Well, it’s been a big story for the last half-year or so, with Major League Baseball’s plan of attempting to eliminate 40 teams from the Minor League Baseball chain under the guise of “player safety and inadequate facilities”. Before the world truly began to burn, this was one of the bigger stories in all of baseball as the two sides fought, often out in public, over the idea of eliminating teams from the minors.

But when COVID-19 arrived stateside and we began to see it spread, things began shutting down and sports were among the first things to push the “pause” button on their businesses. When that happened, it also put a halt on talks between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball on their negotiations for a new Professional Baseball Agreement – which is what allows the two sides to operate together as a “provider of team personnel” and “providers of facilities”.

JJ Cooper of Baseball America reported just before noon today that the Minor League Baseball side will concede to the reduction of teams down to 120 when the two sides have a conference call on Wednesday to continue their negotiations.

Now, MiLB and MLB are expected to discuss the parameters of a system where the two sides could work together to ensure that most of the cities that currently have affiliated baseball will have ties to MLB clubs, even if those cities’ teams will not be fielding draftees and signees of the MLB club. It wouldn’t be MLB’s initial proposal, but a system that has been adjusted to give those cities a better chance of having a viable long-term baseball operation.

There are many details for such a system that would need to be worked out, as far as what kind of financial and other support such teams would get from MLB and affiliated MiLB teams. But the general idea would be to ensure such cities continue to have reasonably high quality baseball in an economic system that would have staying power.

Update: 4:15pm ET on 4/21

Minor League Baseball has released the following statement:

Recent articles on the negotiations between MiLB and MLB are largely inaccurate. There have been no agreements on contraction or other issues. MiLB looks forward to continuing the good faith negotiations with MLB on Wednesday as we work toward an agreement that best ensures the future of professional baseball throughout the United States and Canada.

Below continues the originally published article

There is a lot of important information within the article, so be sure that you go read the piece in it’s entirety, but this point above is the biggest one for me from the article. Perhaps it’s just my naivety at play, but I just continue to struggle to see how there’s going to be financial viability in many of these small towns that are going to lose their MLB affiliations. It’s one thing to be able to get people to come out and see 1st round picks, and show up to get a Didi Gregorius bobblehead. It’s another thing to try and get them to come out to see guys that used to be 25th rounders and undrafted players and get your bobblehead of a guy who was pretty good at Country Crock College in three or four years.

Yes, there are some independent leagues that make things work. The players are paid less (and in some cases, not at all as they prey on the “you might get seen and signed” dream), which is a big issue, and the support system is really lacking by comparison to affiliated baseball. The competition level, though, may be a bit higher than your typical rookie-level league – but the array of talent is wide ranging, too. There are guys that reach the Major Leagues every year who were at one point in independent league baseball. Those guys are few and far between, but they exist. There’s talent in those leagues.

But how many of those guys wind up sticking around when there are fewer spots to be had in the affiliated ranks, and where you’re probably making less money than you would even in affiliated ball where guys were already struggling? How do teams stay afloat – some of whom were struggling to break even in years that features a few extra rain outs a year – when they now have to pay for the players and coaches and trainers?

Now, there’s certainly something to be said about having your business rely on someone else basically subsidizing a part of your operations. That hardly applies only to Major League Baseball, of course, but it does apply.

There are so many unanswered questions right now that I’m still left scratching my head here as to how most of these teams won’t simply vanish in the next few years. But perhaps the folks with Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball are far smarter than I am when it comes to this stuff. That’s certainly possible.

When it comes to the Cincinnati Reds specifically, they will see their current farm system hit the hardest if the initial list of teams on the proverbial chopping block remains. There has been some talk that there has been some change on that list that we first got to see, but we haven’t seen what those changes are. On the initial list the rookie level Greeneville Reds, rookie level Billings Mustangs, Advanced-A Daytona Tortugas, and Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts were among the 42 teams that were listed.

It’s very unlikely that if changes were made that they would involve the Greeneville Reds or the Billings Mustangs. Both are in rookie leagues that are being eliminated. And the Appalachian League where Greeneville plays was always seen as the easiest league to get rid of since almost all of the teams in the league are owned by their Major League team. For Billings, between the league being chopped and their location being nowhere near any other viable league, it just seems incredibly unlikely that despite having good facilities that they would be “saved” in the new plan.

The “new” plan would be to have no rookie level league outside of the leagues operated at the spring training complexes in Florida (Gulf Coast League) and Arizona (Arizona Rookie League). Each organization would still have a Low-A, Advanced-A, Double-A, and Triple-A franchise. What we likely will see, though, is a restructuring of the leagues to make travel easier (re: shorter), which will involve some current teams changing the level of affiliation that they are currently in to better fit the geographical location of leagues.

