Untangling a Minor League Mess, Part III

My two previous posts on the contentious PBA negotiations between MLB and MiLB focused on the most significant portion of MLB’s proposed plan: eliminating short-season baseball and contracting or reclassifying the 40 teams that go with it. As Baseball America noted, significant changes would be made to current leagues:

The proposal also completely reorganizes the full-season minor leagues. While there would still be Triple-A, Double-A, high Class A and low Class A, those four levels would be completely reworked to make the leagues much more geographically compact. In Triple-A, the Pacific Coast League would shift from 16 teams to 10. The International League would grow to 20 teams. The 14-team low Class A South Atlantic League would be turned into a six-team league with a new Mid-Atlantic league springing up.

The short-season Northwest League would move to full-season ball.

Part of MLB’s stated motivation for those changes is a desire to improve facilities at the minor league level and make travel, both between the majors and minors and between affiliates during the minor league season, less taxing for players. As Morgan Sword, recently promoted to executive vice president of baseball economics and operations, indicated in this New York Times piece regarding MLB’s plan, there are several factors in determining a minor league team’s affiliation:

One was a team’s proximity to its parent club and to potential opponents. Another was the condition of the facilities. A third concerned everyday life, such as hotel availability and general security.

While two-thirds of the proposed cuts came from short-season teams (the Lowell Spinners might not be one of those teams despite appearing on the list), there are still 14 full-season teams that on the chopping block. We’ll go through each of the leagues separately, but first, here’s a table showing where the cuts are coming from, and whether any of the teams are owned by major league teams (spoiler: they aren’t):

MLB Proposed Contraction Plan: A-ball to Triple-A
League Class Teams MLB owned teams MLB owned cuts Cuts
Midwest League A 16 0 0 3
South Atlantic League A 14 2 0 3
Florida State League High-A 12 8 0 2
Carolina High-A 10 4 0 1
California High-A 8 2 0 1
Eastern League AA 12 1 0 2
Southern League AA 10 1 0 2
Texas League AA 8 2 0 0
International League AAA 14 3 0 0
PCL AAA 16 1 0 0
TOTAL 120 24 0 14

Of the 70 teams below Triple-A that are not owned by major league teams, one in five would be contracted under the current plan. That’s not a surprise, and it isn’t to say that all 14 teams will be replaced by clubs owned by major league franchises, though that certainly seems to be the case for the Mets’ Double-A Binghamton club, which is likely to be replaced by the team-owned Brooklyn Cyclones. Similar changes seem likely in the Florida State League, where MLB would prefer the High-A teams not even be part of the negotiations given their high ownership rate. While Double-A and Triple-A teams are mostly spared, they wouldn’t be completely unaffected, as MLB has proposed that those clubs share more of their profits with teams of lesser financial standing.

So are MLB’s stated motivations persuasive? Do the proposed contractions further those goals? Or might other considerations — a destabilized minor leagues that is more reliant on MLB for survival, and increased ownership and control from major league baseball teams — be at work? To answer those questions, it is useful to examine the teams that are on the chopping block through the lens of geographic location, attendance, and the state of their facilities. Here’s a league-by-league look at the teams that are part of the proposed contraction:

Midwest League

Iowa, a state already hit by blackout rules that prevent watching six teams on MLB.TV regardless of availability locally, gets the full brunt of the Midwest League cuts. The Quad Cities River Bandits, Burlington Bees, and Clinton Lumberkings were all on the list of cuts. Beloit might have been on this list if there weren’t plans for a brand new stadium. It’s quite possible bad luck is involved with this group. Record flooding last summer caused issues with Clinton’s visiting clubhouse, which the community-owned club has remedied with a $900,000 sump pump. Quad Cities typically draws fairly well, but flooding in the area caused the relocation of nine home games and brought average attendance down 20% to 2,474 fans after being close to league average in previous seasons. Burlington is a smaller city without good attendance, but the club is also community owned. Both Clinton and Quad Cities owners expressed a willingness to spend to meet whatever needs MLB had. The two bigger teams generally draw well enough, and if facilities aren’t the issue, there just doesn’t seem to be too many legitimate reasons to put the club on the chopping block.

