Flattening the Level and the Mudcat Quagmire

Early on in this PBA saga, there was one quiet message buried in an article by Kevin Reichard at Ballpark Digest: “Adding a mid-Atlantic league to cut down on player travel on the Low-A level would be welcomed by many in the industry, and any proposal to flatten out two levels of Single-A ball to further address player travel would certainly have its adherents.” 

My response to that, published here, was “This makes perfect sense to me. Why have a “High A” and “Low A”? Why not just have sixty teams at Class A, arrange it for optimum geographic efficiency, and then go nuts with PDCs. It was kind of like this in the latter 20th century, and even up until the early 2000s, you’d see things like the Oakland A’s having two Cali League affiliates. It must have been great for A’s fans to watch ModestoVisalia games back in the day. Why not let the Orioles have two affiliates (say, Frederick and Delmarva) in the Mally League? In practice the “moving up the ladder” idea is meaningless. MLB teams send their players wherever they want anyway, so why not flatten out Class A?

My somewhat embarrassing mention of Frederick is a good pre-list-of-42 timestamp for that quote, but the sentiment holds true. Sure, there are some nice things about having a tidy thirty teams per level, but it can quickly become the tail wagging the dog. In the effort to shoehorn a handful of leagues to match that number–16+14, 8+10+12, etc.–there are invariably teams that are undeservingly left in the leagues in order to round out the total. On the flip side, there are often deserving teams left out of various leagues for the same reason. A more important point, perhaps, is what I mentioned in that quote from last fall. Within the current PDC allotment system, MLB teams are often forced to take affiliations they don’t want.

The knee-jerk other end of the spectrum is what MLB has been threatening–let the PDC expire and let MLB teams affiliate with whichever teams they wish to. In 2018, the Nationals were forced to accept Fresno as their Triple-A team. But what if this off-season, they just signed on with, say, Richmond in the Eastern League and just had two Double-A teams and no Triple-A team? My experience studying the structure of minors over the years tells me that this is a naive viewpoint. For the minor leagues to maintain their structural integrity, have feasible schedules, and host fans, it’s important to have some rules. Furthermore, there are some backroom rules that are specifically tied to the level a team is at, and the levels can dictate everything from franchise valuations to voting power

Maybe there is a middle ground, and that’s why Reichard’s year-old sentence is still embedded in my noggin. If there’s ever been a level that could benefit from “flattening,” it’s certainly Single-A in 2020. Recent rumors have lent some potential flexibility to Single-A. Ideas like flip-flopping of the two Single-A levels, as well as the possibility of leagues like the Northwest and Florida State becoming spring-only, could make flattening unnecessary. In practice, the key feature is that the Carolina and Sally Leagues could switch teams back and forth as necessary, or switch levels as necessary, in order to meet the optimal thirty target. 

Even with those potential remedies, it’s still more complicated than it sounds, and if the leagues are compelled to contort in order to meet the 30-for-30 rule, why bother? If it makes sense, the minors could return to the basic structure that was used as recently as the 1980s, with no “high-A” and “low-A” division and a unified Single-A that functioned closer to what we might now think of as “60-for-60.”

As this PBA process has evolved, I’ve swerved away from the flattening concept because there didn’t seem to be that pressing of a need for it. With flexibility in the southeast, as well as the proposed mid-atlantic league, it just didn’t seem necessary. But MLB is shaping the new minors, and ultimately, MLB owners’ voices will be the strongest. Reichard uses the word “adherents” when describing some of those who may advocate for flattening Single-A. By the same token, there are likely several MLB that would advocate against flattening for various reasons. Let’s take a minute to consider some of the MLB-ers that have strong connections to multiple Single-A teams. 