Very few teams in the minors and majors have player development contracts beyond the current season. There are a few that have protections – such as the Dayton Dragons. The Cincinnati Reds have to grant their approval to basically exist because of their proximity to Cincinnati, and it simply isn’t good business sense to allow another organization to have Dayton as an affiliate, so expect the Dragons to remain a Reds affiliate no matter how things play out. Whether they remain a Low-A team, or get moved to another league in restructuring is another story, though. The Louisville Bats and Cincinnati Reds are only affiliated through the end of 2020. That’s not to say they won’t extend that relationship, but it’s not currently beyond this year.

What we do know is that in 2021, if we get baseball of course, the Cincinnati Reds are going to have a team in Goodyear with the Arizona League Reds. And that they’ll have a Low-A, Advanced-A, Double-A, and Triple-A team. One of those teams is almost assuredly going to be the Dayton Dragons. Who the other three teams will be, and what levels they will be affiliated with – well that’s another story with questions we don’t have answers to.

22 Responses

  1. Norwood Nate

    I wonder if it would be worth it for teams to adopt an AFL style scenario for cities like Billings (or much of the Pioneer league in general) so the teams could remain “connected” to MLB but not an affiliated with a particular team. Like, if multiple teams sent rookie level players that were undrafted FA’s or low level IFA’s, and each of those teams also provided some coaches. 10 teams being fed by three ML teams each, play a short season made up of guys chasing a dream. I don’t know, maybe that’s still too affiliated with MLB to make it work.

    • Scott C

      I thought of that as well, the only problem that I see is coaching. The Reds have worked hard over the past few years and particularly the past off season to sync all of their coaches under one system thus the hiring of Kyle Boddie. How is that going to work when our guys in Rookie Ball are coached by someone from the Chicago White Sox organization. I understand you wouldn’t send your top prospects there but still there are always those guys that may be drafted in later rounds that are better than anyone thought.

    • MK

      I think the biggest problem with the Pioneer League is not the facilities but the travel. There is at least one team that requires a 12 hour plus bus ride. I am not sure any type league scenario is going to change that.

      The definition above of Independent leagues is the way it was before contraction but the talent should become more advanced as their are 25% fewer jobs to be had in affiliated baseball.

      If they decide to play part of the seasons, which is highly unlikely, I can not imagine Chattanooga or Daytona ownership will certainly not want to participate in a season that will certainly lose money with no future beyond this year.

    • Brad Legg

      Too bad for a lot of small towns and cities. Too bad for the ball players. It might be tougher for the late bloomer to get a shot now.

  2. SteveO

    In addition to restructuring leagues to make it more beneficial for the MLB club, I’d like to see expanded rosters at all levels or minor league baseball. Also, use the ST complexes after ST as full league season complexes. The Gulf Coast and Arizona Rookie Leagues with schedules similar to classes A-AAA i.e. 140 game schedule. 3 divisions with 5 teams in each division. Teams in each division will be determined by geographic location similar to the plan that was proposed if MLB were to be held in Arizona. I think it was the Reds along with the Indians, Dodgers, White Sox and Angels in the West division. Drafted players can be promoted to a Rookie-AAA team and those who are not, will play on the back fields of the ST complexes in a scheduled season from July to the end of the minor league season. This, of course is to help provide “jobs” to the players who would be without them because of the elimination of teams.

    • Doug Gray

      The GCL already is used as the Florida State League facilities with the exception of two teams in the league.

      • SteveO

        Schedule both day and night games in those facilities.

  3. Billy

    Doug, how has scouting and player development advances over the last decade contributed to this? Is it fair to say that teams do a better job identifying and developing talent now – with the ability to measure things like spin rates and exit velocities – than they did a decade ago? To what degree do teams just feel they’ve got a better handle on the talent now, and they don’t need all these levels to sift the chaff from the wheat?

    • Doug Gray

      Teams certainly feel they do a better job today than ever before, in part due to the technology at their disposal. Whether or not that’s true – it’s tougher to say, but it feels like it *should be* true.

      Within the industry there is a split on how teams feel about just how many levels you need. Some organizations want things to remain the same, while others want there to be like 3 levels total.

  4. Scott C

    I think this is a sad for baseball in general. I have known most of my adult life that baseball was a business not the idolized sport I loved as a kid, where you rooted for a star player his whole career because he was tied to that club. But this just seems to be a knife to the heart of the dream of so many kids. I know that most of them don’t make it to the big show but baseball still should be in someway, somewhere about dreams.

