MLB’s minor league hit list would kill 42 teams that cities spent hundreds of millions on stadiums for

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.

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36 comments on “MLB’s minor league hit list would kill 42 teams that cities spent hundreds of millions on stadiums for

  1. This isn’t the first time I say it. Teams should be owned by whatever city wants to organize a team and bargain nationally for talent. Leagues should be ranked like English football: league winners rising to a higher level of play; lowest ranked teams demoted. Ownership should either be municipal assets, or shares owned by residents (a la Green Bay). If facilities become outdated, voters should have a say in whether and how they should be replaced. The business of sports is too important to be left to egotistical rich people.

  2. The Rumble Ponies (sigh) just got five million dollars in upgrades from NY State and the city of Binghamton in exchange for a lease extension to 2026.

    1. And . . . . . . they’re hosting the Eastern League All-Star Game in 2020. That’s a nice way to go out of existence.

  3. This combined with the rampant cheating (with no consequences) makes me think the commissioners office of Rob Manfred in completely naive and incompetent.

    I’m pretty sure coroporations will stop “investing” in MLB when they realize there’s no audience.

  4. I may be too optimistic, but I really think this is too huge of a change to pass. It’s either a bluff or so hubristic that it’s going to blow up in MLB’s face. As you note, there’s so many affected local parties that are either being shaken down, simultaneously, or would just be vaporized at once, for it not to be bogged down in endless lawsuits and legislative threats. And as much as more involvement from congress isn’t usually a solution to fixing anything, this will be fish-in-a-barrel easy for them to grandstand about the antitrust exemption being eliminated.

    1. You may be right, Joe. This reminds me a bit of efforts to streamline the military in nearly every administration I can remember (except the current one so far) by closing bases and consolidating. Makes sense on the broad level and congressmen are all on board on the theory, but when it’s my town or city on the chopping block, those same congressmen scream and all comes to a screeching halt.

    2. I tend to agree, Joe. But if the goal is just to shake somebody down, does it really matter whether it’s the host cities, congress, state level governments etc?

      Didn’t various MLB entities claim that “having to pay actual minimum wage” to minor league players would destroy the viability of several franchises?

      Yet just a couple of years ago, the Blue Jays doubled the wage of every player in their minor league system… and the GM claimed that the total cost of this move was in the hundreds of thousands, not millions. So, basically, offering MiLB players a living wage cost less than adding one minimum wage roster spot (or 2 executive assistants…) to the bottom line.

      Yet they still won’t do it.

      The owners (no matter how appalling) never managed to kill baseball, but the MBAs might.

  5. One key element to this is the cutting of the Draft to 20 rounds ( from 40) something the Players Association wants. I suspect this will be part of the next agreement. With that the need for as many minor league affiliates is lessened.

    1. Or to put it another way, with fewer affiliates, you don’t need to draft for as long to fill all those spots.

      I also notice that the draft will move to July, after which players will “undergo analytics indoctrination” for the rest of the summer instead of playing games. No details on whether the players would be paid for that, or if it would be treated as unpaid practice time, like spring training.

    2. I have known college players over the years and have good friends with talented seniors right now. I’ve actually listened in on the draft. It is painful to hear the later rounds. God knows how these teams know about these kids except on paper. To hear the kids talk about their prospects, get bused around and sleeping in strangers homes for two months in the summer just sounds awful. All for the sliver of a chance to get to the show.

      So while it’s a money grab for the MLB, I feel bad for my buddies’ kids, and I think getting the reality sooner rather than later–and not slogging your way through the minors–is the best thing for them too.

  6. Not surprised that my now turned evil franchise, the formerly Houston “Dis-” or “L-” Astros are behind this nefarious plan. Good grief.

  7. MLB is greedy but the current system is outdated and needs to go just like in 1963 and the contractions in the early 1950s. Cities not in MLB affiliated leagues have a solution. It’s Independent Baseball. Players not drafted, cut or simply holding out for a better deal could perform there. Those with the abilities could then be sold to MLB teams and the teams/leagues could run their own operations, just like it was done for the most part before 1963.This would give these teams/leagues more freedom from MLB. Why should the many places with <1,000 average attendance be subsidized? This is not the U.S. Mail.
    MLB should give financial aid on a one time basis or for a few years. This is Not as one ridiculous over the top article put it an – "Assault on Hometown Baseball". As for lawsuits, just more of what we Don't Need.

