The Orioles have an ideal minor league structure. Four of their five minor league affiliates — Double-A Bowie, High-A Frederick, Low-A Delmarva and Short-Season Aberdeen — are in Maryland. The other, Triple-A Norfolk, is about a four-hour drive from Oriole Park.
That arrangement has worked out well for the Orioles. If they know they need a player by early afternoon, he can drive and get to Baltimore for a 7:05 p.m. start.
It’s convenient for the front office to visit the affiliates and check on the players’ progress.
That efficient working environment might no longer be the case if Major League Baseball’s proposal to lop off 42 minor league teams is enacted.
According to the proposal, which was shared with Baseball America earlier this month, major league teams would be limited to five minor league teams.
The Orioles have six, including Gulf Coast, which is a Rookie League team that plays at the Ed Smith Stadium complex in Sarasota, Florida, and is owned and operated by the Orioles. Those teams aren’t part of the proposed restructuring.
Massive geographic realignment is part of the proposal, including elimination of short-season leagues, such as the New York-Penn League, the league in which the Aberdeen IronBirds play.
Teams that are eliminated could resurface as part of a “dream league,” a proposed joint venture between MLB and Minor League Baseball. As part of their proposal, the June draft, which could move a few weeks later, would be cut from 40 rounds to 20, and undrafted free agents could play in this new league.
The IronBirds, who play in a terrific ballpark, Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium, could be moved from a short season to a full season league if the proposal plays out.
The agreement between the major and minor leagues doesn’t expire until next September 15, and contentious negotiations are expected.
According to the proposal, each team would be limited to between 150 and 200 players under contract.
Minor league teams don’t have any specifics beyond what they’ve read. Frederick, which has long been one of the top three teams in attendance in the Carolina League, could be forced to change classifications.
Delmarva is probably in the shakiest situation. The Shorebirds play in the 14-team South Atlantic League that extends from New Jersey to Georgia. In this proposal, the league would drop to six teams and a new Mid-Atlantic League would be established.
Major league teams have long realized how much of a drain minor league baseball can be. Of the 49 players who played for the Shorebirds in 2015, just five have made it to the major leagues: utilityman Stevie Wilkerson and pitchers, Stefan Crichton, Donnie Hart, John Means and Tanner Scott.
Crichton and Hart made it to the majors with the Orioles despite being selected in the 23rd and 27th rounds of the 2013 draft. Their chances of becoming major leaguers would have been less certain had there been a 20-round limit on the draft.
Eliminating a short-season team would deprive players of a season to get adjusted to the rigors of the minors. Adley Rutschman, the overall No. 1 pick by the Orioles, spent a month in Aberdeen, and it provided a comfortable adjustment period.
There are inefficiencies that should be corrected. The New York Yankees have eight minor league affiliates, including two Gulf Coast League teams and teams in two short-season leagues, the New York-Penn League (Staten Island) and Appalachian League (Pulaski).
Several other teams, including the Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies, have two entry-level teams in the Arizona Summer and Gulf Coast Leagues.
Many teams, including the Orioles, have two teams in the Dominican Summer League. DSL teams, like the Arizona Summer and Gulf Coast Leagues, are owned and operated by MLB teams.
Travel in the minors can be brutal. The Shorebirds’ longest trip to Augusta, Georgia is 9 ½ hours. Their shortest is a three-hour ride to Hagerstown. This reorganization would attempt to alleviate the most difficult of trips.
While the Orioles have a great minor league setup, the Nationals have an awful one. During the most recent realignment, which took effect after last season, the New York Mets purchased Syracuse of the International League, which had been a Nats affiliate, and Washington had no choice but to align with Fresno in the Pacific Coast League.
The Nats stashed some major league-ready players in Double-A Harrisburg so that they would be able to move them up on short notice instead of waiting a day for their arrival from Fresno.
Hagerstown, which was the Orioles’ first affiliate in Maryland and was part of their farm system from 1981-92, is affiliated with the Nationals. The Suns play in decrepit Municipal Stadium and could lose their status in a reorganization.
Eliminating a short-season league such as the Appalachian League, where the Orioles had a team in Bluefield, West Virginia from 1963-2010, would be unfortunate for the affected communities.
At a time when baseball struggles to maintain relevance among younger fans, leagues that are integral parts of smaller towns help grow the game. Baseball fans in those areas are often many hours from the closest big league team, and minor league baseball is a charming and low-cost entertainment option.
That unique part of Americana may be waning, and while it’s great that the Orioles and other teams have multiple affiliates closer to the big league teams these days, rural America’s traditional love for baseball shouldn’t be forgotten.
Minor league salaries are low, and eliminating teams is a way that MLB can pay minor leaguers more. Double-A players who haven’t been on a 40-man roster earn $1.750 a month for a five-month season. They also receive $20 a day in meal money when they’re on the road.
While fans are fixated on the high salaries of major leaguers, the vast majority of minor leaguers never spend a single day in the majors. Rutschman’s signing bonus was a record $8.1 million, but most others receive far less.
The slot value for this year’s Orioles 10th-round draft choice, catcher Jordan Cannon, was $147,900, a nice bonus for you and me. However, unless Cannon makes it to the majors, that’s by far the most money he’ll see in pro ball. Late-round draft choices might be given just token bonuses of $5,000 or even less to sign.
In the end, there will be compromise, and it’s unlikely that 42 teams will be eliminated from minor league ball. But the guess here is that a year from now, the minor league landscape will be altered greatly.