Top Levels and Unexpected Vulnerability

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We are now in the last few days of August, with only a month to go before the old PBA expires. The majors and the minors have resumed negotiations, and this thing is going to heat up quick.

This is sort of the third installment in an unintended out-of-order trilogy that details different levels of the minor leagues. First I took two parts to talk about Single-A, the most pivotal and uncertain section of the ladder. Then I covered the short-season leagues in detail while “Picking Apart One Baseball.” To bundle it up, I need to say a few about the highest levels, Triple-A and Double-A, and how some burning questions at those levels can have a trickle-down affect through the whole system. In the interest of avoiding tedium, let me start with a particularly burning question.

 

burning questions

How is the New Triple-A Going to Be Aligned?

Back in November, shortly after the infamous “list of 42” was leaked, I wrote up a lengthy response with all the questions I had bubble up in the aftermath of the leak. At that time, I couldn’t see a clear solution to the problem of how to fit St. Paul and Sugar Land into Triple-A. Back in April, when we were all sequestered at home and baseball writers had no MLB season to report on, well-connected writers at higher-profile sports media outlets were dropping some nice morsels about the PBA. There was talk about bringing back a third central time zone-ish Triple-A league. There were rumors of New Orleans being considered for reinstatement. There were brief mentions about teams being demoted from Triple-A to the Texas League. Each time I heard a new rumor, I would run through some scenarios for the top level of the minors and it never quite added up. With no new Triple-A morsels being dropped since April, I still don’t clearly see how it could work, but there are some workable possibilities. I’ll get into that soon, but I might as well bring up the next burning question inside this burning question.

 

burning questions

Should the Fresno Grizzlies Really Be Demoted?

I’ve been wrestling with this question lately. Going back to when the list of 42 came out, the line has always been “to make room for Sugar Land/St. Paul, the Fresno Grizzlies will be demoted to the California League, taking the place of the Lancaster JetHawks. After reading that, my thoughts have always kind of fixated on the Grizzlies, the necessity of Lancaster leaving the affiliated ranks, and the satisfying new-look California League. But what I never really did until recently was stare at a map of the current PCL teams. Sure, I was squinting at maps back in the fall/winter, but since the expected third Triple-A league became a regular part of the conversation in the spring, I hadn’t stopped to realize that the geographic conundrum in the west is real. Check out this map of the current Triple-A teams.

 

Capture

 

OK, now take a look at this version that I expertly altered using the high-tech program Microsoft Paint. I’ve x’d out Fresno and added stars roughly where Sugar Land and St. Paul are.

 

Triple A

 

Now then, what do you notice?

Well, obviously, there are 31 teams, but that’s not what I’m talking about. There will end up being 30 teams, and in a scenario like this, either 1.) only one of St. Paul/Sugar Land would get the nod, or 2.) another team would have to join Fresno in being demoted. That is indeed a pressing question, but there many other variables in that domain and I’ll get to that in a minute.

What I’m noticing is that if Fresno is demoted, and if there is a new central Triple-A league, then there is an imbalance of teams in the west. You’d have Tacoma, Sacramento, Reno, Las Vegas, and Salt Lake remaining in the PCL for sure. That’s five, and certainly not enough to fill out a league. Looking a bit more eastward, you have Albuquerque (a long-time PCL club) and their nearest neighbor, El Paso. But if the goal is six teams, you can only take one (likely ABQ) and leave the other. That’s a geographic issue, which is something MLB has repeatedly stated they want to avoid. While El Paso is reasonably close to their Texas brethren, roughly as close as they are to say, Las Vegas, they would also be presumably lumped in with faraway teams like Omaha, Iowa, and (maybe) St. Paul in the central-ish league. It’s not ideal, especially in the wake of being separated from their buddy up the road in New Mexico. Think about it this way: the distance between El Paso and St. Paul is roughly the same distance from Albuquerque to Tacoma. Also–and this should not be easily dismissed–El Paso is in the mountain time zone, as are Albuquerque and Salt Lake. For logistical reasons I don’t fully understand, leagues tend to be aligned to time zones even when it runs counter to geographic efficiency.

Suffice it to say that it makes more practical sense for both the Isotopes and the Chihuahuas to remain in the PCL. But if there’s no Fresno, the PCL will be at seven teams and the the new Triple-A league will have an odd number as well. But if Fresno stays, we’re working with even numbers. Either you roll with a slimmed-down six-team PCL stretching as far east as Salt Lake, or you go with the eight-teamer that includes both Albuquerque and El Paso. The only other option I can see is if Salt Lake were added to the central league, and that would be an extreme geographic outlier–more inefficient than separating Albuquerque and El Paso.

