Response to Reichard Rumors

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Although J.J. Cooper has undoubtedly been the lead reporter on the story of the major changes coming to minor league baseball, others have filled in key details along the way. For over a year now, one of those detail-fillers has been Kevin Reichard at Ballpark Digest. He recently tapped his resources and published a bit of a bombshell of an article. We haven’t received juicy rumors like these since the middle of the summer. Time to unpack. 

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The first bit of news is regarding the Single-A level, which we know well to be the level with the most ambiguity moving forward. Wasting no time, Reichard dispensed with “what we’re looking at today in terms of Class A alignments.” The list is as follows: 

LOW A
California League (8 teams)
Florida State League (10 teams)
Sally League (12 teams)

HIGH A
Midwest League
Northwest League
Carolina League
New Mid-Atlantic League

What stands out the most? At first glance, the biggest surprise to me was seeing the California League at Low A. But since the 8-team Cal League needs to be at a different level than the 6-team Northwest League, it’s all about making the puzzle fit. Since the Midwest League has been bumped up to High-A, their (likely) 12-14 teams take up a lot of space and fit better with the NWL than the Cal. 

Having the Northwest League at High A invalidates the summer scuttlebutt about splitting the season with an Arizona-based spring league, but that always seemed half-baked. The New York-Penn League/Florida State League rumors had more validity, but even that has been tossed out. Still, we’ve got the FSL at Low-A, and I suspect this is at least in part due to MLB teams wanting to keep their youngsters around the Grapefruit League complexes for two years–shifting directly from the Gulf Coast League to the FSL. It looks like we’re getting a 10-team FSL after all. The Florida Fire Frogs are toast and I have to assume the Daytona Tortugas are going with them. I’ll be very interested to see what happens to those teams. 

After reviewing some simulations that I made this summer regarding the Sally and Carolina Leagues, I’m baffled that among the two, the Sally would be the one poised to have more teams. Even the scenarios that leaned toward a larger Sally (like this one) are only at ten teams, and those included Chattanooga, a team that has not been rumored to be saved at all.  I have to assume that some geographic efficiency is going to be sacrificed in order to accommodate a 12-team Sally, and maybe this is a good segue into some notes about affiliation. 

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Let’s assume that there will be no flattening of Single-A, despite there probably never being a better time to do so. If each MLB team must choose one team at each of these Single-A levels, there are a few issues. 

The most glaring, to my eyes, is what I call the Mudcat Quagmire. The Milwaukee Brewers own the Carolina Mudcats of Zebulon, NC, but they are also joined at the hip with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. While the T-Rats are a geographic outlier in the Midwest League, and while they do play in an aging–if well-kept–ballpark, it’s very difficult to imagine the Rattlers losing their PDC. The Brewers constantly use the park for rehab stints and even chose it for their alternate training site this year. At this point, the only way I can see the Timber Rattlers leaving the Midwest League is if they completely overhauled the stadium and became a Triple-A team. (This would actually solve a bunch of issues at both levels, but let’s not get side-tracked.) 

If the Brewers are forced to choose between their team-owned Mudcats and the Timber Rattlers, I think they choose the latter. Actually, about a year ago, Reichard off-handedly mentioned that the Mudcats have a “very real facilities challenge.” Can you imagine the Brewers, a few years after overpaying for the franchise, shelling out a bunch of money to upgrade the park to meet the new and costly minor league standards? Maybe the Mudcats will be removed from the Carolina League and sent to, say, the indy Atlantic League, who are busy building up a pocket of clubs in the Tarheel State. 

Or maybe the Mudcats would be one of a few teams that would transfer from the Carolina to the Sally in order to get it up to that reported twelve teams. Fayetteville could be another option, as the Astros, being one of the few Grapefruit Leaguers with no FSL team, have no conflicts at the new low-A level. That would put the Down East Wood Ducks of Kinston on an island, and the Texas Rangers own both the Wood Ducks and Sally’s Hickory Crawdads. Assuming no Crawdad contraction, we could see the Rangers’ Single-A affiliates flip flop leagues. 

And then there’s the Charleston RiverDogs, who are owned by Peter Freund, the main organizer of this whole new system. Freund also owns a stake in the New York Yankees, and the Yankees have the Tampa Tarpons in the FSL. But if there’s even an effort to be made in the interest of geographic efficiency, the RiverDogs will be in a 12-team Sally League. So maybe we’ll see Freund take one for the team and sign the RiverDogs up with a new MLB team. 

