The PBA in the Time of Coronavirus
It’s really surreal to look back on the last PBA update that I put together. It was only a few months ago, but so much has changed. Hell, in February, Bernie Sanders was the Democratic Party’s favorite for the presidential nomination, and he was writing open letters to Rob Manfred decrying the proposed changes to the player development process within the minor league baseball agreement–usually a boring topic reserved for us true blue MLGs. Now Joe Biden is the presumptive nominee and the entire human race has been put on pause due to a devastating pandemic.
As of this writing in late April 2020, the baseball season (major and minor) have been postponed indefinitely, and the minor leagues in particular seem unlikely to start up at all. Minor league All Star games are quickly being cancelled and everything is as up in the air as aerosol droplets from the guy without a mask coughing behind you at the grocery store.
But PBA negotiations persist nonetheless, though the tenor has completely changed since those halcyon days (of like two months ago) when MiLB has truly throwing haymakers against the Goliath of Major League Baseball. Now, MiLB seems willing to bend to whatever plan MLB would like to roll out, and MLB can get what it wants while saving face by throwing the minors a few bones. The line between opportunism and desperation is indistinguishable.
March was, understandably, a very quiet month on the PBA front. As April rolled around and people started to get restless while social distancing, attention turned back to this contentious topic. But the rules had changed. The virus has been a financial strain on both the major and minor leagues, though the major leagues are infinitely better-positioned to withstand the challenge. Further hampering the minors’ plight is watered down public/political support, as those previously interested in defending them have focused their attention on some slightly more important issues, such as making sure healthcare workers aren’t dying due to shortages of personal protective equipment.
Most of the updates have come from writers at the Athletic, and after several months of feeling duped that I was barely reading any articles on their subscription platform, I am now getting my money’s worth with periodic PBA updates from the likes of Evan Drellich and Keith Law. So what’s new? Let’s break it down:
On April 3rd, Law busted out a nice piece titled “Even with Baseball Shut Down, Specter of Minor League Contraction Looms.” Since the Athletic is paywalled, I won’t link the article. But here are some interesting excerpts.
“MLB’s initial proposal would drastically reshape the minors as we know them, affecting every level of professional baseball below the majors except for the complex leagues in Arizona and Florida. It would eliminate short-season baseball between the Gulf Coast League and the Arizona League, but would have “promoted” the Northwest League to Low A, preserving six of its eight franchises, with contraction of as many teams from the Midwest and South Atlantic leagues to compensate for the addition. Five of the Northwest League franchises that would survive in this scenario are decided, while the sixth remains up in the air between Boise, Salem-Keizer, and Tri-Cities; Boise is the best market, but the facilities there are considered subpar and the current Rockies affiliate would be an eight-hour bus ride from the nearest team in the reorganized league.”
OK! There is some new information here. Boise was not previously discussed as a candidate for elimination from the Northwest League. Apparently they have crappy facilities. Who knew? Well, maybe the Cubs did when they ditched them in favor of Eugene in the 2014 PDC signing period. But anyway, the geographical issue makes sense. Assuming that the Pioneer League is removed from the affiliated ranks, Boise may become a welcome addition to a new indy/summer collegiate league playing with the old PL teams, including in-state Idaho Falls. It’s an interesting development. If Boise and Tri-Cities were removed, Spokane would basically be on a geographic island. We’ll see how this shakes out. What other gems did Law throw in there?
“The Pacific Coast League would be split into two leagues by geography, with a “new” third Triple-A league in the Midwest along the lines of the old American Association. Fresno, now in Triple A, would drop to the California League, replacing Lancaster. The new Triple-A league would add the independent franchises in St. Paul and Sugar Land, while San Antonio and Wichita would drop to Double A, even though the Wichita franchise is about to play in a brand-new Triple-A—caliber ballpark. (The Sugar Land Skeeters are part-owned by Bob Zlotnik, a minority owner of the Astros.) The proposal would also include some of the promotions and contractions outlined in coverage of the plans last fall, such as moving short-season teams in superb facilities like Aberdeen and Brooklyn to full-season leagues.”
Something doesn’t add up here. Why would Fresno, San Antonio, and Wichita need to leave Triple-A in order to accommodate only two new teams? Fresno replacing Lancaster makes sense. The Texas League expanding by two (at a loss of two other Eastern/Southern League teams) makes sense. But you can’t have 29 teams at Triple-A. Another article that came out a bit after this one (see below) provides a bit of a possible answer. I’ll cover Triple-A realignment scenarios there.
“A new Professional Baseball Agreement could allow MLB teams to choose whether to have a short-season affiliate. The New York-Penn League could still operate for those clubs that want affiliates between the complex leagues and low A; the circuit has 14 teams now, and could even split now into smaller circuits to reduce travel and allow for more complex-like operations with increased training time at their home facilities and less time traveling. There are solutions that still address some of the greater concerns from MLB’s perspectives that don’t require wiping out 42 teams, that still allow teams to execute different player development strategies.”