  5. Doug Gray

    The article has been updated with a statement from Minor League Baseball.

  6. BK

    Hopefully the Reds will end up with four nearby affiliates that can help with building a stronger regional fanbase. My preferred affiliates are:

    AAA – Louisville
    AA – Dayton (would require a move to the Eastern League)
    A+ – Charleston, WV (would require a move to the Carolina League)
    A – Bowling Green, KY

    • MK

      Why would Dayton ownership want to do this. The original proposal called for a major fee for a team to move up a level. They will not increase their profit any as they are already sold out. so why pay a fee and not increase revenue. Dayton is managed by execs who are as concerned with their between inning entertainment as they are the baseball game. As an example you will never see league leaders posted or other league team scores posted in the ballpark in anyway.

      • BK

        @ MK, I see your points, but I think they should consider this because the opportunity to move leagues may not come around for quite a while. Dayton is one of the premiere franchises and the Reds are fortunate to have them in their backyard.

  7. Colorado Red

    Doug,
    Have you seen a list of the contracted teams yet?
    Are the Reds still going to lose 4 teams?

  8. Big Ed

    I’m not convinced that outdoor baseball in Arizona from June through August is the best way to evaluate talent. The air is unbelievably dry, the daily highs are often well over a 100 degrees, and nobody shows up to watch. Plus, no other team at any level plays in a similar, except some Texas League teams and maybe a few Cal League teams. How do you really evaluate players in that environment, if the ball doesn’t behave there like it does everywhere else?

    I know they’ve invested their money in Arizona, but would it really be all that more expensive to have the complex ball somewhere like Omaha or Indianapolis or Buffalo? Or have 3 sites (including Florida), with 10 teams each?

    • MK

      All true but I understand it would be played with no fans. And playing under these conditions is better than not playing at all.

    • Doug Gray

      I don’t think it would be nearly as much about “evaluating talent” as much as it would be having the guys on the field, playing, and progressing their skills – even if the environment of it isn’t perfect.

      That said, I don’t think it’s going to happen at all – at least for the minor leagues this season. Less than 1% chance in my opinion that we see minor league baseball this year – whether that’s in Arizona or somewhere else.

      • Amarillo

        Doug, let’s say there is no minor league baseball, there is some major league baseball, and rosters are 30 active players. Does it make sense for the Reds to put their top prospects on the major league roster just to allow them to play baseball? Garcia/Stephenson/Lodolo etc. It might weaken the back end of the roster to be using players who aren’t major league ready, but could help development.

      • Doug Gray

        I don’t think so. But I also think that if this scenario plays out, the rosters will be bigger, and there will also be an “expanded” roster of guys that are “in the minors” that are basically wherever the team is, but not active, but also practicing every day as a backup for if and when guys get injured. That’s where you put some of your top prospects.

  9. AirborneJayJay

    This sucks on so many levels. This is not in “the best interests of baseball” as that idiot commissioner Rob Manfred likes to bring up. Thus is only in the best interests of MLB owners.
    There are going to be some far reaching consequences of this move. MLB’s anti-trust exemption in Congress will now be a hot topic if they proceed with this plan. Congressman in the affected states and towns across America are not going to idly sit by and watch this happen without a fight.

    Gonna be your final warning about the political commentary.

  10. Big Ed

    I wasn’t really talking about 2020, when I suggested Arizona in the middle of the summer was an odd and illogical place to play complex-based games.

    I was talking about 2021 and beyond. The 15 Cactus League teams all have investments in the Phoenix area, but I think that they would be better served from a baseball standpoint to have the summer complexes in Nebraska or Iowa or some similar climate-neutral place. At least the baseball would perform in Nebraska like it generally does at the MLB level, unlike on 106 degree days at a fairly high altitude.

    How much more could it cost? The land is flat and plentiful, and the teams could build a big place (or two) that had several game fields and even more practice fields. Housing would be the same or cheaper in the plains states than in Phoenix, and the cost of feeding the players would be generally the same. For example, MLB could build a baseball complex near Lincoln, Nebraska, and use the dorms at the University of Nebraska or other colleges for most of the summer, given that most of them sit empty, anyway.

    If you’ve never been to Phoenix in July, maybe it’s hard to understand what I am saying, but I would at least crunch some numbers on this if I were MLB.

    Florida weather in mid-summer isn’t great, either, but at least you can do most of it in facilities near the ocean.

    I will concede that this is unlikely, but I think it would be better for development than doing daily drills/practice and playing 50 games in an oven.