Florida State League

The two clubs set for removal are the Daytona Tortugas and the Florida Fire Frogs. Daytona’s removal seems to be mostly for geographical reasons. With the Fire Frogs moving from Kissimmee, Dayton is the northern-most club, with no other teams within two hours. The team has a rich history and attendance is one of the highest in the league, but no team has their spring training complex there. If consolidating more power with MLB teams and reducing travel times is the goal, it’s likely why we see Dayton on the list. The Florida Fire Frogs are on a different level; they gave up their home last season, as the Braves are moving their spring training facility to North Port this year. That’s where the Fire Frogs will play this season, but it is currently within Port Charlotte’s geographic footprint (Tampa Bay’s FSL team and one of the only other teams not MLB-owned), so the solution is not a long-term one unless something else can be arranged. The team drew just over 300 fans per game last season, necessitating some change. Florida State League teams tend not to draw very well, but with their setup in a team’s spring training complex, that positive should outweigh the negative of fewer fans.

South Atlantic League

Of the 14-team South Atlantic League, three were on the MLB list of cuts — the Hagerstown Suns, West Virginia Power, and Lexington Legends — and all for very different reasons. The Suns operate in an older stadium that has not kept up with the times and draws fewer than 1,000 fans per game. It’s not difficult to see why they are set for contraction if the proposal passes. Travel is difficult for the rest of the league going to and from Charleston and the Power isn’t a big draw, with fewer than 2,000 fans per game. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Lexington’s team draws more than 4,000 fans per game and they’ve made upgrades to the stadium when asked. Lexington isn’t especially convenient for the rest of the league, but it’s a healthy, viable franchise whose appearance on the list is somewhat confusing.

Carolina League

Only one team here, the Frederick Keys, was listed for elimination, and it is another confusing choice. The team drew nearly 4,400 fans per game last year, the most in the league. The club might not be geographically near the rest of the Carolina League, but it is quite close to the parent club Orioles. Keys owner Ken Young believed the Orioles were quite pleased with their relationship.

“The Orioles, and Mike may have told you this if you ask him, really like where their affiliates are right now, including Frederick,” Young said. “They think they have a great situation, so Frederick being on that list wasn’t caused by the Orioles, because the Orioles’ desire is still to play in Frederick. Eventually, that’s the way it’s going to continue to be.”

Frederick’s presence slightly outside the main radius of the rest of the league seems to provide a poor excuse for elimination given the proximity to the Orioles and the team’s healthy attendance.

California League

The Lancaster JetHawks aren’t particularly close to the Colorado Rockies, though it is about half a mile above sea level and provides some preview for the conditions Colorado’s players might encounter in the big leagues. The team’s attendance fell right in the middle of the league, it isn’t far from the rest of the California League teams in the Southern Division, and the facilities and hotels in the area were good enough to host the league’s All-Star game in 2018, which coincided with stadium improvements.

Eastern League

The two teams in the Eastern League slated for contraction, the Binghamton Rumble Ponies and the Erie SeaWolves, are both at the bottom of the league in terms of attendance, though with averages north of 3,000 fans per game, the clubs weren’t a disaster. As mentioned earlier, Binghamton looks to be the victim of the Mets wishing to own their Double-A club by elevating the Brooklyn Cyclones. Binghamton is in the middle-north of the league geographically, and although it isn’t particularly close to any other team, the club just received more than $5 million in public funds for stadium renovations. Similarly, Erie’s park has received $12 million to go toward improvements for the 2020 season. While Erie isn’t particularly close to the rest of the league, it’s not too far from Akron, and relative to some parent clubs, the SeaWolves aren’t that far from Detroit.

