A major change to the minor leagues?

This story is something which, on the surface, applies to my fellow baseball geeks but may affect a lot more in terms of regional economy and our hometown Shorebirds.

A published report in the baseball geek magazine Baseball America – a tome which specializes in coverage of the lower levels of the sport, from high school prospects to the high minors of AAA – claims that Major League Baseball (MLB) wishes to eliminate over one-fourth of the 160 affiliated minor league teams. The MLB proposal, which would take effect in 2021, would limit the Orioles and their other 29 brethren franchises to four full-season affiliates corresponding to AAA, AA, advanced A, and A. This would reduce the number of required teams to 120; however, the BA report also foretells the “promotion” of independent league teams in Sugar Land, Texas and St. Paul, Minnesota to the Minor League Baseball (MiLB) fold as they become affiliated teams (presumably to the Astros and Twins, respectively.)

The goals of MLB in this agreement are to eliminate facilities which are substandard as well as realign MiLB leagues and classifications to allow for less travel and better geographic alignment between MLB parent clubs and their affiliates. It’s been generally assumed that the teams currently in short-season leagues would be those on the chopping block, but that may not necessarily be true: for example, short-season Aberdeen has far better facilities than our fellow SAL team in Hagerstown, so the IronBirds would likely make the cut while Hagerstown is dropped. (The question then could become whether the Orioles would prefer an A ball team in Aberdeen or Delmarva.) The Suns, however, could live on as part of a “dream league” under the auspices of MiLB where undrafted players get to play in the hopes of eventually being signed. (In essence they would fill a role some independent leagues now fill.)

Hagerstown is a team which would almost certainly be axed in favor of a short-season team based on dreadful attendance and facilities. Among the remaining SAL teams, the worst attendance figures (under 2,000 a game average) belong to Hagerstown, Kannapolis, and West Virginia, while Hickory hovered just over that mark. In terms of stadium age, Hagerstown isn’t the oldest – Asheville’s park dates from 1924, six years before Hagerstown built theirs – but it’s one of just five SAL parks built in the 20th century. (Along with Delmarva, Hickory and Charleston opened their parks in the mid-1990s. Kannapolis did as well, but they open a new stadium – and get a new team name that’s announced in the coming days – next spring.)

As I alluded to above, the Orioles already have a pretty good situation insofar as geography is concerned: their only teams with significant distance between themselves and Baltimore are AAA Norfolk and their complex team at their spring training facility in Sarasota, Florida (which would be retained in any case as part of the agreement.) But they could have a decision to make if Aberdeen is retained in the MiLB mix.

Complicating matters in that regard is the prospect of teams moving up (or down) in classification. A big issue in MiLB today is the layout of the leagues: for example, West Coast MLB teams have no choice but to send their A-ball prospects two or three time zones away because the farthest west team at that level plays in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. There are imbalances at every other level, too: this year the Washington Nationals had to send their AAA players out to Fresno, California because it was the last available AAA team. (Fresno was even rejected by the Oakland A’s, who left Nashville after the 2018 season for the AAA team in Las Vegas. Nashville, for their part, signed on with the Texas Rangers after they lost their previous AAA team in Round Rock, Texas to the Houston Astros, who left Fresno to take over at Round Rock. This was all necessitated when the New York Mets purchased the AAA team in Syracuse, New York to be their affiliate – they were the team that left Las Vegas and started the merry-go-round once development agreements expired last year. Previous to 2019, Syracuse was the Nationals’ top farm team.)

I suspect what’s going to happen is that the A-ball level where Delmarva plays and the advanced-A level are going to be most affected, but whether it’s reclassifying the advanced-A California League to an A ball league for West Coast teams or – as was alluded to in the BA story – reducing the South Atlantic League to 10 teams and creating a new six-team Mid-Atlantic League to reduce travel, MLB wants to revamp the minor leagues. I also suspect the advanced-A Florida State League may be eliminated since most of those teams are based at a spring training site where the complex leagues also play, attendance is rather low, and there are only a few major league teams in the region. The complex leagues could shift to evening start times (they normally play in the late morning or noontime) to fill the gap. (A small issue there is that there are 15 teams with spring training in Arizona and 15 in Florida, so each of those prospective leagues could require a travel team to even out the schedule.)

With the money invested in our facilities over the last few years, it’s not likely Delmarva would be left out in the cold totally (although there is the possibility.) But I honestly think that, if the Orioles had to choose between Aberdeen and Delmarva as an A-ball affiliate, we would get the short end of the stick – if so, I’m sure the Nationals would love to be here and we could resume the Governor’s Cup against Aberdeen instead of Hagerstown. A new six-team A-level Mid-Atlantic League could include Aberdeen, Brooklyn, and Staten Island (teams with newer facilities promoted from short-season rookie ball), along with SAL refugees Delmarva and Lakewood, and Wilmington, which would be dropped from advanced-A as the northernmost appendage of the Carolina League but is geographically favorable to this proposed league. In the paper MAL the longest bus trip would be under five hours, and possible affiliating teams would include the Orioles and Nationals along with the Mets, Yankees, Phillies, Red Sox, and perhaps Toronto or Pittsburgh. (Currently both Aberdeen and Delmarva are Orioles teams, Brooklyn and Staten Island affiliate with the Mets and Yankees, respectively, and Lakewood with the Phillies. Wilmington is the odd duck as a Kansas City Royals affiliate – the Royals are one of those teams stranded in a situation where no advanced-A team is nearby.) Such a league would allow fans to see each team 14 times based on a 140-game schedule. It would be a little repetitive but also creates good rivalries.

Now, there are other possibilities as well: Aberdeen would fit decently into a reduced-size AAA International League where Norfolk would be relegated to the South Atlantic League, with a different affiliation. (Or they could create a third AAA league based in the South which would include Norfolk.) In that case, not only would IronBird fans get to experience cold-weather baseball, in the case of a move to the IL they could get the guys at the other end of the minor league food chain from what they now receive (aside from rehabbing players.)

In any case, MiLB in general and Delmarva fans in particular have been put on notice: after next season the landscape in which the Shorebirds exist could be a whole lot different. Hopefully we’ll still be seeing 70 games a year at the old ball yard.