Should the Northwest League Drop to Four Teams?

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With the PBA expiration date rapidly approaching, I’ve been having fun running through some simulations for how a 120-team minor league system could fit together. As you can imagine, there are many possible outcomes. One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that many of these simulations cause some sort of crunch at the Single-A level.

There are some possible bigger shifts (flattening Single-A, flip-flopping leagues between high and low A, etc.) that could alleviate much of this crunch, but thus far, these ideas seem to exist more in the rumor mill than in the reality of the current negotiations between the majors and minors. I can’t remember which J.J. Cooper article/podcast this was mentioned, but I know I recently heard that the MiLB negotiating team has been emphasizing keeping teams at their current level as much as possible. That won’t work in many cases–there will be a lot of reshuffling–but it seems that there is a resistance to some of those rumored radical changes. 

If you want to pick out one league that has a giant question mark hanging over it, look no further than the Northwest League. Here’s an abbreviated version of the news we’ve heard about the NWL in the past year. First, word leaked out about the reduction to 120, with the side note that the NWL would become a 6-team league operating at full-season Single-A. Then the list of 42 came out, with the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes and Tri-City Dust Devils listed for PDC severance. Shortly thereafter, there were early reports of some owners questioning whether their teams could handle spring weather–I can’t find the link, but I know one member of Everett’s front office saying something like “we’re not going to be able to put a dome over the field.” Right around the time that the novel coronavirus was rampaging across our fair nation, some more news trickled out about the future of the NWL, including Keith Law dropping the rumor that Boise was also in consideration for the chopping block. As we moved into the summer, J.J. Cooper filled in a few more key details. First came word that not all western MLB teams would choose the NWL over the Midwest League. Then we heard that there is talk about keeping the NWL as a short-season league, but having the players begin the season in Arizona before heading north in the summer. 

So, yeah, big question mark. But what I’d like to do for this Last-Month Mini is to dig deeper into one notion: should the Northwest League reduce from eight to four teams? Disclaimer: I haven’t heard anyone else make this suggestion and I don’t expect it to happen. It would be be a radical change to the league and would upset many fans. Personally, I love the NWL and greatly enjoyed the few times I was able to catch games in places like Vancouver, Everett, and Hillsboro. But there are some merits to the idea of dropping to four teams and some considerations that make it tolerable. Let’s run through them. 

Preface

The Northwest League is not some rinky-dink, low-level circuit of clubs tucked in among the doug firs and oyster beds. Four of the eight cities–Vancouver, Spokane, Eugene, and Boise–have at some point hosted Triple-A franchises. Vancouver is a major metro, of course, but Spokane and Boise also have over 200,000 souls and Eugene’s not far behind. The Salem-Keizer and Tri-City clusters have closer to a quarter million each. Everett is a suburb of Seattle, an MLB market. Hillsboro is a suburb of Portland, which could also have an MLB team in just a few years. 

MLB expansion is expected to happen sooner than later. If I had to guess, I’d say 2025, give or take a year. When that happens, cities in western North America are going to have a bit of a weighted advantage due to geographic alignment of major leagues and divisions–not to mention some perfectly viable and available markets. I personally think that Vancouver could be a tremendous MLB market, but any efforts to get an MLB team to B.C. are far less-developed than Portland’s. 

As we saw in the multi-year run-up to MLB’s expansion in both 1993 and 1998, adding teams to the majors has a huge affect on the minor leagues. I think this upcoming PBA should only be thought of as a short-term stopgap, because the deck is going to be reshuffled yet again before too long. If the Northwest League is reduced to six teams (as expected) or even four teams, it would be very temporary. Assuming that a western city like Portland gets an MLB team, I’d expect the NWL to expand back up to eight teams during this decade. I think that’s an important thing to keep in mind as I essentially advocate for brutal upheaval to one of my favorite leagues. With that said, here are some of the reasons why I think the NWL could reduce to four teams. 

