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MLB launches wood-bat league for draft-eligible prospects

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Los Angeles Dodgers

May 24, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Wooden baseball bats rest in the rack before the game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK -- Major League Baseball is creating a minor league for top eligible prospects leading to the summer draft.

The wood-bat MLB Draft League is launching with five teams and could add a sixth, MLB said Monday. Teams will play a 68-game regular season that includes an All-Star break coinciding with the draft in early July.

MLB also announced that the eight-team Pioneer League will lose its affiliated status and become an independent “Partner League.” MLB has pledged to provide initial funding for operating expenses and will install scouting technology at league stadiums. The Pioneer League spans Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Utah and had been a Rookie-level affiliated league since 1964.

Teams in the MLB Draft League are going to communities that lost franchises when MLB began shrinking the affiliated minor leagues from 160 to 120 teams. The reduction this offseason followed the expiration of the Professional Baseball Agreement, which governed the relationship between the majors and minors. MLB has planned to eliminate the separate governing body of minor league baseball.

The founding members of the MLB Draft League are located in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New Jersey: the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, the State College Spikes, the Trenton Thunder, the West Virginia Black Bears and the Williamsport Crosscutters. MLB said it is in discussions with a sixth team that it hopes to announce soon.

The season will run roughly from late May through mid-August, broken into halves. The first half will be a showcase for draft-eligible high school, college and junior college players. Following a multiday break for the draft, rosters will be restocked with the best players passed over by MLB teams who are still interested in signing.

The start of the season will overlap with the College World Series, meaning some top players won’t be able to join until after opening day, similar to other college summer leagues like the Cape Cod League.

MLB’s push to shrink the minors had drawn criticism from many in minor league communities, including politicians. A trio of U.S. senators - Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia - praised the MLB Draft League as a way to keep high-level baseball in their communities.

“I’m glad that MLB listened,” Brown said. “The formation of the MLB Draft League is good news for baseball and for fans in the (Mahoning) Valley, who will get to continue to see high-level prospects in their own backyard and rally around the Scrappers again soon.”

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced the “Trenton Thunder is saved” during a COVID-19 press briefing Monday.

The draft league will be operated by Prep Baseball Report - a scouting, events and media organization focused on youth ball - and former Cape Cod League coach Kerrick Jackson has been appointed president.

MLB said in a statement that players will “receive unprecedented visibility to MLB club scouts through both in-person observation and state-of-the-art scouting technology, and educational programming designed to prepare them for careers as professional athletes.”

Morgan Sword, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball economics and operations, called the venture a “one-of-a-kind league” that will allow fans to “see top prospects and future big-league stars in their hometowns.” He added that MLB is committed to “preserving and growing baseball in communities around the United States.”

MLB announced in September that the Appalachian League, formerly a Rookie-level affiliated league, would be transformed into a wood-bat college summer league.