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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Yankees axe Trenton, Staten Island, Charleston teams that received $112m in public stadium money

The long-promised contraction and reorganization of minor-league baseball began in earnest this weekend, as the New York Yankees announced they would be cutting ties with the Trenton Thunder, Staten Island Yankees, and Charleston RiverDogs, while adding affiliations with the Somerset Patriots (formerly in the independent Atlantic League) and Hudson Valley Renegades (formerly a short-season team affiliated with the Tampa Bay Rays). The Thunder and Yankees owners apparently learned the news via Twitter:

The Patriots, who play about an hour west of New York City, have long been one of the top-drawing teams in the Atlantic League, though with roughly the same number of fans per game (just over 5,000) as Trenton. Both Trenton and Staten Island have been offered spots in the Atlantic League, reports CBS Sports, but “their futures are unclear at the moment,” which is what happens when you’re suddenly cast into a league that has seen a bunch of teams fold since its 1998 opening, even after getting tens of millions of dollars each in public stadium funding.

Speaking of which, both Trenton and Staten Island got a ton of stadium subsidies as well, money that’s now at risk of going for naught thanks to the elimination of teams. Trenton’s stadium was built in 1994 at a cost of $16.2 million, paid for entirely by Mercer County. Charleston’s stadium was built by the city in 1997 for $19.5 million, with another $6 million in upgrades since to stop it from sinking into the earth. And Staten Island’s was opened in 2001 and cost a staggering $71 million, thanks to cleanup issues at the site, all of which was paid for by the citizens of New York City. It’s possible that both cities will get new indie teams — or even new affiliated teams, though that’s unlikely with the Mets already having the Brooklyn Cyclones and the Philadelphia Phillies four existing affiliates in Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey, and both of them looking to cut back on farm teams as well — but if not, we could see a renewed wave of shuttered new-ish stadiums.

That would be bad news for baseball fans and taxpayers alike, but potentially great news for MLB owners, who would simultaneously cut back on minor-league payrolls, reduce travel costs by consolidating teams near their parent clubs, and potentially get cities and minor-league teams alike into bidding wars to make sure they have chairs when the contraction music stops. We haven’t seen that yet, but you know it’s going to happen: If the Trenton Thunder, say, can’t line up a new big-league affiliation, how long do you think before its owners go back to Mercer County to claim that stadium upgrades are needed to lure away some other town’s team?

The Staten Island Yankees, meanwhile, included in their tweeted press release this line:

The Staten Island Yankees made every effort to accommodate MLB and New York Yankees requirements, including securing a commitment from New York City for ballpark upgrades

Wait, they secured what now? This was news to me, and I followed New York City ballpark spending even more closely than that on the rest of the planet; I’ve reached out for comment to the New York City Economic Development Corporation, the quasi-public agency that owns and operates the Staten Island stadium (though it’s been trying to ditch the “operates” part), and will post here when I learn anything more.

All this is certainly only the first show among many, with 29 other teams still set to announce which affiliates will be cast adrift. Just last night, in fact, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the Giants are expected to ditch the Augusta GreenJackets and likely the Richmond Flying Squirrels as well. It’s still unclear when minor-league baseball will resume, thanks to the pandemic, but whenever it does, it could look very different than it has for the last several decades.

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