Reichard also says “the Carolina League may end up being a real Carolina League.” But if there’s going to be a twelve-team Sally League, it’s easier to imagine the opposite happening–the Sally scooping up the likes of Myrtle Beach, Zebulon, Kinston, Fayetteville, etc., while the Carolina becomes a denser circuit that includes a bunch of Virginia teams. As far as the “mid-atlantic league” goes, it doesn’t really matter if it’s at the same level as the Carolina League. Draw a dividing line wherever it makes the most sense and then go from there. 

Can you imagine a twelve-team Sally League with Rome, Augusta, Charleston, Myrtle Beach, Greenville, Asheville, Kannapolis, Greensboro, Fayetteville, Zebulon, and Kinston? Wait, that’s only eleven. Could the Chattanooga Lookouts be saved? This wouldn’t be the most efficient setup in the world, but it would at least be doable. That would give us a Carolina League of Hickory, Winston-Salem, Salem, Lynchburg, and I guess a few more teams from the northern side. Fredericksburg? Morgantown? (This doesn’t really make sense.) 

Another monkey wrench is the works is this quote: “Some teams, like the…Baltimore Orioles, want to maintain their existing affiliation structures…That’s another way of saying that the O’s want to hold onto both Aberdeen and Delmarva. And if there’s no flat Single-A, the two would have to be at different levels. One can squint and see how either–especially Delmarva–could fit in the Carolina League, but that’s irrelevant if the Carolina and rumored mid-atlantic league are at the same level. But you can’t really keep Delmarva in the South Atlantic League, sitting way off on a northern island. Can you? 

We also need to mention the Phillies, who have their FSL club, the Clearwater Threshers, as well as a strong bond with the Lakewood (excuse me) Jersey Shore BlueClaws. Heck, the brand new BlueClaws uniforms have a Philly patch on the sleeve. If this proposed Single-A framework is accurate, that all but guarantees that Jersey Shore (that feels weird to say) will be in the new mid-atlantic region league. That’s expected, of course, but it underlines the need for the Orioles to let go of Delmarva. I can’t imagine the Sally League keeping the Shorebirds unless they are willing to cover the travel fees that would be required for every trip that teams from Georgia or the Carolinas need to make up to Maryland. Heck, under the new travel requirements, the Rome Braves and Augusta GreenJackets would be required to fly to Salisbury, Maryland. 

Something’s got to give. Maybe there’s a glitch in Reichard’s rumors. It would make much more sense to have the Carolina League at the new Low-A. Can you beef up the Carolina to twelve teams? It’s possible without violating any of the mentioned MLB conflicts, including Baltimore’s. Why not a Carolina League with: 1. Fredericksburg, 2. Delmarva, 3. Lynchburg, 4. Salem, 5. Winston-Salem, 6. Greensboro, 7. Zebulon, 8. Kinston, 9. Fayetteville, 10. Myrtle Beach, 11. Columbia, and 12. Charleston. Wait, that would be a minor conflict with Charleston and Tampa. (Let’s ignore that.)

Am I crazy in thinking that makes a heck of a lot more sense?

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I hate to accuse Reichard of burying the lede, but after laying out the framework for Single-A, he sort of casually drops this cluster bomb: 

“There should be less change on the Triple-A and Double-A fronts. Three Triple-A teams—San Antonio, Fresno and Wichita—have been designated to move from Triple-A to Double-A’s Texas League or (in the case of Fresno) to what will be the Low-A Cal League. Taking their place: St. Paul, where the Minnesota Twins could affiliate with the St. Paul Saints; Sugar Land and Jacksonville, which will become the Miami Marlins’ top affiliate. Miami is one of the winners in the realignment, with a Triple-A affiliate just up the coast and the addition of Pensacola as a Double-A affiliate.”

Whew! OK. So the three teams that are going to be demoted are not major surprises. The big excitement is that Jacksonville is getting the bump up to Triple-A. We have our Triple-A Team X! Reichard also casually mentions the fishy news that the Marlins are getting the Blue Wahoos for Double-A. That’s a bit of red herring, so I’ll only venture to say, “huh.” And “who will be the new Twins’ affiliate? Wichita?” And “why not the Rays? They’re closer to Pensacola.” No, let’s focus on the important things. (Pensacola is not “just up the coast” from Miami. Wrong coast.)

As happy as I am to see the Jumbo Shrimp at the top level, I don’t quite see how the Triple-A leagues are going to shake out–especially with Fresno leaving. I’ve trodden this path before, so I’ll leave it with this question: are odd-numbered leagues inevitable? I mean, it would be a crime to put Jacksonville anywhere except the International League. Is it OK for the IL to exist with fifteen teams? Or do you sneak in Nashville and roll with sixteen? 