I don’t get the sense that Fresno, at face value, is especially undesirable market or that Chukchansi Park is an especially undesirable facility. The Grizzlies are a victim of circumstance. Since 2014, when the Giants ditched them in favor of Sacramento, they have been one of the Triple-A teams that are repeatedly left standing in the game of PDC musical chairs. When the Astros lost Oklahoma City in 2014, they were stuck with Fresno. When the Nationals lost Syracuse in 2018, they were stuck with Fresno. So I imagine that one or both of those MLB teams gave less-than-glowing reports about the Grizzlies, and killing two birds with one stone, they were used as a way to cleanly replace Lancaster in the California League. But it’s plainly obvious that there is a trade-off to demoting Fresno. I think the Grizz should stay at Triple-A for now. Maybe a new west coast area (like the San Diego suburbs or Tucson or Vancouver or Portland) will put a new park together and Fresno will be moved. For now, I think it’s important for the geographical and historical integrity of the Pacific Coast League to keep the Grizzlies right where they are right now.

I’m going to jump down a few levels as this seems like a natural segue into another burning question that pops up if Fresno is kept at Triple-A.

 

burning questions

Will Lancaster Be the Only Team Leaving the California League?

Lancaster is as likely to leave affiliated baseball as any team in all of the minors. In a recent Baseball America piece, Matt Eddy tells the stories of how four teams took desperate and expensive measures in order to avoid being affiliated with California League teams like the defunct High Desert Mavericks and Bakersfield Blaze, as well as the still-flying Lancaster JetHawks. The Red Sox, due to a PDC-swap misfortune, were stuck with the JetHawks for two seasons (’07-’08) between their Sarasota stint and their purchase of the Carolina League’s Salem Red Sox. After that came the Astros, who were saddled with Lancaster’s video game offensive stats as they were developing their core players for their championship rebuild. Eventually, they were able to buy into the Carolina League with their (now) Fayetteville club. In the same off-season that the Blaze and Mavericks were contracted, word leaked out that the Colorado Rockies were going to purchase the Carolina Mudcats in order to avoid a forced PDC with Lancaster. The other vulnerable team that year, the Milwaukee Brewers, outbid the Rockies, and reportedly grossly overpaid for the Mudcats simply to avoid Colorado’s fate: being stuck with Lancaster. In sum, the JetHawks are toast.

But if Fresno sticks in Triple-A, which I think should happen, there’s no clean replacement for the JetHawks. The league isn’t likely to roll with seven teams, so that would mean that another Cali League team would need to get booted. (And by booted, I mean likely transferred to the indy leagues under the auspices of MLB.) There are a few candidates for this. I always pay attention to Oakland’s affiliates, because time has taught me that the A’s will abandon or stick with teams for seemingly arbitrary reasons. Yet even though I won’t rule out Stockton, I know of no reason why the Ports should be added to the “list of unexpected vulnerables.” The one team that stands out as being the next in line is the Visalia Rawhide.

At first glance, Visalia looks a little vulnerable. The aforementioned Eddy article points out that Visalia has had, since 1991, nearly as many parent clubs as the hot potato High Desert and and Bakersfield did. It’s not that Visalia deserves to leave the Cali League, but they are simply the next most vulnerable. They play in Recreation Park, which was built in 1946 and has been in near-continuous use ever since. The park’s last renovation was in 2009, which isn’t as recent as it used to be. Though the city of Visalia is reportedly on the hook for stadium upgrades, that arrangement was pre-Covid.

On the geography front, if there’s no Fresno, then there are no other Central Valley clubs to join Visalia. If Visalia left, the Cali League would have a geographically-dense NorCal division (Modesto, Stockton, San Jose) and a SoCal-sans-Lancaster division with Lake Elsinore, Rancho Cucamonga, and Inland Empire. Check out this map (Cali League teams in yellow, Fresno in blue) and it’s clear that Visalia and Fresno have their fates intertwined. If one is in the Cali, it seems logical that the other would be. The reverse applies as well.

