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Minor League Baseball expected to agree to drastic reduction of affiliated teams

UPDATED: Tue., April 21, 2020

Maxwell Morales  of the Spokane Indians dashes for third base against the Tri-City Dust Devils on Monday, July 8, 2019, at Avista Stadium. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
Maxwell Morales of the Spokane Indians dashes for third base against the Tri-City Dust Devils on Monday, July 8, 2019, at Avista Stadium. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

If the coronavirus pandemic forces the cancellation of Minor League Baseball in its entirety this summer, some towns across America might have already witnessed their last big league-affiliated baseball games, with no chance to say goodbye.

According to a report by Baseball America on Tuesday, Minor League Baseball is prepared to agree to a drastic reduction in its number of affiliated teams in order to ratify a new Professional Baseball Agreement with Major League Baseball, which would go into effect at the end of the 2020 baseball season.

MLB and MiLB negotiators are expected to convene on a teleconference on Wednesday, according to BA, at which MiLB will agree to trim from 160 affiliated teams to 120.

The new agreement would allow all 30 MLB teams one affiliate in each of the four full-season classifications and one rookie-level team housed at its spring training complex.

Minor League Baseball released a statement Tuesday afternoon: “Recent articles on the negotiations between MiLB and Major League Baseball (MLB) are largely inaccurate. There have been no agreements on contraction of any other issues.”

Some teams would be eliminated entirely, while others may be transitioned into nonaffiliated teams stocked by undrafted players or college wood bat leagues.

It’s possible MiLB owners will agree to a plan which would allow MLB to take over control of the governance of the minors in order to provide long-term security, an assurance that franchise values will be protected and a plan that provides as many cities and teams as possible a viable path forward.

The goal is to keep the best ballparks and the best geographic fits as part of a new minor league vision under direct guidance of MLB.

The plan that MLB deputy commissioner Dan Halem laid out publicly in a letter to members of Congress last November was originally met with bitter resistance across MiLB, with threats of contentious litigation and Congressional oversight.

But in the six months since, the world has changed due to the coronavirus pandemic and the economic impact left in its wake.

Many MiLB teams have had to lay off or furlough significant numbers of staffers because the current season is suspended with no clear start date in sight. Missing revenue from an entire season could drastically impact franchises – or drive them out of business completely.

Most of the teams on the list scheduled for contraction that surfaced in November currently play in short-season Class A or rookie level, but teams from each classification up to Double-A are included on the list.

That list is not final, however, and some changes to it could be expected as MLB hammers out the ultimate details.

The Spokane Indians, who play in the short-season Class A Northwest League, were not on the list for contraction.

The Indians declined comment for this story.

Two NWL teams – the Tri-City Dust Devils and Salem-Keizer Volcanoes – were included on the list for contraction.

The Pasco City Council decided in fall 2018 to use hotel/motel taxes to finance $2 million in ballpark improvements to Gesa Stadium, home of the Dust Devils.

Brett Sports and Entertainment owns the Indians, the Dust Devils and the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes of the advanced-A California League, as well as the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League.

It’s unknown whether the Northwest League will remain intact with six teams or to which classifications the current member teams will be assigned.

The NWL is comprised of wildly differing market sizes, ranging from Hillsboro, Oregon, with a population of 92,000 – to Vancouver, British Columbia, the third-largest metro region in Canada with a population of 2.46 million.

Spokane’s metro-area population of roughly 573,000 places it on the high end of NWL affiliates.

Traditionally, full-season Class A leagues play a 140-game schedule, from the first week of April through the first week of September.

Indians owner Bobby Brett spoke with The Spokesman-Review earlier this month.

“What we don’t know yet is, are we playing 140 games, 130, 110?” he said. “If it’s 100-110, we start in the middle of May and usually the weather has turned a little bit, and I think that’s still fine for us.”

According to Baseball America, MiLB has indicated a willingness to work with MLB on shortening travel and improving the geographical cohesiveness of leagues.

For example, the Seattle Mariners’ full-season A affiliate, the West Virginia Power, plays in the Eastern Time Zone. It was listed among the candidates for contraction.

MLB reached an agreement last month with the MLB Players Association to cut the number of rounds in the 2020 and ’21 drafts from 40 to 20, which will almost assuredly cut the number of players MLB teams sign each year and reduce the number of affiliated teams necessary.

MLB’s initial plan last year laid out a “Dream League” for undrafted players as well as summer wood bat leagues for college prospects to replace affiliated ball in many of the smaller towns that were on the chopping block.

MiLB and MLB are expected to discuss the factors of a system in which the sides could work together to ensure most of the cities that have affiliated baseball will have ties to MLB clubs, even if those cities’ teams will not be fielding draftees and signees of the MLB club.

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