A similar issue crops up in the west. Assuming that the Pacific Coast League splits into two leagues as expected, does the new PCL roll with seven or cut out El Paso to get it to an even number? In my mind, rolling with seven is a much better option–at least until the PCL can expand due to MLB expansion, possibly adding back one of the league’s abandoned markets like Vancouver, Tucson, Portland, Escondido, etc. 

And if one league is odd-numbered, another has to be as well. At that point, the decision is simply whether or not to shift Nashville to the IL or to the new central-US league. There are pros and cons both ways, and it may come down to optimal divisional alignments for travel efficiency. Divisional alignments are going to be awkward either way, especially with St. Paul way up north there, with Des Moines and Omaha being the only teams remotely close. (This is the point where I mention the Timber Rattlers getting a renovated ballpark and a promotion to Triple-A.) 

But if even-numbered leagues are an absolute necessity, we may see something wacky like OKC sticking with the PCL and Jacksonville going to the central-ish league. But let’s assume that the movement towards geographic efficiency precludes arrangements like that. 

Just a few notes on Double-A. In the Southern League, it looks increasingly likely that we’ll see Jackson, Chattanooga, and Jacksonville out and Bowling Green added. Jacksonville’s promotion solves the even/odd head-scratcher, and the result here is that the Texas League would beef up to ten teams and the Southern League would drop to eight. The expected Eastern League moves (Brooklyn for Binghamton, Somerset for Trenton) are a wash in terms of overall numbers. Other fallout: the Midwest League would probably have to drop another team, there would be no return of New Orleans, and the Chattanooga Lookouts, a stalwart minor league team whose first MLB affiliation was with the Washington Senators in 1932, would be shuffled to the independent leagues. Or maybe demoted to the Sally League. 

The Texas League would have a tidy 5-team southern division with San Antonio welcomed back after only one season at Triple-A, and a 5-team non-Texas division with Wichita’s return to the TL after a long absence. The Missions don’t belong at Triple-A. Their presence in the PCL was the result of the three-team switcheroo pulled off by Elmore Sports Group in ’18, and at that time, a new ballpark in San Antonio seemed to be in the cards. Once that fell through, they were the weak link in the chain.

As for Wichita? The Wind Surge haven’t played a single game yet, and here they are in 2020, dropping to Double-A and losing their affiliation with the Marlins. I’ll dive into this another time, but I always thought the team was a little nuts for promoting Miami so much–the mayor wearing a Marlins cap, fish patches on the jerseys, heavily promoting Marlins prospects on social media–but the reason I was wary was because of a PDC set to expire in 2020, after only one season as Miami’s affiliate. I never thought there would be a lost season due to a freaking pandemic and then an expiring PBA. So if the Pensacola rumor is accurate, look for the Wind Surge to become the Double-A affiliate of some team like the Twins or Reds or Mariners or maybe the Tigers, assuming they’re still growly about Erie. Wichita will be a hot commodity, assuming their never-played-in facility meets the new requirements. 

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From there, Reichard lays out the rumors about the New York-Penn League.  J.J. Cooper had reported the same info a few days earlier, and I covered that here. But what Reichard has to say about another historic short-season league is sobering:

Options, alas, are not being presented to the eight teams of the Rookie Pioneer League. Owners there have proposed running the Pioneer League as an independent league with hard age caps, focusing on undrafted players who are still considered prospects—those players who in the past would have been drafted in the 25th round and assigned to the Pioneer League. That’s received a chilly reception in MLB offices, and there’s been no proposal from MLB to help with any transition to summer collegiate, either. Despite MLB’s promises to take care of every current MiLB team, that promise apparently doesn’t extend to Ogden, Colorado Springs or Billings.

So let me get this straight. The Pioneer League is proposing a plan that is essentially the “Dream League” that MLB was touting a year ago. Why the “chilly reception” from the big league offices? If this is true, it would be terrible optics for MLB. This bit is one that I’ll chalk up to pure rumor at this point, and the “chilly reception” could be a miscommunication or even one person misinterpreting the tone of an email or something. If the Pioneer League has a plan to operate as the “Dream League,” there are good reasons for MLB to rubber-stamp it. Otherwise, the Pioneer League may just have to go rogue and simply compete with (or merge with) the Pecos League and become the premiere independent circuit in the Mountain time zone. Maybe they’ll become an (ugh) “MLB partner league.”  

That’s a lot to digest from one rumor article. Most of the info isn’t too surprising, but as we move closer to the new minor leagues becoming a reality, a whole host of new questions will crop up. This certainly won’t be the last of these info dumps, and I plan to stick around and give my two cents as I feel like. 

Till then, be safe and be kind.