    1. Sadly, I have to agree with you. The Hagerstown Suns pulled just over 900 fans per game this year. That’s a farm team of the world champions, it’s a full-season team, and it had several top prospects suiting up for it this year, including first-rounder Jackson Rutledge. The economics of a team in Hagerstown in the 2020s don’t seem to make much sense to me.

      What I can see happening is, whether by paying up or putting public pressure on MLB, some of these 42 teams getting a reprieve. Staten Island, Frederick, Erie, Chattanooga, and a few others have pretty good cases and seem likely to have advocates for them. But the likes of Hagerstown and most of the NYP, Pioneer, and Appalachian leagues…it’s just time. Tons of minor league teams and even entire leagues folded in the ’40s and ’50s, and the institution of baseball survived. Some minor league franchises are thriving. Some are relics. That’s just the way it is. Nothing is guaranteed forever.

      The other side of this that I haven’t seen discussed is that I believe initial reports were that some independent teams could sign affiliation agreements. MLB already has a partnership of sorts with the Atlantic League. South of the border, LMB is also an as-yet unaffiliated minor league, and Manfred has made no secret of his desire to start growing MLB in Mexico. So the misfortune of the likes of the Elizabethton Twins and the Burlington Bees could be to the benefit of the Long Island Ducks and the Tijuana Toros. Maybe you can say it’s wrong for MLB to pick winners and losers, but that’s nothing new.

  8. Wouldn’t this sort of help keep these smaller cities from buying in to these deals which are almost universally bad?

    That article about the Jackson shows what I’m talking about: the team paid rent of $2500 a month which was then reimbursed along with another $500,000 or more. Then the city paid another $500k+ in other subsidies to the team and stadium. So it has paid over a million a year to keep the team, while a study commissioned by the team states: “The study also estimated that $206,818 was generated in local tax revenue” in 2010. Doesn’t quite seem like a good deal.

    1. Exactly. It should do that… but we are living in an environment where cities will knowingly throw more money than they can ever hope to earn back (let alone an actual return on investment) at sports franchises.

      Maybe the one benefit of this is that there will be fewer affiliated minor league teams trying the stadium extortion game. Whether that means less actual extortion, who knows…

  9. “… teams that cities spent hundreds of millions on stadiums for.”
    That’s it. Let’s levy taxes, which are supposed to go for the common good, and, over the objections of dissenters, build stadiums for the benefit of privately owned teams. Then we’ll let government officials, with little expertise in negotiating contracts, sign a lease that gives away the store with no protections for the taxpayers. What could possibly go worng? And who’s the real villain?

    “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. ” Winston Churchill

    1. “The problem with quotes on the internet is that no one can confirm their authenticity.” —Abraham Lincoln

  10. Hagerstown is a wonderful place to watch baseball if you are a purist. However, the problems with the Suns is the same as it is in other minor league teams. Absentee owners and GM’s that don’t know the territory (my apology to Meredith Wilson), generic marketing that ignores local color and goes to the community only for advertising and a generation that spends more time looking at phones then the game. Field of Dreams couldn’t be made today unless the cornfield had wifi.

    1. Sounds like your management needs to come to Richmond and sit at the feet of those who run the Flying Squirrels. 9500 seat sellouts 6-7 times a season, best or second best attendance in the Eastern League for ten years running now (the entire time we’ve had the team), and all done in a cavernous concrete stadium built for the AAA Braves (now Gwynett Stripers) back in 1985.

      I chuckle reading about “old” stadiums built in 2000.

  11. The demolition of the Pioneer League would mean that only two professional teams would be playing here in Colorado. Colorado Springs has a long history with baseball, but declining attendance led its ownership to move what had been an AA team elsewhere and the team rebranded before this last season; the team was second in the league in attendance and it negotiated a new sponsorship agreement with the University of Colorado Health System. The Rockies’ sole state affiliate plays in Grand Junction, in a stadium shared with a college team that also hosts the JUCO World Series every year, and the team consistently finishes 4 of 8 teams in attendance.

    It’s hard to say whether either team makes money on tickets alone. The rebranding of the Rocky Mountain Vibes (the team in the Springs) likely represented a windfall in merchandise sales which had to have helped. The logo for the Grand Junction Rockies is identical to that of the major league team, but there’s a grassroots push in the town to get ownership to rebrand that team after some sort of indigenous wildlife, which would help goose sales as well.

