If you are in any way affiliated with the Billings Mustangs – whether that’s as a fan, an owner, an employee, someone in the area who relies on ancillary benefits from games – it’s probably been a confusing past year when it comes to knowing what the future holds for the franchise. Major League Baseball’s takeover of Minor League Baseball is leading to the elimination of 40-ish affiliated teams, mostly from the non-complex level rookie leagues. That includes the Pioneer League and the Billings Mustangs.
When Major League Baseball announced their plans to eliminate so many teams, they had said that they would work with these franchises and towns to help them keep baseball in some way, shape, or form. Some of that has already happened – the Appalachian League has been turned into a college wooden bat summer league. A few teams have been offered spots in the Atlantic League – an independent league.
The Pioneer League doesn’t really fit in with any other league, so having a team from that league move into another league doesn’t really make much sense. The league will need to be all in it together, whichever direction they go. On the other side of the country, the New York-Penn League, which has been eliminated as an affiliated league, has been offered the opportunity to become another college wooden bat summer league – this one for college seniors who are looking to be drafted. Baseball America is reporting today that Major League Baseball has asked the teams to indicate whether they are interested in that or not by today. If enough teams aren’t interested in that route, Major League Baseball needs to look for an alternative.
That alternative could wind up being the Pioneer League. As the article from Baseball America notes, a league would need at least six teams to be a viable option. The Pioneer League has eight teams spread out over Montana, Idaho, Utah, and Colorado. Unlike the New York-Penn League, and the Appalachian League – travel would be a big hurdle to overcome here. Those leagues are much closer from city to city. In the Pioneer League you have teams that are ten+ hour bus rides apart.
The most likely situation for Billings and for the Pioneer League is to form their own independent league. Without the backing of Major League Baseball, that could be a bit tougher to do. And of course that also comes along with having to pay players as well as team staff – something they’ve never had to do in the past. Of course, they could also go from a 70-game schedule as a short-season team to a longer season if they all went it together, which could increase revenues with more dates to work with.