often two teams that get spun around on the PDC carousel every two years and end up with affiliates they don’t want or need. In particular, Lancaster and Colorado Springs are two of the highest-offense parks in the minors. In 2016, the Rockies and Brewers had a bidding war to buy the Mudcats to avoid Lancaster, and that same year, the Rockies were able to break free from Colorado Springs and the thin-air locale was unwillingly dropped in the Brewers’ lap.

The Orioles, however, are a huge surprise. They have Norfolk, Bowie, Frederick, Delmarva, and Aberdeen all roughly within their market, and it’s a market that is going to see more fan competition from the Nationals these days. They will likely keep the IronBirds and possibly lose Delmarva (maybe to D.C.) if the two teams get jumbled together in the new Mally League. As for Frederick, they put that team on the list themselves. That must sting for O’s fans in Frederick, Maryland

Speaking of which, let’s consider the MLB teams that put the most negative marks on their surveys. Of the 42, the Cincinnati Reds have the most with 4. A lack of connection with Daytona is understandable, but I wonder if they just got checkbox-happy with Chattanooga. Billings and Greeneville are more victims of the bigger picture and you can’t blame the Reds for that. After Cincy, you’ve got the Royals with 3, though Lexington is the only one worthy of raised eyebrows. After that, you’ve got fairly even distribution, with 10 MLB teams putting 2 teams on the list–though a lot of that is incidental Rookie-level stuff. If you take out the Appy and Pioneer League, the MLB teams that have identified two higher-level minor league teams for elimination are the Detroit Tigers (Erie and Connecticut), Miami Marlins (Clinton and Batavia), Oakland A’s (Beloit and Vermont), and Washington Nationals (Hagerstown and Auburn). The Nats are also affiliated with Fresno, who are slated for demotion. Now, I don’t assign any blame to these MLB teams, and (with the exceptions of the Reds and Orioles) the minor league teams they identified would be on anyone’s list. They just happen to be the “have-nots” in the big picture. It’s easy for the Yankees or Red Sox or Cardinals or Braves to say “hey, we don’t want our teams to disappear,” when their teams play in nice facilities that are often owned or operated by the rich MLB owners. It is what it is.

BEYOND THE LIST

As for the public reaction to the news, it’s gotten…very weird. I will always take the side of the minor leagues in any head-to-head with an economic behemoth like MLB, but the general response of the public has been frustrating to me. One of the most oft-cited articles of late is from the Daily News, with the headline: “Rob Manfred’s plan to destroy minor league baseball.” I mean, what? What if it were more accurate: “A handful of people involved in MLB have a plan to drop the number of Player Development Contracts from 160 to 120.” Not quite as click-worthy? It’s also been disheartening to see typically-objective outlets like Ballpark Digest succumb to bias and bitterness.

The main message that’s being passed around is that MLB wants to eliminate 42 teams, rather than 40 PDCs. I’ll yell this at a brick wall if I need to: Major League Baseball cannot eliminate minor league teams! That’s as nonsensical as saying MLB can eliminate NBA teams. It is true that elimination of PDCs and the funding mechanisms enabled by the PDC will put several teams (especially those in the Appalachian League) in jeopardy, but there’s no reason to assume that they will be eliminated. As recently as the 90s, there were non-affiliated teams playing in the affiliated leagues. While MLB wouldn’t likely accede to that arrangement (especially with geographically-remote teams) it hasn’t been ruled out. Furthermore, I think it is perfectly appropriate for marginal markets to have their teams leave the affiliated minors and join the summer collegiate or independent ranks. The summer collegiate model in particular is much more viable for small cities, and most fans aren’t going to know the difference–especially if the brand identity is maintained. Just have fireworks and bobbleheads and 99% of fans are happy.

Also, everyone seems to dismiss the Dream League idea. I mean, that idiotic moniker aside, there is room for something in this vein. It would be a tragedy for historic leagues like the Pioneer League and Appalachian League and New York-Penn League to simply stop existing. What if they continued as is, but with no PDCs? At the bargaining table, maybe the minor league side could demand large sums paid out to each team that has their PDC severed, and the money could be used for things like new branding materials, stadium amenities for fans, promotions, etc.–just a shot in the arm for these marginal clubs to become more profitable and ease the transition to summer collegiate or independent. It’s not nearly as black-and-white as most are saying it is.

Instead, we have this disappointing narrative of “MLB is destroying baseball” when really, the whole thing is rooted in mundane things like the Reds submitting a survey saying that Chattanooga and Daytona are no good. Let’s all chill out, eh? Oops, too late. Many members of congress have come together in a bipartisan effort to be upset at Rob Manfred.

 

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Then MLB responds:

 

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Yep, this won’t be resolved anytime soon, but it will be interesting to watch it unfold. There’s still a long way to go.

 

 

 

 

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