What Might Minor League Baseball at 120 Teams Mean?

photo: Medlar Field at Lubrano Park, State College, PA (Cooper Deck/The Cardinal Nation)

Though the operating agreement for Minor League Baseball (MiLB) with Major League Baseball (MLB) is still set to expire on September 30, the sometimes-contentious talks on a new pact between the two sides had recently been placed on the back burner – for obvious reasons.

With the continuing COVID-19 threat putting the entire 2020 minor league season in considerable peril, MiLB teams are facing an uncertain financial future. Couple that with an uncertain affiliation future for 42 of the 160 affiliated teams in the US starting in 2021 and something had to give.

Simply put, MiLB’s negotiating leverage – which was not balanced with MLB to start with – eroded away.

Per a Tuesday report from Baseball America (which you must go and read now if you have not already), MiLB is reportedly willing to concede to MLB’s plans to drop 42 affiliated minor league teams, mostly at the short-season levels.

Though it is only my speculation, MiLB may be coming to the (virtual) table at Wednesday’s meeting with MLB looking for a financial life preserver to ensure the remaining 120 clubs can stay afloat.

Two of the original MLB-stated issues are not expected to be roadblocks – clear facility standards and a reduction in travel via more optimal league alignment. Had those been the only matters for the two sides to work out, an agreement may have been signed months ago.

A newer, higher impact matter is that of MLB reportedly seeking greater control over the affiliation process as well as of governance of MiLB in general. Depending on how the future agreement is structured, some of the remaining minor league team owners may welcome a sense of longer-term security. Others may be wary of the loss of the few remaining checks and balances the prior system afforded them.

Of greatest concern to the general public may be the fate of the 42 cities to lose their affiliated teams in 2021.

In the BA report and in social media comments by its author following, there is vague talk of the “possibilities… of a sustainable system” going forward, which would keep baseball active in these communities.

On the surface, that sounds really good, but in what form? And who defines “sustainable”? MLB or the teams themselves? And what happens if they are wrong?

I feel it is important to draw a clear distinction between the relative “certainty” of 42 teams being cut now and these generic “possibilities” of a replacement system that may or may not prove over time to be viable.

In fact, this idea of a “sustainable system” is what MLB tried to sell the first time around with its “Dream League”. The concept was panned by most objective viewers as infeasible because it shifted the entire financial burden of team operation, most notably player and related expense, from MLB to local team owners.

Let’s be realistic. Unless MLB agrees to subsidize any new proposal, its odds of success are lowered, yet MLB teams do not want to keep paying to supply the short-season teams as they do currently.

So for now, talking in general and noble terms about saving baseball in these communities is clearly the optimal PR stance to take.

Let’s consider the potential ramifications if these rumored plans actually come to pass.

What might this mean for MiLB overall?

Going forward, each of the 30 MLB organizations would have four full-season teams in the US – at the Triple-A, Double-A, High-A and Class A levels, hence the new total of 120. Though some cities and affiliations would change, the same structure and team count as today at these four levels would remain into the future.

In addition, organizations would still have rookie level teams in their spring training complexes, playing in either the Arizona League or Gulf Coast League (GCL). Academies in the Dominican Republic will also remain. More on these later as potential future areas of increased investment for player development.

What might this mean for short-season baseball?

The two short-season levels not playing at MLB team facilities, Short-Season Class A and Rookie Advanced, would no longer remain. The four leagues at those levels – the New York-Penn, Northwest, Appalachian and Pioneer Leagues – would likely cease to exist.

The Short-Season Class A leagues consist of 22 teams today, with 18 more in the two Rookie Advanced leagues. 10 MLB organizations have two teams in these levels, with the other 20 systems fielding one each.

A handful of the 42 teams might be saved going forward, moved up in level to replace a current Class A team, for example, but all that would mean is that other teams at higher levels today would be cut to make room. The simple math in dropping from 160 to 120 would require it.

The vast majority of the teams in these four short-season leagues would lose their MLB affiliation (along with two more at higher levels bumped off to make room for the addition of independent teams St. Paul and Sugar Land). (This is the reason for the difference between 40 and 42 potential reductions.)

What might this mean for the Cardinals system?