    1. I of course read that last sentence to imply that the team would be named after waterfowl, with the hopes of reaping a windfall from the sale of branded stuffed geese.

      1. Even better- there’s a fish native to the streams in the area called the Humpback Chub (it has a protuberance over it’s snout, giving it the Humpback name). It’s endangered and the state has been working hard to try to reestablish the population. The proposal was to call them the Grand Junction Humpback Chubs, with a wildlife themed logo. Having “Chubs” on the hat would have probably helped sales a lot, of course.

        1. That would be fantastic!

          And if they had a farm team of their own they could call them the half chubbies… the marketing possibilities are endless…

  12. Overall I wonder if this isn’t going to backfire on MLB (as has been suggested above)? They seem to be looking at MiLB as purely a sunk cost and completely ignoring the (relatively low cost) benefit they get from having many teams scattered around smaller cities in the nation. It provides a way for far more people to experience live baseball (which is still a thing to some of us) in person than the 30 ish MLB teams ever will. It’s cheap advertising, for the most part.

    20-25 years from now (or from whenever this mass extermination happens) will kids who grew up not seeing local baseball live and not paying for the RSNs or other services that bring MLB to their homes actually have developed an interest in the game?

    Many other sports are starting to see this sort of decline in interest after a decade or two of severely limiting access to their product to premium TV tiers.

    And for every fully committed fan who digs deep and pays for the premium channels (and these days you often need more than one…), how many are there who turn their back on the game/their team?

    You can count the ones who do pay and determine whether overall revenue has increased… it’s harder to count the ones who go watch independent baseball (or pick another sport to support) instead.

    1. I think it should be clear by now from modern stadium design and ticket pricing that “providing a way for far more people to experience live baseball” is not high on MLB owners’ priority list.

  13. If this Happens I will stop supporting the Mlb and just follow independent baseball teams They will kill most of baseball in Pa not happy with this at all ,Baseball will be Hrs away from me and I dont have TV and you have to have cable to use Mlb tv

    1. You do not have to have cable to use — you can watch on your computer. (Or connect your computer to your TV.)

      Also, does not actually check to see if multiple people are sharing one account, which can bring down the cost per person substantially. Or, uh, so I have heard.

  14. I’m feeling like this is a bargaining ploy to get MILB to make concessions. Just like when MLB threatened to contract the Expos and Twins some years ago in order to get concessions from the players’ union. Most likely the teams will all survive, but MLB will be on the hook for less money.

    1. Probably so. I could see a situation where this is lumped in with the minimum wage claim and someone other than MLB/MiLB ends up paying the cost to bring MiLB salaries – just barely mind you – out of the disgraceful category and into the appalling zone instead.

  15. Reports were that St Paul and Sugar Land would join Milb as well (not that anyone’s asked them it appears). My guess is that the idea would be St Paul in AAA (where else?) and Sugar Land and Wichita to the TL with Southern League staying at 8. Presumably there’d be other shifts as well (Fresno to the Cal League to replace Lancaster?) and the “plan” is for the remaining 6 teams in the NWL to jump to full season.

    Eastern League might get a current IL team—Syracuse or Scranton? (The Mets could shift over to Rochester or something similar)

    1. The Mets own the Syracuse franchise now, so that ain’t happening. And I doubt the Yankees would want to give up Scranton.

      If Fresno gets kicked down the the Cal League, doesn’t that make room for St. Paul as a AAA team? (If we’re still trying to make any sense of this, which is probably a bad idea.)

      1. Yeah, doing this more as a mental exercise to try to figure out their plan (such as it is).

        Looking over the remaining teams it looks like there will be a lot of mid/southern Atlantic teams to sort out, so perhaps the idea would be Wilmington to the EL (as almost happened the other year). None of the NYP survivors seem equipped to jump to AA.

  16. The one on this list that really stuns me is the Chattanooga Lookouts. They’ve been playing continually since 1885, and I believe (please feel free to correct me if I’m mistaken) that the Cincinnati Red are the only franchise that’s older in professional baseball (1869). Obviously, history doesn’t mean a damn thing to MLB.

  17. Billionaire owners maximizing profits. Nothings else (baseball, cities, fans, history, teams) matters. Just $.

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