Reason #1: MLB interest

My dream scenario for both the NWL and the New York-Penn League would be to see them execute the split-season arrangement with the Arizona/Florida connections. I think that this setup could make the NWL more desirable to more MLB teams, possibly enough to sway six potential parent clubs. 

But whether or not that setup sees the light of day, there’s still some hustling to figure out which MLB teams are interested. I think it’s plenty safe to say that Seattle wants the Everett AquaSox. I think somebody will want Eugene with their newer facility. I think Hillsboro and their vintage 2013 ballpark should be fine as well. On the MLB side, the Angels seem poised to make communion with one of the teams, and I suspect the Diamondbacks are as well. 

While it’s likely that the NWL will end up at the same level as Midwest League, it’s not a guarantee. If High A and Low are flip-flopped, I can’t for the life of me imagine why the California League would be demoted while the NWL gets a jump up. The Cali League is the opposite of the NWL–every MLB team west of Texas seems to want in. If the NWL is at low-A but the Midwest is promoted, there could be scenarios in which some MLB teams could have one NWL and one Midwest League team for their two Single-A affiliates. I’m not entirely sure which teams those would be (maybe the Cubs or Royals?) but the point is that it could become a possibility. 

However, let’s operate under the assumption that, as has been reported thus far, the two leagues will be at the same level. Then we can remember this summer’s whispers that some MLB teams would prefer to stick with their Midwest League team. I suspect that the A’s (with Beloit and their under-construction facility), Dodgers (with the Great Lakes Loons), and the Padres (with the Fort Wayne Tin Caps) are the most likely suspects, though the Diamondbacks (Kane County Cougars) could be another. Then there’s one of the squishiest questions that I’ve had throughout this whole process: if pressed to choose, would the Blue Jays pick Lansing over Vancouver? I think they would. 

The Giants, Rockies, and Royals have been with South Atlantic League teams in recent years, and it’s hard to get a read on any of those situations. The Giants might like Augusta’s nice new park, but are there any other big league teams (like the Braves) who would as well? The Royals have been with the to-be-contracted Lexington Legends, so they are a potential NWL-er if they are unable to sign on with a closer Midwest club. The Rockies? Who knows. That organization has made seemingly bizarre choices for their affiliates since before they even played a game. 

At best, we’re looking at the Mariners, Angels, and (I think) the Diamondbacks who are likely parents for NWL parents. Beyond that, there’s maybe one or two (or none) of the Padres/Dodgers/A’s/Blue Jays group. I think there’s at least one of the Royals/Rockies/Giants who could get in the mix, and this could be where that Arizona split-season incentive may be helpful. So maybe there’s somewhere between two and eight MLB teams that would sign on to parent Northwest League teams. That’s quite a range. Assuming it’s somewhere in the middle, would it round up to six or round down to four?

If six of those MLB teams are up for it, let’s play ball. If five or fewer are, it may be worth considering some of the other benefits of reducing the Northwest League to four. 

Reason #2: the Single-A crunch

I’ve been looking at three Single-A scenarios lately, and only one of them is well-built for a six-team Northwest League. That scenario is a far-fetched plan to split the Midwest League into two parts. While I may think that’s a great idea, it has no basis in reality.

Another scenario would have one level consist of an 8-team California, 14-team Midwest, and an 8-team Sally League. The other level, out of necessity, would have to have a 10-team Carolina, a 10-team Florida State, and the remaining ten teams divided between the Northwest and the proposed Mid-Atlantic League. One of those two would have to drop to four teams, and let’s be honest: at this point it seems that there is more demand for Mally League occupants than there is for the NWL. 

A third scenario would have the leagues pretty much staying where we are used to them. You’d have an 8-team California at high-A and the other 22 teams somehow divided between the Florida State League and the Carolina League. That would mean that either the FSL hangs onto the Tortugas and Fire Frogs or the Carolina expands to twelve–maybe by adding Pulaski, Greensboro, and two of the Charleston/Delmarva/Richmond group. That seems unlikely, and even if it were to come to pass, low-A would be insanely crunched. Either the Midwest would have to cut down to twelve or both the NWL and Mally would have to roll with four. Can you see the merits to flattening Single-A? 

