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Minor League teams accepting new reality after MLB cuts

St. Paul Saints

Jackson Generals boss Marcus Sabata had a surprising reaction when he learned his Double-A Southern League franchise had been officially booted from the affiliated minor leagues:

He felt relieved.

Major League Baseball announced this week 119 of the 120 teams that have been formally invited to remain as minor league affiliates, chopping 40 franchises in a move that’s been anticipated for over a year. News of MLB’s hopes to shrink the minors first emerged during negotiations last offseason for a new Professional Baseball Agreement, and after the deal governing the minors was allowed to expire this fall, Wednesday’s announcement was inevitable.

“We’ve been under this cloud for a year now,” said Sabata, general manager of the Tennessee team since September 2019. “Now that there’s some certainty to how we see things moving forward, we can plan the next chapter, which is kind of a relief, to be honest.”

Most of the clubs who lost their affiliation expect to continue operations in some manner, many still in conjunction with MLB.

The former Rookie-level Appalachian League has been transformed into a 10-team college summer league, six teams have been invited to join the MLB Draft League for draft-eligible players, and the eight-team Pioneer League has said it will become an independent circuit that operates as an MLB partner league.

Three franchises from the Class A Midwest League who lost affiliation said in statements this week they are in communication with MLB about joining another partner league — the Burlington Bees (Iowa), Kane County Cougars (Illinois) and Clinton LumberKings (Iowa).

“We have been doing extensive work and are considering several options for the future of the LumberKings franchise,” Clinton general manager Ted Tornow said. “We will announce our plans for the franchise in the very near future, but our great fans can rest assured that there will be baseball played at NelsonCorp Field in 2021 and beyond. We are working with MLB on making sure that Clinton has baseball in the future. We will have a different relationship with MLB moving forward.”

Sabata’s Generals are in a similar spot. The club was most recently a Double-A affiliate with the Arizona Diamondbacks and had also been with the Seattle Mariners and Chicago Cubs over 22 seasons in the Southern League.

Sabata expects the team to announce a decision on its future in the coming weeks. He said joining an MLB partner league was among the options being considered.

“We are expecting professional baseball back in Jackson in 2021,” he said. “Our fans want professional baseball.”

Sabata said he’s had good communication with MLB leading up to Wednesday’s decision, and although he expects the club to have to make adjustments to its model, he expects that whatever comes next, the franchise will continue to exist.

“Professional baseball in Jackson isn’t really about the affiliation,” he said. “What makes a night special at the ballpark isn’t the affiliation. It was professional baseball and the experience, so that’s what we’re looking forward to providing the city of Jackson.”

The Charlotte Stone Crabs, located about a 90-minute drive south of Tampa, Florida, won’t be so lucky.

The Stone Crabs were a Class A Advanced affiliate of the nearby Tampa Bay Rays and played at the club’s spring training complex. Despite the proximity, the Rays decided to relocate their high-A club to Charleston, South Carolina.

Charlotte general manager Jeff Cook said he never heard from MLB directly, doesn’t expect to be invited to a partner league and believes the franchise will fold.

“We figured being a spring training facility, our proximity to Tampa, the fact we have great facilities, the travel’s light -- a lot of things MLB was worried about, we crossed all those spots off,” Cook said. “Certainly, we didn’t expect it.”

Only one other Florida State League team — the Florida Fire Frogs — lost its affiliation, leaving the Stone Crabs without enough nearby franchises to form a new league.

Charlotte Sports Park will continue to host the Rays’ spring training, but it’s unclear how the stadium will be used the rest of the year.

Cook said the team employed around 200 full- and part-time staff, including many retirees who live in the area. The team’s disappearance also creates a hole for many of the area’s charities and non-profits — Cook said the team had worked with over 100 of them in recent years, using baseball as a rallying point for fundraising.

“For this area, it’s the one big outdoor entertainment, family-friendly thing you can count on,” Cook said. “For us, that’s the biggest thing. We love having people at the park.”