Next year is uncertain for Orioles' minor league teams, too - BaltimoreBaseball.com

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Next year is uncertain for Orioles’ minor league teams, too

Photo Credit: Joy R. Absalon

The lost season for minor league baseball has led to questions about its future. On September 30th, the agreement between Major League Baseball and its minor leagues expired, and no one knows what’s next.

For nearly a year, there’s been talk that MLB wants to downsize the minors, eliminating short season leagues and streamlining the affiliate structure, limiting each team to four full-season affiliates.

Last week, MLB and USA Baseball announced that the Appalachian League, a longtime minor league with 10 teams, was converting into a wood-bat college league for freshmen and sophomores.

Late last month, MLB also announced agreements with three independent leagues — the Atlantic, which has a team in Waldorf, Maryland (the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs), and the Frontier League and American Association.

Teams eliminated from affiliated baseball could join the independent leagues.

The Orioles didn’t have a team in the Appalachian League, but had Bluefield, West Virginia for entry-level players from 1963-2010.

They do have a short season team in the New York-Penn League, the Aberdeen IronBirds. Aberdeen, which has the newest and nicest facility in the Orioles’ organization, Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium, will reportedly remain an Orioles affiliate.

The Orioles’ Triple-A team is in Norfolk, Virginia. Its remaining affiliates are in Maryland — Bowie (Double-A), Frederick (High-A), Delmarva (Low-A), and  Aberdeen.

One of them might disappear, even though they all draw well. The Orioles might have the best positioned affiliate setup in baseball, with each team an easy drive from Baltimore. Despite the convenience and reduced costs from having their affiliates nearby, it’s likely that one won’t return with the Orioles next season.

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Usually, affiliations are renewed by mid-September, but this isn’t a normal year.

“I can’t imagine it being more uncertain between the health crisis and also the restructuring of the minor leagues that’s going on and is not settled,” Orioles executive vice president/ general manager Mike Elias said on Monday in a video conference call.

“It’s really impossible to emphasize how many balls are in the air regarding minor league baseball next year. The league and various baseball operations people from the 30 clubs are game planning different scenarios, and I think everyone, all the way up to Commissioner [Rob] Manfred, are very motivated to have a more robust player development experience at our disposal no matter what happens.

“… But like anything this year, you’ve got to position yourself for various uncertainties and various scenarios and various outcomes.”

What can’t happen is another season without minor league baseball. The Orioles and other teams did the best they could to place their top prospects at the alternate training sites without games.

On Monday, Elias announced that 55 players, most of whom weren’t at the Orioles’ alternate site at Bowie, are reporting to the Ed Smith Stadium Complex in Sarasota, Florida for the Instructional League, which will run until the end of the month.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s possible that the minor league affiliates could begin their 2021 seasons playing in Florida.

Minor league schedules are usually released during the major league season, but because no one knows how many teams there will be, and who they’ll be affiliated with, those can’t be announced yet.

Since the agreement expired without a renewal, MLB says it will negotiate directly with minor league team owners.

“Although the PBA [Professional Baseball Agreement] has expired, we intend to work with minor league owners to grow the game by building a new model that will serve fans, players and communities through the United States and Canada,” the statement read.

Norfolk, Bowie and Frederick are run by the same ownership group.

Since the IronBirds were formed in 2002, there were five minor league teams in Maryland. Besides the four Oriole affiliates, the Washington Nationals have an endangered team, the Hagerstown Suns.

The Sun , who play in the South Atlantic League along with Delmarva, are stuck in ancient Municipal Stadium and are likely to be one of the teams that doesn’t return in 2021.

One of the complaints around baseball has been that major league teams don’t have a uniform number of affiliates.

The New York Yankees have two teams in the Gulf Coast League and teams in the Appalachian and New York-Penn League leagues.

The Orioles have a team in the Gulf Coast League that plays at the Ed Smith complex. Those teams are owned by the major league teams and aren’t slated for elimination.

Elias said that the Orioles aren’t positive that one of their affiliates will disappear in 2021.

“I don’t know that anything is a sure thing right now,” he said. “But I think we’ve all read the same reports and what we’re reading are certainly conversations that have been going on, but until they come out of a process with alignments and specifics, we have to prepare for anything.”

Follow Rich Dubroff on Twitter @RichDubroffMLB

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Bancells Moustache

    October 6, 2020 at 11:24 am

    I would anticipate MLB teams wanted to adopt a model closer to the Orioles. Having their entire prospect base all within a car rides distance has to be looked on with envious eyes by some of the other franchises. And it’s better for the fanbase too. I like the fact that if I want to see what a Rutschman or Diaz is all about, I can just head on down to Bowie or Salisbury or wherever. It sucks that MiLB will get transformed, but that bomb has been counting down since all Minor League teams became affiliates decades ago.

