The fallout of MLB’s plan to jettison 42 minor-league affiliates to save money on paying players pittance wages is coming fast and furious, with big-league teams switching farm clubs while other teams scramble not to be left without a chair when the music stops:
- The St. Paul Saints, founded in 1993 as one of baseball’s most successful independent-league teams, will now be converted into the Minnesota Twins‘ Triple-A farm team. The Sugar Land Skeeters previously announced they will likewise go from indie ball to affiliate ball, as the Triple-A team of the Houston Astros.
- Since every MLB team has exactly one Triple-A affiliate, this means two teams will have to get demoted to Double-A, and those will apparently be the San Antonio Missions and the Wichita Wind Surge. The Wind Surge demotion is especially notable because the team never actually played a game at the Triple-A level (it is the former New Orleans Baby Cakes, relocated in 2020 right before the pandemic wiped out the minor-league season), and also because Wichita just allocated more than $75 million to a new stadium to lure a Triple-A team, and is now right back in the Double-A Texas League where it was until 2007.
- MLB gave the owners of the Fresno Grizzlies and the city of Fresno until yesterday to accept demotion from Triple-A to Single-A, or else be left without an affiliated team at all. Following a behind-closed-doors council meeting yesterday, city attorney Doug Sloan released a statement saying MLB had agreed to give the city more time, but not how much more time. (MLB is supposedly set on releasing final team affiliations today or tomorrow.)
- No, I don’t get where the additional Triple-A team would come from if Fresno were demoted, unless maybe this would give San Antonio or Wichita a reprieve? (UPDATE: The Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp are reportedly in line to jump from Double-A to Triple-A, thanks, Facebook commenter!)
- The entire Pioneer League is becoming an independent “partner league,” which according to the press release seems to involve MLB giving them some seed money (“initial funding for the league’s operating expenses”) plus “scouting technology” (uh, radar guns?) and then cutting them loose to sink or swim.
- The Mahoning Valley Scrappers, State College Spikes, Trenton Thunder, West Virginia Black Bears, and Williamsport Crosscutters, all of which were set to lose their affiliated teams, will instead become part of a grab-bag MLB Draft League, which will also get that “state-of-the-art scouting technology,” plus “educational programming designed to prepare them for careers as professional athletes.” (Make your own jokes here.) Will the players get paid? Given that the league’s FAQ brags about how there’s no fee for players to play in it, almost certainly not! (Also, the FAQ warns that “players need to pay their way to get to the league at the start date,” so think on that before you submit your application to play shortstop.)
The offseason affiliate dance is a time-honored tradition by now, but this winter’s is something entirely different, and not just because of the contraction plan: MLB effectively took over the formerly independent Minor League Baseball organization in September, simply by refusing to negotiate a new operating agreement and demanding that MiLB hand over the keys. That means that instead of negotiating with individual MiLB teams as in the past, MLB can simply redraw the minor-league map and issue edicts: If you’re not happy being a Single-A team, Fresno, no more shopping around for a Triple-A affiliate on your own, because MLB has already decided that for you.
In other words, it’s extending MLB’s cartel power — or monopoly power, depending on whether you consider the league an association of competitors or one big company with 30 co-owners — to govern all of the minor leagues as well. And that’s a scary concept, and not just if you’re one of the people who bought gear with the hideous Wichita Wind Surge logo in anticipation of Triple-A ball. While MLB’s offer to Fresno right now is take-it-or-leave-it, there’s nothing stopping the league in the future from exacting stadium or lease concession demands from minor-league cities, or risk losing their teams to wherever MLB decides to move them. While hosting a minor-league team has always been dicey since they often have a relatively short lifespan, at least there was a silver lining in that if one MLB team abandoned you there were 29 others to shoot for; now, the minors are all a single-source negotiation, and that’s bad news for cities’ leverage.
The other benefit to MLB, of course, is that it is transitioning lots of minor-league players to playing for “exposure” instead of actual paychecks; in addition to the Draft League, the Appalachian League is becoming a summer league for college players, who also won’t be paid. This is such a common practice now in the work world that it has its own Twitter account for horror stories, but it hadn’t spread to pro sports until now — there’s a class action suit trying to force pro sports teams to pay their players at least minimum wage, but until then, it looks like baseball is determined to make lots of wannabe major leaguers start out their careers by doing season-long unpaid tryouts. Maybe teams like Trenton and Williamsport will at least allow players to trade autographs for sandwiches, that seems like a fair solution.