Major League Baseball sent out a press release on Friday, February 12 announcing all 120 Minor League Baseball teams, their affiliations, and highlighting some features of the agreement. All 120 teams have agreed to 10-year deals, meaning there will not be the every-other year shuffle of affiliates so fans really start following a given team’s system that plays in their town for the next decade. Every team that was extended an invitation to be among the affiliated clubs accepted, with the only one that did leave some doubt being the Fresno Grizzlies as they dropped from Triple-A all the way down to Low-A.
Much has been made of the less than creative league names, but that is sure to change sooner than later, and there is plenty of question about how the 2021 season will look given the ongoing pandemic, but what about the long-term implications of the deal? Let’s dive into the good, the bad, the misleading, and some wish list items that has come out of the deal.
10-year deal: This is big, the mass shuffle of affiliates is now a thing of the past and the clubs can truly market themselves as an extension of the big-league club they are affiliated with. No longer will we see a team like the Lancaster Jethawks (more on them in the bad) who were affiliated with five different big-league clubs in their 24 seasons.
Low-A Warm Weather: This one is easy to overlook, but the swapping of progression for most teams at the A ball level makes much more sense now compared to the past. No longer will we see players make their full season debut, in April, in Ohio or Michigan, or Wisconsin, instead they will be in Florida, California, or the Carolinas. It may not seem like much, but there is enough of an adjustment for a high school draftee transitioning into pro ball without many having to pitch in near freezing temps for the first time.
42 Cities Removed: There are now 43 cities across the county that used to have an affiliated minor league club that don’t anymore. This means states like Colorado go from having multiple minor league teams to none, while states like Montana have no affiliated baseball of any kind in their state any longer. True, many have turned into summer collegiate leagues or independent teams, but a place like Lancaster, California lost their 25th season to the pandemic and currently sit with no immediate plans to host a baseball team any longer.
Shortened Draft: The draft has been shortened from 40 rounds to 20. This is not a massive issue since the great majority of big-league ballplayers are either international signings or were drafted in the top five rounds, but it cuts the number of players who get to call themselves pros in half.
Salary Increases: In the release, the first bullet point of the “many improvements” is a 38-72% increase in player salaries. This was much needed but is also highlights just how bad player salaries were. JJ Cooper of Baseball America helped crunch the numbers and Rookie level salaries (yes, there is still Rookie ball, but complex only) went from $290/week to $400/week. Both levels of A ball went from $290/week up to $500/week (the biggest jump of any level), while Double-A now gets paid $600/week compared to $350/week and Triple-A jumps to $700/week from the old rate of $502/week. Players only get paid during the season, so 6 months of A ball means a player makes roughly $13,500/year while Triple-A players make $18,200. Compare that to the Triple-A player who is on a big-league deal with a minimum wage of $570,500, which would be $21,942.331/week if paid out over the same time frame. This means one player could make more in a single week than another makes for an entire season.
Better Geographical Alignment: The release points out that, on average, Triple-A clubs are more than 200 miles closer to their MLB affiliate than previous seasons. For the most part this is an improvement, but there are still some outliers that stick out like a sore thumb. The Colorado Rockies Triple-A affiliate is still down in Albuquerque, New Mexico but their Double-A affiliate remains all the way out in Hartford, Connecticut. Then there is the High-A East which has five teams in the North Division and seven in the South Division that will include bus rides from Brooklyn, New York down to Rome, Georgia and back. Sure, scheduling will likely have those teams make stops at other clubs along the way, but that doesn’t exactly scream “better geographical alignment”.
Modernized Facilities: Part of the agreements between the Minor League and Major League teams included requirements for improvements, modernization, and general upgrades for fans, players, and staff alike. At first glance this doesn’t seem like it could be anything but a good, but let’s take a look at why so many ballparks need improvements. The old California league teams, now mostly consisting of the Low-A West division, saw Bakersfield and High Desert run to the Carolina League back in 2016. The remaining teams didn’t have commitments for more than a handful of years, makes it tough to commit to sinking millions into ballpark improvements. Then there is the Rocky Mountain Vibes, formerly the Colorado Springs Sky Sox, who saw their Triple-A team move to Amarillo only to be replaced by a short-season club, then be eliminated from affiliated ball all together. It is no surprise, with all those moving parts and without a long-term commitment, the owners of the ballpark didn’t dig up right field and insert better irrigation at a field that would rain out with the sun shining because water would merely pool in the outfield rather than drain.
MiLB TV Everywhere: Now that MLB has taken over operations of MiLB and there are long term commitments, there is no reason every club shouldn’t have their own broadcast team. This would take some time, but part of the modernization of the ballparks should come with the addition of camera wells and a broadcast booth ready for TV. MLB Network could then pick a Game of the Week to air mid-week, mid-day to fill programing but also allow fans to see the stars of the future and highlight great minor league cities.
Televise the Draft League: The Draft League, an amateur summer league run by MLB in conjunction with Prep Baseball Report, still has many questions looming, and it is not technically MiLB affiliated, but should have its own broadcasting package included in MiLB.tv.
Conference/Division Naming Contests: One of the many fun aspects of Minor League Baseball is the naming rights contests for teams when they move or re-brand that sees fans submitting crazy names and voting on them to determine what the team’s moniker will be moving forward (see Rocket City Trash Pandas). Why not take a big negative out of the announcement (uninspired league/conference/division names) and turn it into a positive by opening it up to a fan vote?
Allow Loans: Ok, this may be a wild idea on the surface, but stay with me. Under the new schedule of a July draft, teams will likely negotiate future contracts (i.e., drafted in 2021 but the contract begins in 2022), so why not allow teams that make up the Indy ball circuit loan those college draftees? This allows teams to sign a player to a same year contract, reducing the negotiation struggles sure to come with agents and teams arguing over when the contract begins, and let Indy teams bid to pay the player’s salary that summer in exchange for them suiting up for those teams. This wouldn’t work for top of the draft guys, and high school picks will likely head to the complex leagues but sending the 15th round college senior to the Missoula PaddleHeads helps strengthen the relationship with “partner leagues”.
The next twelve months will be fascinating to watch the minor league landscape settle in, but there are opportunities for Major League Baseball to better the game at the lower levels, and a season with so many moving parts as the 2021 season has is the perfect time to give it a shot.