 

cali

 

There are a few cases to be made for keeping the Rawhide around. The Diamondbacks seem happy with Visalia, and if they were to lose them, there would be no obvious replacement at whatever level (High A or Low A?) the California League ends up being at. Unless something wacky happens, like Oakland choosing Beloit over Stockton (if the two leagues end up in the same level) the D’Backs would have to go with a team located very far east of Phoenix. Unlike, say, the Northwest League, the Cali League has just about all westerly MLB teams lining up for a non-JetHawks affiliate. So I don’t think the Diamondbacks want to see the Rawhide get swept away to the Pecos League (or whatever) along with Lancaster.

Another legit factor that could guarantee Visalia’s continued Cali League presence is the fact that the team was just sold (fall/winter 2019) to a new ownership group. In normal times, the new owners and potential for stadium upgrades would guarantee Visalia’s continued existence. What a tough pill it would to swallow for First Pitch Entertainment to suddenly lose their PDC and be relegated to the indy leagues. But these aren’t normal times, so Visalia may be at least a bit vulnerable–even if they are much closer to Stockton’s safety status than Lancaster’s.

You can see the tension here — it’s a like a tug of war between the PCL and the Cali League, and the Fresno Grizzlies are the rope. Who wins? Well, there may be options that serves both parties. But in the slider puzzle of minor league baseball, a gain in one place is a loss in another.

 

burning questions

What’s Going to Happen in the Texas League?

About five months ago, Keith Law, in an article for the Athletic, mentioned that: “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.” This provided a possible answer to us minor league geeks out here, scratching our heads and trying to figure out how these numbers are going to come out. Sending two teams from the Pacific Coast League to the Texas League certainly helps the odd/even league issue, but even at this late stage in the game, there’s a lot to consider. First, let’s talk about those two teams that were rumored to be demoted.

San Antonio is no surprise. As recently as two years ago, it seemed likely that the city and taxpayers of San Antonio were going to proceed with authorized funding for a new Triple-A caliber ballpark. This was at least part of the reason for Elmore Sports Group’s three-way relocation that moved San Antonio to Amarillo in the Texas League, Helena to Colorado Springs in the Pioneer League, and Colorado Springs to San Antonio in the Pacific Coast League. The stadium deal fell apart just as the move was happening. San Antonio’s parent club, the Milwaukee Brewers, though likely somewhat disappointed by losing the prospect of a new park, were satisfied to have their Triple-A affiliate in a much friendlier location than Colorado Springs, which was notorious for astronomical offensive stats. Since then, San Antonio and its aged Wolff Stadium has seemed a bit out of place at Triple-A. A move back to the Texas League seems natural, and if D.G. Elmore, who is on the PBA negotiating committee, is amenable to such a move, it makes perfect sense.

Wichita is a bit trickier. Due to the pandemic, the Wind Surge have yet to play a game in their sparkling Triple-A caliber facility. The franchise last played about exact one year ago as the New Orleans Baby Cakes, the Miami Marlins’ Triple-A club. Though they are technically still affiliated with the Marlins, with a new park and an expiring PDC/PBA, MLB teams would presumably be lining up for Wichita’s Triple-A services. So why would they be fingered for demotion to the Texas League? I’m guessing here, but I think part of it may be the fact that they haven’t played a game yet. A tough pill to swallow for Wichita to be sure, but perhaps less logistically traumatic than demoting a team that’s already entrenched at Triple-A. Another factor is likely geography. Right now, the Texas League has eight teams that are cleanly split into a Texas-based division (Corpus Christi, Frisco, Midland, Amarillo) and a non-Texas division consisting of Tulsa, Springfield (MO), Northwest Arkansas, and the Arkansas Travelers. Where to send the Triple-A teams? Simple. San Antonio goes with the Lone Star group and Wichita goes with their neighbors in the north. Dust your hands, buckaroo, that’s a fit!

Hold your horses! There are some drawbacks to putting Wichita in the Texas League that go beyond relegating a new Triple-A ballpark to Double-A. Let’s look at that Triple-A map again. This time, I crossed out San Antonio and circled Wichita.

 

Triple A

 

For the new central Triple-A league, let’s avoid counting the teams into divisions for now and just take note of how nicely Wichita bridges the gap between OKC and Omaha. If you remove Wichita, then (assuming St. Paul is added) you would three teams marooned to the north and the rest kind of clustered to the south. I’ll back to this in another section.

