Five weeks after expiration of the operating agreement between Major and Minor League Baseball, there’s still no clarity on what the minor leagues will look like in 2021 and beyond.
It is clear that the minor leagues will shrink. The Appalachian League, which the Orioles haven’t had an affiliate in since 2010, has been converted to a summer league for college freshman and sophomores.
At the end of October, Major League Baseball proposed that the New York-Penn League would be for draft-eligible rising college seniors. The Orioles’ short-season affiliate, the Aberdeen IronBirds, are in the New York-Penn League, but there are plans to move them to a full season league.
There are four full season affiliates: Norfolk (Triple-A), Bowie (Double-A), Frederick (High-A) and Delmarva (Low-A).
It appears in MLB’s plans to restructure the minor leagues, one of those would have to be sacrificed to accommodate Aberdeen.
Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias didn’t discuss specifics when asked about the team’s minor league plans for next season in Monday’s video conference call.
“I can’t make any of those announcements right now,” Elias said. “And the reason for that is that the talks at the league level are still ongoing, and we have not received any word about the overall structure. There’s info that trickles out of those discussions, but until any of that is certified, it wouldn’t be responsible to talk about that publicly.”
There was no minor league baseball in 2020 because of the pandemic, and its possible effect on 2021 is unclear.
The Orioles sent some of their most promising player to the alternate site at Bowie, and more went to last month’s Instructional League in Sarasota, Florida.
Because there’s no agreement, there are no minor league schedules for next season and no shortage of speculation.
“I know they’re working on it,” Elias said of the agreement. “They’re making good progress. I think as we’ve said all along … we’re going to find out that player development in minor league baseball is going to be a very healthy spot despite the crisis that’s taken place due to Covid.
“I think we’re going to have a really good setup for what the needs are for the minors and for the fans across baseball for the next 25, 50 years, but that work is still being done.”
Unlike major league teams that have lucrative television agreements, minor league teams don’t have those kinds of deals. They rely on ticket sales for revenue, and they weren’t going to play without fans.
“With regard to next year, there’s nothing official yet in terms of any changes to what would be a normal minor league schedule,” Elias said.
“But I think we all know that it’s very possible that we may have to make some adjustments and not get back to normal right away. Some of that contingency planning is going on. Our opinions are being sought as player development people and heads of front offices, so we get involved with the league and some committees that are working on those contingency plans.”
If local governments don’t allow more than 10-to-25 percent capacity, which is what some NFL teams have been granted, it might not make sense for minor league teams to operate next season. One reason that minor league baseball is so attractive is that children can roam freely in a small ballpark, which couldn’t be permitted with social distancing.
Tickets and concessions are far cheaper than in major league parks, and many teams have free parking.
“I will say that I’m very optimistic and hopeful, and we’re all very motivated to have much more on the player development side than we had this year, no matter what occurs,” Elias said.
“That’s kind of the push from the league, and we’ve got to be prepared for a bunch of different things across the spectrum from a full, normal minor league season, which is everyone’s hope, to something that starts a little differently and morphs into a full minor league season to other options … we just don’t know what it’s going to be yet.”
Milone trade completed: The Orioles acquired infielders AJ Graffanino and Greg Cullen from the Atlanta Braves as the players to be named later in the August 30th trade for left-handed pitcher Tommy Milone.
Graffanino, the son of longtime major league infielder Tony Graffanino, was Atlanta’s eighth-round draft choice in 2018. He has hit .316 in 44 minor league games.
Cullen, the 15th-round pick in 2018, has hit .273 with 11 home runs and 91 RBIs in two minor league seasons.