Should the Midwest League Be Split in Two?
There have been several wacky rumors floating around about possible tweaks to the new (and hopefully signed) Professional Baseball Agreement. My favorite of these is the brilliant concept of the Florida State League/New York-Penn League split season. I dug into the nitty gritty of this proposal in this article from early August, but the gist is that the the FSL would move to low-A, and MLB teams would be have their players return to Florida following the previous year’s experience in the Gulf Coast League. They would compete in an abbreviated springtime version of the FSL, and at some point (let’s say mid-June) the league would shut down and the teams would shift to the New York-Penn League. Some players may be tabbed to stick around the complexes and either work out or re-join the GCL, but others would be able to experience the northeastern US in the summertime. Though there are likely some major logistical hurdles, the benefits (saving teams on the chopping block, maximizing optimal weather conditions, etc.) add up to make a strong case.
Another rumor was mentioned by J.J. Cooper at Baseball America regarding the Northwest League and a possible new Arizona-based springtime league. This idea, though seemingly less fleshed-out than the Florida plan, would have Low-A players start the season in sort of an extended spring training circuit within the Cactus League territory before shifting to the Pacific Northwest for the sunny season.
While chewing on these ideas, I thought of another–something that has percolated and popped up on my spreadsheets for several years: splitting the Midwest League in two. The MWL is an interesting beast. What started as a humble Wisconsin-Iowa-Illinois circuit has grown steadily over the years to where it is now: a gargantuan 16-team circuit that sprawls across seven states. When we talk about long bus rides in the minors, consider the north-south distance between Appleton, WI, and Bowling Green, KY. Or the west-east span from Cedar Rapids, IA, and Eastlake, Ohio.
I live in the Upper Midwest, and I am baffled that some of my local-ish minor league clubs attempt to stage games in April and even May. Some years back, a snowstorm spoiled the Timber Rattlers’ home opener. The players built a snowman on the field and then future MLBer Scooter Gennett famously destroyed it with a bat. That’s an extreme example, but the reality is that many MWL games are scrapped due to April showers and many more subject young players to temperatures they’ve yet to experience. This latter topic was cited in Cooper’s reporting of the FSL plan, and the MWL doesn’t escape notice.
So where I am going with this? Let’s imagine that the Midwest League was split into two parts. Just about everyone is resigned to the fact that Burlington and Clinton are losing their PDC, so let’s say the two parts are a six-team west and an eight-team east. Since the western teams occupy the historical footprint of the Midwest League, we’ll keep that moniker there. For the eastern clubs, let’s use the Rust Belt League (joke) for now.
For the new Midwest League, the teams would be Cedar Rapids, Quad Cities, Wisconsin, Beloit, Kane County, and Peoria. Their parent clubs would have their players start in their spring training complex (Florida and/or Arizona) and then the Midwest League would boot up in June. As for the Rust Belt League? They would be bumped to High-A and play a full season of baseball. There are a few weather-related head-scratchers with this plan–Peoria sitting out the spring while the Michigan teams play ball?–but the west/east geographic alignment still makes the most geographic and time zone sense.
There are other benefits to this plan as well. Midwestern MLB teams (especially the Cubs, Cardinals, and Twins) may be lucky enough to secure regional affiliates at both Single-A levels. Clubs like Cleveland and Toronto would be able to keep their current short-season connections, but also have their High A clubs in their backyard.
It also provides a solution to some of the ways the current MWL has been tugged at by other changes in the minor league system. As I’ve outlined in a recent article, there is very little wiggle room at the Double-A level. Long story short: the Texas League is likely to expand by two, while the Southern League is likely to contract by two. At one point, Bowling Green was going to be promoted to the SL to take Chattanooga’s place as the Reds’ affiliate, but there’s no space to add a new team to the SL without contracting another, and there aren’t really any other contraction/demotion candidates (Montgomery?) beyond Jackson and Chattanooga. Also, if Bowling Green were to leave the current MWL, another team would/will have to leave to balance the numbers. Quad Cities was rumored at one point. The Great Lakes Loons (Midland, MI) are a geographic outlier. But nobody wants to see either of those teams go, and both are somewhat protected by having powerful figures in their corner. Something’s gotta give, and splitting the Midwest League into two parts would spare some harsh consequences for individual teams throughout the minor league system.
Today’s Midwest League reminds me of the Hutterite tradition of how when a colony reaches about 150 people, it is time to split and have about half of them go off and start a new colony. The MWL has grown beautifully over the last thirty years or so, but maybe, for the greater good of the minor leagues, it’s time to split.