Let’s talk about two other other teams that could potentially move to the Texas League. One is the Round Rock Express, who were originally in the TL when they booted up in 2000. The other is the El Paso Chihuahuas, who have a new (if not still sparkly new) stadium in west Texas. Round Rock’s once-solid Triple-A credential isn’t what it once was. Assuming Sugar Land is added to the mix, the Astros will align with the Skeeters. The Rangers have a pretty cushy situation in Nashville these days, but if another team (say, the Nationals or Brewers) signs on with the Sounds this fall, the Rangers could do the Texas two-step back to Round Rock. That would likely preserve the Express. El Paso used to be a Texas League market, and they slot into the league’s footprint pretty nicely–not too far from Midland and Amarillo.

Here’s a map that includes all the Texas League teams as well as the adjacent PCL teams. For this one, I’ve circled Wichita and San Antonio and starred Round Rock and El Paso. If you don’t know this part of the world, El Paso is in the west, just south of Albuquerque.

 

texas

 

While Wichita’s potential TL presence does allow for a nice north-south divisional alignment, it’s not too hard to see how Frisco (near Dallas) or even Amarillo (up in the panhandle) could be in the northern reaches. Another advantage to putting El Paso in the TL is that it would make it easier for Fresno to join the California League. Stated another way: keeping El Paso out of the new central Triple-A league is more important than divisional alignment within the Texas League. If I were the Chihuahuas, these maps would be making me tremble.

We’ll get back to Triple-A. First, another burning question.

 

burning questions

Which Double-A Teams are Leaving the Level?

As much as I like the idea of two teams moving from Triple-A to the Texas League, this would necessarily mean that two other Double-A teams would need to leave in order to facilitate the level remaining at thirty teams.

Let’s go ahead and rule out a reduction in the overall number of Eastern League teams. That doesn’t mean there won’t be changes. I think there’s a good chance that Binghamton essentially switches places with the Brooklyn Cyclones, with the effect of the Mets basically improving their Double-A situation. Assuming that the New York-Penn League exists (albeit in different form) moving forward, the Rumble Ponies could easily find a home there. Read more here. As far as Erie is concerned: I can’t remember in which of these two podcasts J.J. Cooper essentially says flat-out that Erie is staying in the Eastern League, but he definitely said it. With no other obvious demotees in the EL, let’s assume that it stays at fourteen clubs.

The Texas League has no real weak links. The Northwest Arkansas Naturals are maybe a bit of a stretch for Double-A in terms of market size, but the Royals seem happy with their proximity. The Midland RockHounds are getting a little long in the fang, but the A’s have been happy with them. If the A’s are happy, they must be doing something right. The Texas League is much more likely to swell up to ten teams than it is to stay at eight.

So that leaves us with the Southern League. The Jackson Generals are an obvious choice to go. They were on the list of 42 and were also mentioned a few years ago when news broke about New Orleans moving to Wichita. At the time of that announcement, Baby Cakes fans were more or less promised that a Southern League team would move to Metarie, and that the team (brand and all) would seamlessly transition to Double-A. The first rumblings of the PBA upheaval explained why that didn’t happen a year ago, and the pandemic is certainly a wildcard. As much as I would be glad to see New Orleans as a Southern League market (alongside Pensacola, Biloxi, etc.) I think that’s now less likely than a NOLA team emerging in a different league. Let’s put a pin in that and stick to Double-A for now.

While I was shocked to see Chattanooga on the original list of 42 back in November and fully expected them to stay put, I’m now starting to see that at a minimum, the Lookouts will likely be leaving the Southern League. They will hopefully find a home in the remixed South Atlantic League (they fit the map nicely!) but an indy circuit like the Atlantic League could be a last resort. If not Chattanooga, the next Southern League team in line is probably the Montgomery Biscuits, but they seem much less likely than the Lookouts.

The Southern League will probably lose two teams. Of realistically possibilities, I think the best-case would be to see Chattanooga in the Sally League and Jackson re-emerge in the indy Frontier League.

 

burning questions

Is New Orleans Coming Back to the Minors?

New Orleans has been only briefly mentioned in this PBA process, and it was in the context of Triple-A. I’ve puzzled over this one. As I said, I think NOLA is a better fit in the Southern League–especially with their outdated stadium–but there are a few factors worth considering.

One, like I mentioned, is that the city was essentially promised a replacement team when the Baby Cakes were moved to Wichita. It was set to (likely) be Jackson, but the PBA threw a wrench in the works. Another is affiliation. I have to wonder if the Marlins, faced with the specter of losing Wichita as their Triple-A affiliate, said something to MLB negotiators like “hey, if we can’t have Wichita, we were pretty happy with New Orleans.”

