MLB redraws its minor-league map, including demoting team Wichita spent $75m to lure there

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.

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10 comments on “MLB redraws its minor-league map, including demoting team Wichita spent $75m to lure there

  1. Wasn’t the main reason for the failure of San Jose to kill the antitrust exemption that they lacked standing? They had no actual deal with the A’s so they had no right to sue? If so, wouldn’t Fresno, Wichita, whoever else is getting the shaft here have a decent case?

    1. They could certainly try. But they lack something else that San Jose had: a team wanting to locate in their city. MLB would almost certainly claim that none of their teams wanted to put a Triple-A affiliate in Fresno or Wichita, and so what could they do?

      That said, if there are no antitrust suits filed in the wake of all this, I will be very, very disappointed.

  2. Surprised that the Astros would allow a AAA Sugarland Skeeters team so close down the road.

    I suspect that there are a lot of folks in SW of the Houston metro region that may forgo heading to Minute Maid to pay exorbitant ticket/beer/concession prices and instead enjoy a ballgame outdoors at an open air ballpark with much higher level quality baseball than the indie Atlantic League.

    1. It’s been more and more common to locate the AAA teams as close as possible to the MLB team so players can be transferred quickly in case the need arises. It’s not completely realigned, but it’s been heading that way.

  3. Definitely wake me when MLB attempts to make it illegal for anyone to play “a game of base” anywhere in the world without the express written consent of the office of the commissioner of baseball.

    It may be a flawed hope, but the more markets MLB abandons to independent baseball the more likely it is that at least a couple of viable indy leagues will take flight.

    1. Yea, that’s been their MO for like ever. It’s why the leader is the Commissioner of Baseball and not the Commissioner of the MLB.

      The NFL tried to make a Commissioner of Football, but got laughed at enough to stop.

  4. Well, the silver lining in all this is that Henry the Puffy Taco (mascot of the San Antonio Missions) will be back in the Texas League where he belongs.

  5. Do players in the draft league give up their college eligibility?

    Making players pay their own way and bring their own gear (‘cos COVID? That makes no sense) is really … I want to say Bush League, but this is literally a Bush League so it doesn’t really make the point as well. At least in the NYPL, the players looked like a professional baseball team. But in this league, the catcher’s gear isn’t going to match the uniform. Neither will anyone’s cleats. That seems trivial, but it will be just one more thing that turns off what’s left of the shrinking group of fans that come to minor league games to actually watch baseball.

    I suppose the guys who are definitely going to be drafted an have an agent could get their agent to pay for their travel and gear. But how many of the best picks will even chose to be in this league? Why risk injury? This is just a glorified scouting combine.

    I fear it’s a matter of just a few years that MLB will give up on this too.

    This is why baseball is dying. Not just this minor league thing, but the total lack of vision or concern with attracting new fans.

    1. This is 100% a glorified scouting combine — a glorified MONTHS-LONG scouting combine. I love the part of the FAQ where they talk about how if you’re lucky enough to get drafted you can leave at midseason if you want to — you know, and give up the glory of playing for free and wearing your own worn-out cleats.

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