For the better part of 18 months, minor league baseball has been in turmoil.
Contraction. Realignment. Changing affiliations. Changing management. Threats of litigation and congressional action. All forced or caused by Major League Baseball, which wants to control the product from the big leagues all the way down to Little League.
Not to mention a global pandemic that canceled a full season, prompting minor league owners to lay off entire staffs and miss out on nearly a year’s worth of revenue.
But out of all of this, on Friday some good news finally arrived – at least in this market.
MLB officially announced that all 120 minor league franchises invited to sign a Professional Development License to remain in affiliate baseball did so, including the hometown Spokane Indians.
When the music stopped and the dust settled, the Indians became the newest affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, jumping two classifications to full-season Class High-A. That’s nothing but good news for the Indians and fans of minor league baseball in Spokane.
But don’t just take my word for it.
“This is a big deal,” Indians senior vice president Otto Klein said Friday on a media Zoom call. “You know, for a lot of us who have been in this community for a long time – and we’ve been in baseball some of us for 30 years or more – this is the most historic change that we will see in our lifetime with minor league baseball. This is, this is a big one.”
Most. Historic. Change.
It might be tempting for the cynical to pass Klein’s comment off as hyperbole … but don’t. He’s not wrong.
This change is not only historic for Spokane, but in towns across America as the management, organization and very structure of minor league baseball are undergoing their biggest change in over 100 years.
No longer will the minor leagues be independent business ventures separate from MLB. All aspects of management will come from MLB headquarters in New York City, from the schedules to the balls put in play to the intensity of the lights in the outfield to what the players are served on the buffet table.
The change also comes with a significant pay raise for players at all levels of the minor leagues, which was decades overdue but still woefully inadequate.
It also comes to those 43 minor league towns, mostly in the smallest markets, that will no longer host baseball affiliated with MLB – some with generational history of being the first place a future big leaguer played professional baseball.
So what do all these changes mean specifically to Spokane?
Since 1983, the Indians have played in short-season A ball, nearly the lowest rung on the developmental ladder. The roster traditionally has been stocked with lesser-heralded international players, recent lower-round draft picks and holdovers left back from previous seasons to fill out a bloated 35-player roster – with the occasional top prospect sprinkled in.
One of the biggest parts of MLB’s reorganization of the minors in to reduce the glut of nonprospects in the farm system. To do that, it eliminated 43 affiliates, will reduce the number of rounds in the amateur draft and restrict minor league roster sizes.
All of that – plus moving up two classifications – will allow the Rockies to stock the Indians’ roster with higher-quality players with more impressive credentials who are several steps closer to the major leagues.
It should also mean less player movement during the season instead of the daily shuffle of organizational players in short season.
Starting pitchers won’t be restricted to 40 pitches. Hitters won’t be instructed to take certain pitches, even as strikes, in order to read pitchers and learn the strike zone. Fielders won’t be learning on the fly each night. It still won’t be big league ball, but it’ll be a closer facsimile to the real thing.
Additionally, the mandated changes to the facilities should provide a better experience not just for the players and coaches, but for fans as well.
The Avista playing surface has always been one of the best in the minors, but major upgrades to stadium lighting and the clubhouses should provide a facelift to an already great place to watch minor league ball.
“I can tell you with confidence that our group is committed to not only Spokane as a community but Avista Stadium as a whole,” team president Chris Duff said. “This is where we want to be. And we want to be committed to this stadium, being a community asset for all around, for sure.”
The leap to full-season baseball will be significant for all involved.
Not only will it give fans more opportunity to visit Avista Stadium during the spring and summer, but the 132-game schedule will provide the club with 66 home dates, as opposed to the accustomed 38, with which to generate the all-important revenue it takes to make minor league baseball work.
It further reinforces the irrefutable connection the franchise has with Spokane.
“The Indians have been in this community, as everyone knows, this is our 119th year,” Klein said. “The fabric of the community is baseball. We have a lot of great sports in this town, but baseball has deepened our roots, and this is going to be a great change moving forward.”
Another aspect of the new schedule is that it is reported to be more compact, each week consisting of a six-game series against a single opponent with a routine scheduled off day.
That would give fans and families a real opportunity to plan their summer entertainment out, allowing them to see the prospects from the other organizations in a concentrated, meaningful manner.
It will also allow for the players and coaches assigned here to be even more involved in the community of Spokane.
“I think we’ve done a really good job of being impactful to the community,” Duff said. “This just gives us that much more opportunity to be even more impacting with players involved in things in the community as well.”
The bad news
The changes don’t come without cost.
First, the former Northwest League, for now dubbed the “High-A West” League, will be without two traditional opponents. The Boise Hawks and Salem-Keizer Volcanoes weren’t among the 120 franchises to be part of the restructure.
The league is down to six teams, which means two fewer MLB organizations’ prospects to filter through Spokane during the summer.
It also means a termination of an 18-year relationship with the Texas Rangers’ organization. The Indians and Rangers had an excellent partnership over the years. While it might get there with the Rockies, building those bonds take time.
“When you’re with an affiliate for that long, you know there’s a lot of great friendships there, right?” Klein said. “So, we all kind of learned at the same time (of the new affiliation), but you want to stay in touch with as many folks as you can.”
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