Iowa Cubs broadcaster Alex Cohen knew the gravity of the string of invitations coming Wednesday morning.
He opened Twitter and typed: “A lot of tremendous talented, hardworking and loyal people in @milb have their jobs and livelihood impacted greatly today. If you still have a job, keep an eye and an ear open for those who don’t and won’t anymore. You never know how much you can help by simply listening.”
An hour and a half later, the Cubs officially put out good news for its top four affiliates: The organization was inviting the Triple-A Iowa Cubs, Double-A Tennessee Smokies, High-A South Bend Cubs and Low-A Myrtle Beach Pelicans to remain affiliates in MLB’s new player development structure.
The Eugene Emeralds, which played short-season A ball before the restructuring, were the only former Cubs affiliate left off the list. But the San Francisco Giants invited the Emeralds to become their Class A Advanced affiliate.
“There is definitely some sadness across minor league baseball today,” South Bend Cubs president Joe Hart said in a phone interview.
Prior to joining the South Bend Cubs, Hart served as the general manager of the Charlotte Stone Crabs of the Florida State League. The Stone Crabs (High-A) were one of 11 full season teams that didn’t receive invitations to join the minors in 2021, according to Baseball America. As the minors shrunk to 120 affiliated teams (the last team to make the cut has yet to be announced), they also eliminated short-season rookie ball.
“We're excited the Cubs are happy with us,” Tennessee Smokies president Chris Allen said in a phone interview. “We love our relationship with the Cubs, so this is this is a good day for us. With that said, we know there's a lot of people in our industry that are having a bad day.”
The list of minor league teams isn’t set in stone. The affiliates still have to accept the invitations, and the terms and conditions that come with the Player Development License. But few changes are expected.
Assuming all four Cubs invitees finalize their affiliations, not much changes in the Cubs farm system. South Bend and Myrtle Beach do swap classifications, and it has yet to be announced what league the Pelicans will play in. With the pipeline flowing the opposite direction, some familiar faces may return to South Bend.
“We’re excited and hopeful that a lot of those guys who won that championship for us during the ’19 season will be back with us in 2021,” Hart said, “to hopefully retain the Midwest League championship.”
The Cubs affiliates were presumed to be safe from contraction months ago. The organization has put an emphasis on state-of-the-art facilities, and its affiliates have delivered, so much so that Single-A South Bend was ready to serve as the Cubs’ alternate site this past summer. The Tennessee Smokies opened a new performance center two years ago, and now owner Randy Boyd is presenting plans for a new ballpark in East Knoxville.
So, when Cohen woke up Wednesday morning, he suspected an invitation was coming for the Iowa Cubs. They’ve been a Cubs affiliate since 1981, the third-longest relationship between an MLB team and Triple-A affiliate. But this year has been famously unpredictable.
“I'm thinking about those who have lost their jobs today and are thinking about what's next for them,” Cohen told NBC Sports Chicago, “because there are some of those people who have really paved the way for my career and so many people that I know. … It's been a bittersweet day, for sure.”