The 2021 minor league season is shrouded in mystery. No schedules have been released, and it’s been known for a few weeks, at least that Double-A, High-A and Low-A leagues won’t be starting in early April. No start date has been pinpointed.
To keep the number of players in Florida lower, minor league spring training won’t begin until April, and the season won’t start until May. The Triple-A season might be delayed, too, Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias hinted in a video conference call on Friday.
Earlier on Friday, Major League Baseball released the final list of 120 affiliated teams. In December, the Orioles invited Norfolk to continue as its Triple-A affiliate for 10 years. Bowie will continue as the Orioles’ Double-A team, and Aberdeen is to replace Frederick in High-A. Delmarva remains the Orioles’ Low-A team.
While those affiliations were all disclosed more than two months ago, what wasn’t known was how the teams would be grouped.
The old minor leagues are gone, in name and in fact.
No longer is there a Pacific Coast League, which once featured the largest cities on the West Coast, many of which began major league strongholds. The old International League has vanished, too.
The Eastern, Carolina, South Atlantic and New York/Penn leagues are gone.
Norfolk is part of the Triple-A East league. The Tides will play in the Southeast Division, along with Charlotte, Durham, Gwinnett and three teams that hadn’t been in the International League — Jacksonville, Memphis and Nashville.
The Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp are one of the cooler names in minor league baseball. Overall, there are 20 teams in the new Triple-A East.
Three new teams — Iowa, Omaha and St. Paul, formerly a successful independent outfit — are in the same Midwest division as Columbus, Indianapolis, Louisville and Toledo.
The Northeast Division is more familiar with Buffalo, Lehigh Valley, Rochester, Scranton/Wilkes Barre, Syracuse and Worcester, which was formerly Pawtucket.
It’s unknown how many of the other 19 International League teams Norfolk will play each season.
Bowie plays in the Southeast Division of Double-A Northeast. Its opponents are recognizable names from the Eastern League. Only Somerset (New Jersey), which was long a successful team in the independent Atlantic League, is new. The New York Yankees moved on from Trenton after last season and affiliated with Somerset.
Along with the Frederick Keys, the Trenton Thunder are among six teams in new MLB Draft League — designed to showcase top MLB draft prospects.
The Aberdeen IronBirds are part of the five-team North Division of High-A East. The IronBirds join Brooklyn and Hudson Valley, also former members of the New York/Penn League, and two members of the old Carolina League — Jersey Shore, formerly Lakewood, and Wilmington.
Delmarva joins the North Division of Low-A East along with three teams formerly in the Carolina League — Fredericksburg, Lynchburg and Salem.
Washington’s longtime Carolina League affiliate, Potomac, has moved to Fredericksburg. Hagerstown, which was once an Orioles affiliate and in recent years the Nationals’ Low-A team, has lost its affiliation, leaving Western Maryland without professional baseball.
The Florida State League, which was on the same level with the Carolina League, has morphed into Low-A Southeast.
Other changes include another independent team, the Sugar Land Skeeters becoming Houston’s Triple-A team.
Because of a lack of approved Triple-A affiliates in the East, the Nationals were forced to have their top minor league team in Fresno, California.
The St. Paul Saints have affiliated with Minnesota, leaving open Rochester, a longtime Orioles’ Triple-A team. Washington snapped it up. Fresno drops from Triple-A to Low-A West.
Major League Baseball’s absorption of the minor leagues reduces the number of affiliated teams, depriving many communities in smaller areas of watching future stars in their earliest professional days.
However, MLB says that minor leaguers will see a rise in pay of from 38-to-72 percent this season. Travel will be cut with the geographic realignment of the leagues.
Substandard facilities, such as Hagerstown, have been eliminated, making for better ballparks.
Short Season Low-A teams are gone. In their place are developmental leagues, including the one that Frederick is a part of. Independent leagues will have greater prominence. The Atlantic League has six teams, three of them — the York Revolution, Lancaster Barn Stormers and Southern Maryland Blue Crabs — within driving distance of Baltimore,
Major league teams continue to own and operate teams at their spring training facilities. This season, the Orioles are scheduled to have two teams at Gulf Coast.
For most teams, the new alignment means that their affiliates are closer to the major league club. For the Orioles, who have long had the most geographically logical minor league arrangement in baseball, it means the deserved promotion to Aberdeen, but saying farewell to Frederick, a city and region that enthusiastically supported minor league baseball for three decades.