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.
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
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