Teams in the Cardinals system at very high risk are the State College Spikes of the NYPL and the Johnson City Cardinals of the Appalachian League. Their facilities are far less of a drawback than their geography, in central Pennsylvania and eastern Tennessee, respectively.

While both teams were among those on an initial rumored contraction list, there is no confirmation yet.

Financial considerations

MLB owners were said to have agreed to the initial contraction plan by a unanimous 30-0 vote. One reason is a belief that player development can be streamlined due to better data, tools and training approaches, thereby requiring fewer players and less personnel expense to feed their major league squads.

At the same time, there are pressures to increase minor league pay across the board, with new higher levels of compensation being enacted in 2021. This is a first move to address a gap that even MLB agrees has existed for some time.

Competitive balance that isn’t

The First-Year Player Draft, a main feeder for these short-season clubs, is being reduced from 40 rounds to a minimum of five this year and a maximum of 20 rounds starting in 2021. Fewer players in the pipeline and fewer teams in the system go hand and glove.

However, not all MLB organizations have been investing equally in the minor leagues, anyway. Putting aside the four full-season affiliates in every organization, eight MLB organizations have just three short-season clubs, while 13 others invest in five. (All others have four teams.) That means a rough difference of 70 more (or fewer) prospects may be in one organization vs. another today – before the cuts.

The primary explanation for this gap are varying levels of investment in what are called “complex” teams, in the US and in the Dominican Republic. (I further refine the label of the latter as “academy” teams in this analysis to keep the two separate, as they are different.)

All 30 MLB organizations have a presence in the Dominican, where teens are housed in dorms and fed and trained to be professional ballplayers. Over half of the 30 organizations field more than one team in the Dominican Summer League (DSL).

One step up, 29 of the 30 organizations (excepting Colorado) have at least one team in either the Arizona or Gulf Coast Leagues. 10 different organizations field two teams in their respective complex league.

I see “complex” and “academy” teams as a potential reinvestment area for player development. The gap in quality of play between the Arizona/GCL and Class A is considerable (without the Rookie Advanced and Short-Season Class A no longer in between ).

Putting this into the context of the Cardinals system, rarely can a player handle the huge jump in level of competition from the GCL directly to Peoria of the Class A Midwest League. But in this new world, that would be required of every player to advance.

Post-contraction growth?

Establishing a second rookie-level team in a cost- and activity-controlled environment – the organization’s spring training facility – would seem an easy partial replacement for the higher level teams contracted.

A second Arizona/GCL team (for the 20 organizations that do not have them) would also help deal with the influx of players from the Dominican academies, new draftees and free agent signings – all trying to fit onto one 35-man “complex” team roster.

Further, the minority count of MLB organizations that do not already have two DSL teams could decide to increase their international investment.

So even in this new contracted model, those organizations that want to invest more extensively in player development seemingly could do so. However,  the games would not be held in front of fans in local communities across the US, but instead in the solitude of the back fields of minor league complexes in Arizona and Florida.

While this might be pleasing to the MLB organizations’ financial ledgers, it does not help those in the 42 cities reportedly on tap to lose their affiliated team. How many future fans of and participants in the game of baseball would simply find another sport to adopt instead?

Perhaps only time will tell, but the contraction train is rolling down the tracks, with the station now coming into view. If you ignore its approach, you are likely going to be run over.

Update

Tuesday afternoon, Minor League Baseball issued the following message, disputing much of the BA article:

There seems no reason for MiLB to yield any negotiating leverage via the press.

At least one other national writer’s findings support the original reporting. Maury Brown of Forbes wrote, “‘Largely inaccurate’ is not ‘entirely inaccurate’.  I’ve heard from more than one MiLB owner that the gist of the (BA) reporting is accurate.”

We will all see what happens soon enough.


For more

I discuss this subject (along with the MLB salary dispute over playing in empty stadiums, the Texas Plan, some high-profile players reluctant to return in a quarantined environment and more) with Cardinals play-by-play announcer Dan McLaughlin in this week’s “Wednesday with Walton” podcast at ScoopswithDannyMac.com.

Listen in!


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Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnation.com or for fastest turnaround, pose your questions on The Cardinal Nation’s members-only forum. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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