It’s also undeniable that the Big Easy is a Triple-A caliber market. New stadium or not, it would be ludicrous if the highest level of baseball the city gets to have is indy or summer collegiate. Besides, New Orleans isn’t really near any of the geographic footprints of any of those unaffiliated leagues.

There could be yet another reason to put New Orleans at Triple-A, and to explain that, I’ll wrap up this piece by swinging back to that first burning question.

 

burning questions

How is the New Triple-A Going to Be Aligned?

I’ve looked at the International League up and down and all around, and I see no reason why the circuit should be changed in any way. Fourteen teams is a lot to be sure, but they are arranged in three tight geographic clusters that make for natural divisions. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and any any geographic issues in the new central league aren’t immediately solved by adding IL clubs.

In the past, when we were only working with two Triple-A clubs, I’ve thought “boy howdy, Memphis and Nashville should really be in the IL.” While that would certainly make much more sense than their current PCL, I overlooked one crucial factor that may have been part of the reason these teams were assigned to the PCL when the American Association broke up in ’97: time zones. I had to do some Googling, but I was surprised to find that both big Tennessee cities are in the Central zone, while all IL cities are in the Eastern zone. So despite Nashville being a relative neighbor (both in distance and latitude) to IL cities like Louisville and Indianapolis, there is some rationale for their separation.

I mentioned the American Association. I won’t use that term to describe the proposed new third minor league, though it would be fascinating if the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball were to cede the name to the affiliated minors in some roundabout way. I’ll call it the Central League, a place for a congregation of (mostly) Central time zone Triple-A clubs.

Let’s now circle back to New Orleans. One additional benefit to returning NOLA to Triple-A (presumably with a stadium deal in the works) is how it makes at least one Triple-A alignment scenario possible. Let’s say that, as long-rumored, St. Paul and Sugar Land are added, and New Orleans is a third new team. This scenario would necessarily facilitate a demotion of Fresno to the California League, which despite my stated concerns, indeed seems likely. To make room for two more teams, two of four possible teams (El Paso, Round Rock, San Antonio, and Wichita) are sent to the Texas League, with the other two joining the Central League along with the expansion teams and the remainder of the old easterly PCL teams.

I had to make one last map for this. You’ll notice that I’ve cordoned off the fourteen IL teams, and that I have the PCL as a six-team league that unfortunately separates Albuquerque and El Paso. I used orange stars to indicate the three expansion teams and then red circles over the four possible Texas League demotees. (Round Rock and San Antonio are close enough that I just used one big circle. Let’s have a gander.

 

central league

 

So we have twelve Central League candidates and we need to trim that down to ten. What makes the most sense? Despite their relative newness, and despite possible protests from the Padres, I think El Paso stretches the geography too much. From there, it’s worth looking a divisional alignments.

It looks like we have two options. One involves demoting Wichita and having sort of a “northeast” with St. Paul, Iowa, Omaha, Memphis, Nashville and sort of south-ish division with OKC, Round Rock, San Antonio/El Paso, Sugar Land and New Orleans. The other sends El Paso and San Antonio back to where they were in the 1990s–the Texas League–and gives us a north-ish division of St. Paul, Iowa, Omaha, Wichita, OKC to go along with a southeast-ish combo of Round Rock, Sugar Land, New Orleans, Memphis, and Nashville.

The latter is definitely my preferred option, but it hinges on some outcomes that are kind of hard to imagine. El Paso built a new park less than ten years ago, and in 2019 (admittedly pre-pandemic) they drew an average of almost 8,000 fans per game–not only higher than any Texas League club last year, but also in the upper echelon of the PCL. Another is the idea of New Orleans coming back to play in their aged suburban ballpark for the primary purpose (at least for now) of…uh…divisional alignment? Then again, is that as wacky as Wichita losing Triple-A ball before ever playing a game? Also, having the PCL at six teams, as well as cutting out Fresno and El Paso, seems a bit nuts to me. But then again, the California League (and especially Visalia and/or Stockton) would welcome the Grizzlies with open arms. And don’t tell the Padres, but the Chihuahuas would slot in very nicely next to the Sod Poodles and RockHounds and whatever other canines and prairie rodents make their home in West Texas. Woof woof.

Anyway, some of these simulations kind of work. And they’re kind of flexible. And it’s all conjecture. And it will all very likely be completely erroneous and outdated in a manner of months or even weeks. Till we learn more, keep checking out the Minor League Geek PBA coverage.

Thanks for reading and be well!

 

 

 

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