  • The Red Sox, White Sox, and Rangers are all pretty much in the same boat. They either own or otherwise have notable ties to teams in both the South Atlantic and Carolina Leagues–teams that appear to be remaining in their respective leagues. Whether or not they would advocate for or against flattening is hard to discern, but the point is that these MLB teams are expected to maintain affiliations with a team in both leagues. 
  • The Twins, Tigers, Cardinals, and probably the Blue Jays all have ties in both the Florida State League and the Midwest League. The Blue Jays also have a tie in the Northwest League, but I believe that they would choose the MWL over the NWL if faced with the decision. 
  • The Phillies are also in the FSL and their other Single-A connection is Lakewood, who are expected to join the new mid-atlantic league. The Yankees are potentially in this same situation. 
  • The Brewers own their Carolina League team and will also be in the Midwest League. 
  • In the west, the Mariners are the only team with a clear setup–they would have a Northwest League team and a California League team.
  • There will also be at least one or two MLB teams (probably A’s, possibly Dodgers and/or Padres, maybe Diamondbacks) that want to have the Midwest League and the Cali League. 

Can we meet everyone’s needs?

  • The Carolina League would have to be at a separate level than the Sally League
  • The Florida State League would have to be separate from the Midwest League
  • The Florida State League would have to be separate from the mid-atlantic league
  • The Carolina League would have to be separate from the Midwest League
  • The California League would have to be separate from the Northwest League
  • The California League would have to be separate from the Midwest League

This is doable, right? I mean, on the left side of these equations, you have the current High-A teams and on the right, you have the current Low-A teams, plus the mid-atlantic league. In fact, if all the listed criteria are to be followed, that’s the only arrangement possible. Maybe the levels are flip-flopped as has been rumored, but either way, the leagues clusters have to stay together. Do the numbers bear out?

Cluster A. The FSL is expected to be at ten teams, the California League is expected to be at 8, and the Carolina League–which has some flexibility–would need to swell up to 12 teams in order to meet the 30-for-30 rule. 

Cluster B. The Northwest League is probably going to be at six teams, the Midwest League is likely to be 14 (possibly 12), the Sally League is somewhat flexible, and the Mally League is anyone’s guess. 

Problems. Getting the Carolina League up to 12, while still maintaining geographic cohesion, is harder than it sounds. Frederick is expecting to lose its PDC and if Wilmington’s not in the Mally League, there isn’t much reason for the league to exist at all. So that drops the Carolina to 8. Greensboro and Pulaski could be added without much fuss, so that’s 10. Since they’re already stretched out as far north as Fredericksburg, adding Delmarva wouldn’t be too much of a stretch and would provide the Orioles with an affiliate at that level. As for the 12th team, the best option overall would be Richmond, but that idea seems to only exist within my brain. If the Carolina were to add on to their southern arm–making for undesirable divisional alignments–they could grab Charleston or Columbia from the Sally League. Other than that, the two leagues are blocked by the border line that separates keeps the Red Sox, White Sox, and Rangers’ affiliates separated.

 

carolina sally line1

 

Things are dicier in cluster B. One of the biggest questions I have is regarding the Midwest League–will it be at 14 or 12 teams? Sliding Bowling Green into Double-A (as rumored last fall) isn’t as easy as it sounds. Beloit built a new stadium and will be staying in the Midwest League. If Bowling Green does somehow find a way out, who is going with them? Great Lakes is somewhat protected by the presence of their CEO on the negotiating team. Despite Senator Chuck Grassley reporting that MLB told him the Quad Cities River Bandits are safe, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. For now, though, I’m assuming the MWL will be at 14 teams. 

Eight is a likely number of teams for the Sally League–essentially keeping the same teams minus losing a few to contraction, one or two to the Mally League, and maybe one or two to the Carolina. Twelve (from the Midwest) and these eight makes twenty. Fourteen and these eight gives us twenty-two. That would give us either a six-team NWL/four-team Mally combo or four teams each. 

Yikes. That’s a lot of contorting in order to fit the 30-for-30, and it could leave a number of teams vulnerable to contraction/demotion, including Quad Cities and a few more Northwest League teams. If the pressure to move Bowling Green to Double-A increases, we may see a random Eastern League team like Portland or New Hampshire get the boot. 

So maybe there’s something to the notion of selecting sixty of the most worthy and appropriate teams for Single-A, roughing out some efficient maps, and letting MLB teams chose two each. 

