The list of 42 minor league baseball teams targeted for elimination by Major League Baseball has leaked, and let’s get right to the names marked for death:
- Appalachian League (advanced Rookie): Bluefield Blue Jays, Bristol Pirates, Burlington Royals, Danville Braves, Elizabethton Twins, Greeneville Reds, Johnson City Cardinals, Kingsport Mets, Princeton Rays
- California League (advanced A): Lancaster Jethawks
- Carolina League (advanced A): Frederick Keys
- Eastern League (Double-A): Binghamton Rumble Ponies, Erie SeaWolves
- Florida State League (advanced A): Daytona Tortugas, Florida Fire Frogs
- Midwest League (full-season A): Burlington Bees, Clinton LumberKings, Quad Cities River Bandits
- New York-Penn League (short-season A): Auburn Doubledays, Batavia Muckdogs, Connecticut Tigers, Lowell Spinners, Mahoning Valley Scrappers, State College Spikes, Staten Island Yankees, Vermont Lake Monsters, Williamsport Crosscutters
- Northwest League (short-season A): Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, Tri-City Dust Devils
- Pioneer League (advanced Rookie): Billings Mustangs, Grand Junction Rockies, Great Falls Voyagers, Idaho Falls Chukars, Missoula PaddleHeads, Ogden Raptors, Orem Owlz, Rocky Mountain Vibes
- Southern League (Double-A): Chattanooga Lookouts, Jackson Generals
- South Atlantic League (full-season A): Hagerstown Suns, Lexington Legends, West Virginia Power
Or, if you prefer, here’s a map:
In addition, many surviving teams would need to switch leagues: The Brooklyn Cyclones will reportedly make the leap all the way to Double-A to replace Binghamton, while other survivors of the NY-Penn League would join with join with remnants of the South Atlantic League in a new mid-Atlantic league. (I haven’t seen reporting yet on who’d shift levels to replace Erie or the two Southern League teams.) The Pioneer League would be eliminated entirely, while only the Pulaski Yankees would escape the flaming ruins of the Appalachian League.
If all this looks like a mish-mash of teams in smaller cities, teams in not-as-brand-new stadiums, and teams far from major league affiliates, that’s apparently exactly what it is. According to both published reports and sources I’ve spoken to, the downsizing plan was first concocted in the front office of the Houston Astros, the franchise most dedicated to using advanced techniques to gain a competitive edge, even if it means breaking the rules. As the Astros execs’ thinking went, advanced analytics (i.e., grading players based on such things as using high-speed cameras to measure body mechanics) could replace watching young players play actual baseball, saving the trouble of having to pay so many of them to do so. (Not that this is a huge expense — an entire single-A roster can be had for about $600,000 a year — but again, the Astros are all about exploiting every advantage.) And while Houston execs could and did reduce their minor-league affiliates on their own, from nine teams to seven, why should they have to compete against teams like the New York Yankees whose owners were willing to keep minor league teams stacked up like cordwood?
According to the New York Daily News’ Bill Madden, Astros GM Jeff Luhnow quickly found support from two other team GMs, David Stearns of the Brewers and Mike Elias of the Orioles, who had previously worked for him in Houston. And other team execs quickly realized that eliminating minor league teams could have other benefits as well: It could allow MLB to force realignments so that their affiliates would be closer geographically, enable the elimination of teams whose stadiums weren’t seen as up to par, and potentially provide increased franchise fees from teams whose owners wished to survive. Plus, if minor leaguers are going to insist in court on being paid minimum wage, that would go down a lot more smoothly if each franchise only had four minor league payrolls to cover. The contraction proposal, reports Madden, passed 30-0 in a vote of MLB teams earlier this year.
The eliminated franchise owners wouldn’t be entirely SOL: They could apply to join a newly formed “Dream League,” an ill-formed proposal that would involve wannabe pro players somehow being allocated to nearby leagues — “we can fill rosters with players from local markets,” Morgan Sword, MLB senior vice president of league economics and operations, enthused to the New York Times — that would receive cash subsidies from MLB, but would otherwise be on the hook for paying their own player payrolls. Minor league officials are doubtful many franchises could afford to operate on such a basis, with one unnamed source telling the Times a Dream League would be a “death sentence” for clubs, and another speculating that at best 10 of the 42 teams could survive.
And what would all of this mean for the cities that have supported minor league baseball by erecting stadiums, partly or entirely at public cost, to ensure the presence of a team? Just as a small sampling: New York City spent $71 million to build a ballpark for the Staten Island Yankees in 2001; Jackson spent $8 million on a stadium for the Generals in 1998, and has additionally chipped in $500,000 a year in operating subsidies since then; the SeaWolves just got $12 million in state money and the Rumble Ponies just received $5 million in state and city funds for upgrades to their ballparks. Chattanooga, meanwhile, has been discussing a new stadium to replace the Lookouts’ current one, which will turn an ancient 20 years old next year; that’ll presumably be off the agenda if there’s no team, but who’s to say that MLB won’t allow new applicants to the slimmed-down minor league register, if they come with snazzy enough stadium plans and a lucrative enough fee? Madden reports that “for over a year now, MLB has been asking Minor League teams to lobby their state governors and legislatures to enact legislation allotting ‘integrity fees’ — a percentage of the baseball gambling revenue in their states — that would generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for MLB,” and suggests that local officials won’t take too kindly to that if teams are being eliminated, but who’s to say if they’ll consider them if it would remove their teams from the hit list?
What is certain, if this plan reaches fruition, is lawsuits, and plenty of them: Teams, cities, and concessionaires alike could all sue MLB, since wiping out teams would mean abrogating tons of long-term leases and contracts that are in place. (“My God, we’ll be sued all over the place from these cities that have built or refurbished ballparks with taxpayer money, and this will really put our anti-trust exemption in jeopardy,” Madden reports an unnamed MLB official as saying. “It’s crazy.”) The Yankees could technically sue as well, given that they only granted permission for the Cyclones’ existence in their territory in exchange for being granted a Staten Island club in the same league, though if they voted for the plan, presumably that’s not in the cards.
This is all still just a preliminary negotiating proposal, mind you, and there is a ton still to hash out before the MLB-MiLB operating agreement is rewritten sometime next year. (The Winter Meetings from December 8–12 are bound to be hopping with plans and counterplans; anyone feel like crowdfunding me a trip to San Diego?) But by establishing its intentions and sending out the message that all that’s left is to haggle over the details, MLB is clearly in a position to get minor league team owners thinking about how they can buy their way off that list; I can’t fathom a guess as to how this all will end, except that it will almost certainly be really, really ugly and benefit those with the most cash to burn, because that’s how monopoly capitalism always functions.