While the sports world has undergone a dramatic temporary change as leagues wait out the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, drastic permanent change might be about to come to baseball.
Minor League Baseball is expected to agree to a 25 percent reduction of the number of affiliated teams, from 160 down to 120, according to a report from Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper. The reduction would be in line with Major League Baseball’s proposed overhaul of the minor league system, the details of which were reported last year.
Minor League Baseball released a statement not long after that report came out Tuesday denying any agreement on the elimination of teams.
"Recent articles on the negotiations between MiLB and Major League Baseball are largely inaccurate," it read. "There have been no agreements on contraction or any other issues. MiLB looks forward to continuing the good faith negotiations with MLB tomorrow as we work toward an agreement that best ensures the future of professional baseball throughout the United States and Canada."
In its most basic description, MLB's proposal for the redesign of Minor League Baseball would effectively feature the elimination of short-season and rookie leagues across the country. The remaining 120 teams would be reorganized into four full-season levels that are familiar to most fans: Triple-A, Double-A, High A and Low A. Rookie ball would continue at teams’ spring training facilities rather than in leagues elsewhere.
By cutting down on the number of teams, Major League Baseball hopes to see an improvement to minor league facilities, which would improve the development of their players, and a geographic reorganization that would cut down on both the cost and time of travel.
The list of the 42 teams that would be eliminated — two currently independent teams would join Minor League Baseball as affiliated clubs — was reported at the end of last year and isn’t limited to the lowest-level teams, with four Double-A teams, four High A teams and six Low A teams on the chopping block alongside 11 short-season teams and 17 rookie-ball teams. The Great Falls Voyagers, the White Sox rookie-league affiliate, is one of the teams up for elimination.
Major League Baseball’s proposal included a significant reorganization of leagues and even levels in an effort to bring the most geographic cohesion. Geography is also a consideration when it comes to which minor league teams would be affiliated with major league teams. For example, a Class A team could become a Triple-A team based on the quality of its facilities and what makes the most geographic sense.
Leagues could also gain or lose a large number of teams, with the Triple-A International League growing to 20 teams and the Triple-A Pacific Coast League shrinking to just 10 teams. In last year’s report, one Class A league was described as being reduced to just six teams, while the rest of its current teams would be put into a brand new league.
Would the White Sox and Cubs maintain their current groups of affiliates? Three White Sox affiliates play near one another in North Carolina. Would that be seen as a good geographic clustering, or would they switch to Midwestern teams that would allow their players to be closer to Chicago? While the Cubs’ Triple-A and Low A affiliates are nearby in Iowa and Indiana, respectively, would they change their affiliates at Double-A and High A? They currently send their players to Tennessee and South Carolina at those levels, respectively.
The ongoing pandemic only prompts more questions about the future of minor league teams across the country, which are feeling the economic pains of a lack of revenue during the absence of games. While Major League Baseball continues to discuss ways to salvage its 2020 season, there is a wonder if there will be Minor League Baseball at all in 2020.
Similarly, the many minor league jobs for players that would be eliminated along with these teams might have already been forced by the wayside, with the recent agreement between the league and the union allowing this year’s draft to be reduced to as few as five rounds, with impacts on the 2021 draft, as well.