As baseball waits to see when and if it can have a 2020 season, there’s more clarity on the future of the minor leagues, which has been a hot topic for the past six months.
The working agreement between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball, which expires in September, has been the subject of contentious talks, which might be nearing an end.
MLB has wanted a reduction in affiliates because clubs believe that they should be concentrating on higher level minor league teams. Most of the players in the lower levels won’t make it in the majors.
MiLB didn’t react positively to the changes, which supposedly would eliminate 42 minor league teams, and their cause got support in Congress.
However, since the coronavirus pandemic hit, and the MLB season has been delayed with the possibility of the minor league season being eliminated entirely, the talks have been more cordial.
On Thursday, MLB and MiLB issued a statement that read: “The respective negotiating teams of Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball held a constructive meeting on Wednesday. The parties are continuing their discussions, with the goal of concluding a mutually beneficial long-term agreement in the near future.”
If the MLB season begins in June or July in stadiums without fans, there’s little chance that there’s going to be a minor league season. Unlike the majors, which has huge television contracts, the minor leagues don’t, and playing without fans in their home parks is a non-starter.
Minor league teams could play games at their parent clubs’ complexes, serving as taxi squads for the major league clubs, but that means a season without authentic minor league baseball.
While MiLB’s plight had gotten popular support from legislators initially, the pandemic pushes that aside. Now, the two sides will presumably conclude an agreement, and MLB probably will get what they were seeking.
In advance of this, MLB and the Players Association agreed on a slimmed down draft of five or 10 rounds this year. Next year, the minor leagues are likely to be much different than they were at the end of 2019.
MLB wanted to limit each major league team to four affiliates and short-season Rookie League teams, which play in Florida or Arizona before non-paying audiences.
Some teams have multiple teams that play at their complexes, and some have two short-season leagues, which MLB would like to eliminate.
MLB clubs have been under pressure to pay minor league players more, and they realize that few players selected in the second half of a 40-round draft become major leaguers. Teams would be free to sign non-drafted players. This year, those players can’t sign for more than $20,000.
The Orioles have five affiliated teams — Nortolk, in Triple-A’s International League; Bowie, Double-A Eastern League; Frederick, High-A Carolina League; Delmarva, Low-A South Atlantic League; and Aberdeen, Short-Season A New York-Penn League. In addition, Gulf Coast plays its games on a back field at the Ed Smith Stadium complex.
Baltimore’s minor league setup is arguably the most efficient in baseball. All five affiliates are within a four-hour drive, and three — Bowie, Frederick and Aberdeen — are within an hour of the Orioles’ offices.
But if there are only going to be four affiliates, one of them will have to go. There’s no logical team to eliminate.
None of their affiliates plays before small crowds. According to Ballpark Digest, Frederick had the highest average attendance in the Carolina League. Bowie is a convenient place for the front office to take serious looks at some of their best prospects, and Aberdeen is the nicest ballpark in the system.
One solution could be to elevate Aberdeen, whose season runs from mid-June to Labor Day, to a full-season team and allow a current affiliate to align itself with another team.
The Washington Nationals’ Hagerstown Suns, which was at one time an Orioles affiliate, played before an average crowd of just 918 at decrepit Municipal Stadium and could be eliminated as part of the restructuring.
If Frederick or Delmarva replaced it, that wouldn’t necessarily be good news for Oriole fans, but it would at least save baseball in those locales.
One of the complaints MLB has is poor traveling conditions in the minors. The South Atlantic League, where Hagerstown and Delmarva play, stretches from Lakewood, New Jersey to Rome, Georgia. That’s an 855-mile drive.
MLB and MiLB will supposedly work on more geographically desirable arrangements.
A loss of an Orioles affiliate might make sense economically but will hurt fans who’ve gotten used to attending minor league games around Maryland, tracking the progress of prospects.
Many have gotten to know Austin Hays, Trey Mancini and John Means by watching them play around the state, and if MLB mandates that a team has to go, it will be a sad time for Maryland and Oriole fans.