    • Boog Robinson Robinson

      October 6, 2020 at 12:04 pm

      I agree that the teams would most likely want to adopt the ‘closer to home’ model of the Orioles. And I can appreciate your desire to ‘head just down the road’ to check out some of your team’s prospects. It all makes perfect financial and a modicum of sense for fans living near the mother club, but I think it’s also a flawed design.

      I feel that much of baseball’s success, has had to to with it’s long reach into more remote regions of the country, where fans can’t realistically be expected to travel to the major league towns with any kind of regularity. And lets face it, baseball’s roots are often found in the rural areas of the country. It’s simply not really a city game such as basketball.

      If baseball were to totally adopt the model you talk of, what would it do the fanbase that follows their minor league teams that are located in places like Idaho, Iowa, New Mexico & El Paso to name but a very few? Even some urban areas such as Salt Lake City, San Antonio, Syracuse, Las Vegas, Charleston SC, and both Portland Oregon & Portland Maine are reliant on the minor leagues for easy access to live professional baseball!

      Sure, it’s all about the Benjamins, but as I’ve said many times on the site, I think such thinking is shortsighted. Leaving rural America without it’s home grown teams would add to the already failing process of building the love of the game amongst America’s youth, which I believe to be baseball’s biggest challenge moving forward.

      The MLB powers that be need to think over this whole minor league contraction deal in more depth, and not worry so much soley about today’s bottom line. Tomorrow’s depends on it. I feel the owners and stewards of the game owe the fans that much.

    • CalsPals

      October 6, 2020 at 12:12 pm

      Ditto what Boog said, always think of Bull Durham, a simpler time…go O’s…

    • cedar

      October 6, 2020 at 7:50 pm

      I too would enjoy having the minor teams closer to “home” but admit that I never thought of it from Boog’s point of view. How many people in those areas wouldn’t be baseball fans if there wasn’t an affiliate to root for. I feel the fans will lose out either way, and baseball will be the poorer for it, if not immediately then in the future.

      • Rich Dubroff

        October 6, 2020 at 8:03 pm

        Cedar and Ken, I have expressed similar viewpoints in past articles I’ve written about the minors. For some teams, it’s just impossible to have all their teams close by. Take Milwaukee, there’s no nearby Double-A or High-A league.

        Having teams close by, and I think nearly every team has at least one affiliate near its home, is a relatively new phenomenon. The Orioles didn’t have a local team in Maryland until Hagerstown in the early 80’s.

        Some teams own minor league affiliates. The Mets own their Brooklyn franchise in the New York-Penn League. Like Aberdeen, it will become a full-season affiliate.

        It is a mistake to lose out on fans in southern Virginia, the Carolinas, and the upper midwest. As Ken writes, they’re located hundreds of miles away from major league teams. There’s not much live entertainment in those areas, but some of them draw fewer than 1,000 fans a game, and that’s hard to sustain.

  2. whiterose

    October 6, 2020 at 12:17 pm

    The Independent League is Atlantic, not South Atlantic.

    • Rich Dubroff

      October 6, 2020 at 12:50 pm

      Thank you, White Rose. I knew that, but made a mental error. Not a fundamentally sound play.

      • Boog Robinson Robinson

        October 6, 2020 at 5:03 pm

        The Manny Machado of sports writers? We’ll have to drill harder come spring Rich. 🙂

    • CalsPals

      October 6, 2020 at 2:38 pm

      But you have skills…go O’s…

  3. willmiranda

    October 6, 2020 at 7:34 pm

    I apologize if I missed this in an earlier column, Rich, but who exactly is doing the negotiating? Is it a two-way process between MLB and MiLB? Is it the executives on the letterhead of those organizations? Do individual teams have direct or indirect input? How about the Players Union? Enough questions; I think you get the idea. Personally, I think it’s pathetic that the agreement was allowed to lapse. Virus or no virus, they were lost at sea long before the medical disruptions. Thanks for any insights you can give.

    • Rich Dubroff

      October 6, 2020 at 7:46 pm

      Will, MLB has all the leverage in the negotiations. MiLB has little, and its longtime president, Pat O’Connor recently announced his retirement. I assume major league teams have some indirect input. Minor league players aren’t a part of the union, except for those on the 40-man roster, so the Players Union doesn’t participate.

      Before the pandemic, Congress and local legislatures were showing some signs of interest on behalf of endangered minor league clubs, but more pressing matters came along, and I’m not sure how much leverage they would have had.

      • willmiranda

        October 7, 2020 at 9:59 am

        Thanks, Rich. I guess organized ball isn’t as organized as I thought.

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