Southern League

The Jackson Generals and Chattanooga Lookouts were the two Southern League squads marked for elimination. The Generals finished second-to-last in attendance last season, and the team they finished ahead of — Mobile — is being relocated to Madison, Alabama next season. Their ballpark isn’t exactly old, having opened in 1998, though many others have seen more improvements since then. Their situation likely isn’t helped by owner David Freeman, who also owns the Florida Fire Frogs, the team he left without a permanent home for the 2020 season. As for Chattanooga, they have slightly-above-average draw for the Southern League with more than 3,500 fans per game last season. The club’s location is within the physical footprint of the league. They have held off on some improvements until a new stadium is needed and they are currently a Reds affiliate. Cincinnati has four teams listed for contraction, including their High-A and Double-A squads, and are the only franchise with two full-season clubs on the list for downsizing.

Conclusion

All in all, we have a group of 14 teams, with perhaps Hagerstown and the Fire Frogs excepted, that seem to be doing well enough that removal isn’t warranted. The clubs are in mostly good facilities, don’t require outrageous travel, and draw a decent number of fans. Some either have or will soon spend significant resources on facility upgrades. If MLB’s whole plan was to get better travel and upgraded facilities for their minor league teams with a focus on the 14 above, there would seem to be significant room for negotiation with necessary concessions to get a deal done. By eliminating short-season baseball, MLB leaves itself with too many quality affiliates for the number of teams they desire. The proposed Dream League might help a few teams survive in their communities, but without MLB providing players (and their salaries), most of the contracted teams are unlikely to keep their gates open.

By creating greater supply than demand, MLB can then force more favorable terms on potential affiliates and keep current affiliates in line. The prospect of losing affiliation would serve to drive down a minor league team’s value in potential sales if an MLB team wanted to swoop in, or else keep the minor league franchise more dependent on MLB to maintain its value. MLB has been rightly frustrated with the relocation of some minor league teams, as well as affiliate negotiations every few years that create a lack of continuity and increased travel, but the proposed response seems highly out of proportion to address those concerns. Admittedly, these are fights of profits, power, and control between millionaires and billionaires, but the effects of these fights play a major role in how fans are able to see and appreciate the sport. Keeping something like the current status quo puts more money in the pockets of the millionaire owners, but it also means the survival of more than 40 minor league teams in small cities and towns across the country.

MLB’s stated public arguments don’t really hold a lot of water. Much of what they claim to want in terms of better pay and conditions for minor leaguers can easily be achieved under the current system. Even holding top prospects in complex ball until they are ready for full-season baseball in Class A wouldn’t significantly shift the current environment. MLB spends roughly half a billion dollars every year on signing bonuses and salaries for minor leaguers, with the latter accounting for under 20% of that figure. To claim they are somehow losing money on the minors is hard to square given that some of those minor leaguers eventually comprise the player pool in the majors, where the league receives over $10 billion in revenue every year. MLB is certainly entitled to try to scrap back as much of the minor league profits as they can, but is an extra few hundred thousand dollars per team worth losing baseball in many small cities and towns across the country?

Likewise, how sure should we be that contracting the minors won’t scuttle promising, if late-blooming talent? MLB says that teams are currently drafting players with little-to-no shot at the big leagues, giving players false hope and stunting their educations, but given the advances technologically over the last few years with Statcast and Trackman, shouldn’t teams want more players in the system due to the increased likelihood of finding previously underdeveloped talent and an improved ability to push that talent forward? If all it takes is improved pay to address concerns of exploiting unachievable dreams, isn’t that worth the investment? It reads like an infomercial, but for just a thousand dollars per day, MLB can keep baseball alive in the summer in under-served areas of the country. Negotiating better terms and conditions is one thing, but eliminating a quarter of the minors so they can better control minor league owners and take more ownership stakes themselves is a cost baseball fans shouldn’t have to bear.

We hoped you liked reading Untangling a Minor League Mess, Part III by Craig Edwards!

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Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I found it really hard to read this article because of I couldn’t visualize all of the geography issues, but with this map it was a lot easier:
https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/viewer?mid=1-Nca_FK5EUsI9v53B0fGdA6Y8zg&ll=29.27376586224284%2C-84.18919214504359&z=7