Let’s just say that there could be any number of plans that would fit together better with a reduction of Northwest League teams. But there would need to be better reasons than those. 

Reason #3: maps and borders

Here’s a map of the current Northwest League that we know and love in all its eight-team glory. 

But we may as well chop it down to seven. I haven’t heard any indication that Salem-Keizer will be saved. Pour one out for the Volcanoes. 

Now if I were in the unenviable position of picking which of these teams needs to leave the Northwest League, I’d pick Boise over Tri-City. As I said before, Boise is definitely a city worthy of affiliated ball (Single-A at minimum) but in addition to their aged facilities, they stretch the map the most. Just as importantly, MLB could justify their exclusion by lumping them in with a group of teams just to the east. 

I won’t spend any more time talking about the brave new world of the Pioneer League–I’ve done that enough–but Boise’s relative proximity makes it a viable option for the Pioneer and boosts the likelihood that Boise may be heading out the door along with Salem-Keizer. 

It’s pretty easy to imagine this being the 2021 Northwest League. But that was the case six months ago. This is the final month of the PBA, baby. If we were to reduce down to four teams, which four make the cut? I see two possible scenarios. Both involve the Dust Devils blowing away to the summer collegiate ranks (or maybe Pioneer League?) so let’s go ahead and take them off the map. 

This is brutal, isn’t it? 

One scenario for a four-team league would make the most geographic sense–taking NWL stalwart Spokane off the map. This would be unthinkable a year ago, but here we are. Whatever happens with the NWL, you can all but guarantee that Spokane will have a new parent club, assuming they get one at all. The Texas Rangers will be with Hickory and Down East for their two Single-A affiliates. Avista Stadium is an old park, although I can’t speak to what the clubhouses look like and can’t claim to know if it’s better than it seems. But with the Rangers out of town, can you see an MLB team jumping at the chance to send their prospects to the high desert of eastern Washington, where a long bus ride over the Cascades is a requirement for any away game? Like Boise, Spokane could have something of a soft landing in the reimagined Pioneer League. That would give us an NWL that look like this: 

As neat as this little coastal chain looks on a map, there’s another orca in the room, if you will. The Vancouver Canadians, for all their strengths, are kind of in a vulnerable spot. If the NWL and Midwest League (as it’s currently constructed) are at the same level, it’s pretty likely that the Blue Jays choose the Lansing Lugnuts, the nearest minor league team to Toronto. Actually, regardless of level (or even flattening of Single-A) the Jays are pretty much guaranteed to go with Lansing and Dunedin for their two Single-A teams.

It can also be kind of a hassle to get over the border, and I’m not sure how that works for a busload of young baseballers. Is Covid a factor too? MLB isn’t being played in Canada in 2020, and most indy/collegiate teams north of the border shut down this year as well. Will it be all systems go in 2021? Or should Spokane stick around, leaving the affiliated minors without a single Canadian team since, uh, forever. But maybe losing a lowly team like this would be the impetus to Vancouver pulling together a major league (or at least Pacific Coast League) quality facility. 

That gives us a tidy little Evergreen Division to vie against the Beaver Division. Of course, if we’re going to get this anal retentive about geography, let’s imagine a scenario in which the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes are like “wait up, Giants. We’ll build the best clubhouse in the minors in time for the 2021 season.” 

That’s the good stuff right there. Everett and Seattle, Hillsboro and Arizona, Salem and San Francisco, Eugene and Los Angeles. 

Final thoughts

OK, these are supposed to Last-Month “Minis.” I really let myself get into the weeds here. But I want to restate two things. 1. This paring down of the Northwest League is not an idea with any external validity, and 2. although big changes are coming, they will be temporary. By 2030, maybe both Portland and Vancouver will have MLB teams. Maybe cities like Spokane and Boise will be bumped up to Triple-A. Who knows, my friends. 

Today’s world requires flexibility, and the next PBA won’t be hammered out overnight. Take care, be well, and thanks for walking with me along all these weird and winding paths.