Of course, some MLB teams may raise a squawk if that’s the case. The Red Sox, Brewers, Astros, and Rangers all bought Carolina League teams–largely to avoid undesirable minor league teams. According to this (paywalled) Baseball America article, the consensus is that the franchise values were undeservedly inflated due to this High-A/Low-A crunch. Of the four, the Astros’ Fayetteville franchise–in a new ballpark–has drawn well and is probably the only one poised to make a good operational profit. The others are mostly just stable vessels for prospects, and I’d guess that the MLB teams justified the cost based on franchise valuation and equity. Not only has Covid turned that side of the business upside-down, but a flattening of Single-A would further reduce Carolina League franchise values. And if having two affiliates in one league were an option–like it was for Modesto and Visalia in the nineties–then wouldn’t the Brewers prefer having two Midwest League affiliates?

On that note, I want to take a minute to dig into the Milwaukee/Mudcats morass. There’s a paradox here. While the Brewers could stand to take the biggest financial hit of any MLB team if the level was flattened, they are the team solely responsible for the “Carolina League would have to be separate from the Midwest League” criteria that is part of the reason why flattening would be a good idea. While the Carolina and Sally Leagues are flexible and mostly interchangeable at this point, having the option of the Carolina at the same level as the Midwest could be helpful in some scenarios. Personally, I like the concept of splitting the Midwest League into two parts, but there could be more realistic options as well. In a non-flattened world, flexibility is key, and it may help to have the Midwest League and the Carolina League at the same level. 

So what can be done? I was thinking about this recently and had the thought that maybe the Brewers could trade the Mudcats franchise for another one, with a kicker thrown in wherever necessary in order to balance the scales. I started looking up the owners of various potential teams. There aren’t as many “available” franchises in, say, the Sally League as you might think, and even though they’re at a higher level for now, there’s no way that the Mudcats are close to the value of a team with a newer park like Augusta or Columbia. I have to throw at least one more catfish-related pun in here, so let’s have a look at these “bait-n-switch” options:

If the Chattanooga Lookouts are transferred to the South Atlantic League, that might be close to an equal franchise valuation with the Mudcats. Chattanooga reportedly has facilities that leave something to be desired, but MLB presumably has an interest in preserving baseball in that historic city. Maybe a deal is worked out between Milwaukee and Hardball Capital, and everyone is happy. 

As I mentioned earlier, a twelve-team Carolina League, as much of a stretch as that might be, is at least possible if teams like the Delmarva Shorebirds are added to it instead of the Mally League. That would make the Orioles happy–being able to stick with both Delmarva and Aberdeen must be a goal for them since they added Frederick to the severance list. But if Delmarva joins the Mally, there’s a good chance that the two leagues will be at separate levels in a non-flattened world. The Shorebirds would need a new parent club (and team colors) and the Delmarva BrewBirds franchise is probably roughly equal to that of the Mudcats. Delmarva is owned by Tom Volpe’s 7th Inning Stretch, and Volpe is on the PBA negotiating team. He’ll be digging into the muck of realignment as much as anyone–maybe he could help facilitate a Carolina swap. 

One other team that jumped out to me is the Asheville Tourists. Their affiliation with the Rockies is pretty tenuous, and Colorado could easily link up with a California and/or Northwest League team, depending on which level the conflict occurs. I looked it up, and had to blink a few times when I read that the Tourists are owned by a gentleman who probably has a few things on his mind that are more important than a swap for the Mudcats: Ohio Governor Mike DeWine! Remember Mike DeWine? He was one of the early celebrities in the Covid crisis, and his shutdown actions were copied by many other governors. 

Could the man partially responsible for helping to flatten the pandemic curve help to avoid the flattening of Single-A? Was that sentence the only reason I wrote this article? Now there’s a bait and switch, my friends. It can be awkward to try to shoehorn two mostly unrelated topics into one piece of writing. There’s a lesson to be learned from that, and maybe Single-A won’t make the mistake that I did. 

You can email your complaints to me any time of day. Till next time, do your part to flatten the curve and (maybe) flatten Single-A.