This certainly makes sense. There’s no need to obliterate the leagues wholesale, and there’s no need to force MLB teams to affiliate with short season clubs if they don’t want them. It might make sense for interested MLB clubs to buy the teams and sort of operate them like minor league “summer training” leagues. The Grand Junction Rockies and Staten Island Yankees are already owned by MLB clubs. Why not, say, the Ogden Raptors or Williamsport Crosscutters? I’m sure MLB teams are a little more reluctant to buy new baseball properties in the post-Covid world, but I can see the benefits as well. It seems like a good setup, even if some markets end up falling by the wayside.
On April 13, Kevin Reichard from Ballpark Digest wrote an article outlining where things are with MLB’s wishes and some expectations moving into the new PBA. Here’s a choice section:
“Insiders with direct knowledge of the proposals in both MLB and MiLB peg the survival of Minor League Baseball as an operating entity and its associated leagues at 50-50. MLB would perform the following acts:
- Develop its own franchise system. This could include the likely inclusion of St. Paul (MN) and Sugar Land (TX) as Triple-A-level markets, the potential addition of a New Orleans team, and two or three current Triple-A markets demoted, including the previously identified Fresno Grizzlies (Class AAA; Pacific Coast League).
- Allocate affiliates. MiLB teams would have no say over their parent teams. While you would see many existing relationships endure, you’ll never see a situation where the Washington Nationals are affiliated with a West Coast team.
- Eliminate a layer of management between MLB teams and MiLB teams. League offices and league personnel would go away, overseen by coordinators at MLB headquarters. St. Pete would be replaced by Park Avenue. MLB did away with its two league offices as business entities after the 1999 season, and the sport does not appear to have suffered.
- Play a larger role in MiLB business decisions. MLB teams would have more power to dictate terms to MiLB teams when it comes to facilities and operations. Don’t be surprised if MLB mandates every MiLB team adopt tickets.com technology, for instance, or demands to use MiLB customer data for their own marketing efforts. MLB teams would also be in a position to dictate ballpark improvements.
Coming up with 40 teams to contract is not subject yet to a final decision, but eliminating the Appalachian League and the Pioneer League accounts for 18 of the 40 teams. Another 10 teams would be eliminated from the NY-Penn League, as well as two from the Northwest League. That’s 30 right there, and finding 10 more in Class AA, High A and Low A would account for the rest.”
The biggest eyebrow-raiser for me was the discussion of New Orleans. Maybe there’s an ownership group that is interested in building a new park? This news, combined with Law’s piece, would indicate that New Orleans, Sugar Land, and St. Paul would replace Fresno, Wichita, and San Antonio.
But a restructured Triple-A is tough to work out. Odd-number leagues are atypical, so I have a hard time imagining the PCL being only Tacoma, Sacramento, Reno, Vegas, and Salt Lake. I have to assume that would mean keeping Albuquerque in the PCL, despite their proximity to El Paso. If so, we may see a new central-ish league that includes El Paso, Round Rock, OKC, Sugar Land, New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, Omaha, Iowa, and St. Paul. Of course, it would make more geographic sense to link up Nashville and Memphis with Toledo, Columbus, Indy, and Louisville and/or the Gwinnett/Charlotte/Durham/Norfolk strip of International League teams. It will be fascinating to see what happens, but I’m not going to waste any more time on this until we get an official statement.
On April 21, on the eve of a scheduled negotiating session between MLB and MiLB, Evan Drellich provided a primer titled “Minor League Baseball Might Agree to Drop Teams, but Many Issues Remain in Talks.” It was a nice way to bring the issues back up, but the article itself didn’t add much new to the conversation. The juiciest tidbit to me was this passage about the impossibility of maintaining solidarity among 160 MiLB ownership groups in the face of a financial crisis:
“With so many ownership voices, the minor-league owners will find it difficult to attain unanimity. Just as major-league ownership groups sometimes differ based on market size, minor-league owners often disagree. All minor-league franchises are in a perilous spot now without games, but Triple-A franchises are typically better positioned for the long term than, say, short-season teams, which may disappear entirely from the landscape in a new deal. MLB is keenly interested in reducing the number of rounds in the draft, and short-season teams are typically filled with players entering pro ball after the draft.
“Is there division in the ranks? Absolutely,” said one minor-league owner. “And Major League Baseball, they were wise to understand that was going to begin happening the closer we got to a date (of expiration). And now we have coronavirus hanging over everybody’s head. Where dollars and cents may not have meant as much to major-league owners four months or even two months ago, now it means a lot more. Saving $2 million a year means a lot for a major-league team right now.”
The main takeaway from Drellich’s article is that MLB is absolutely in control now. In the winter, it looked like the minors (backed by public/political support) stood a fighting chance of maintaining the status quo. Now? It seems that MLB can take away the teams/rules they don’t like, and then save face by propping up some markets with some of those optional summer leagues like Law described.
All in all, the novel coronavirus has undoubtedly left an impression on the minor leagues. One hundred years from now, minor league geeks may look back on this as a pivotal moment on par with the 1962-1963 upheaval. I expect that the next PBA update that I have to share will be one that outlines the sweeping changes of the new PBA.
Until then, thanks for reading.