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Update on the 2021 Cardinal Minor League Affiliates and the Restructuring of Minor League Baseball

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Minor League Baseball: Nashville Sounds at Memphis Redbirds Yalonda M. James-USA TODAY Sports

For the previous 117 years, there had been an independent contractual relationship between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball (formally known as the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, or the “National Association,”, for short). Minor League Baseball had a separate office and President. Before the Professional Baseball Agreement between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball expired on September 30th, 2020, there were long and contentious negotiations between both sides about how their relationship was going to proceed, if at all.

Baseball America has a nice timeline on the negotiations and the issues involved in this article here. Back in October of 2019, MLB indicated that it wanted to reduce the number of minor league affiliates, restructure the leagues to make more geographic sense and ensure the facilities met certain standards. In essence, Commissioner Rob Manfred wanted MLB to take over Minor League Baseball and run it out of his office as part of his “One Baseball” philosophy, believing that MLB could run it more cheaply and efficiently and make more revenues for the minor league clubs. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the 2020 minor league season was officially cancelled on June 30th, 2020. At some point, a list of the clubs MLB proposed to contract was leaked to the New York Times, and all hell broke loose. Politicians got involved. Minor league owners were fighting with one another. Some didn’t want to tick MLB off, a posture designed to make sure their club was not one of the ones contracted. Others wanted to protect the independence of the minor leagues and spoke out.

Eventually seeing the writing on the wall and that MLB would be destined to take over, Pat O’Conner, President of Minor League Baseball resigned. The PBA expired, and now MLB is in charge of the minor leagues. Below, I will describe the new lay of the land, and outline the effect on the Cardinal organization.

43 TEAMS REMOVED FROM THE MINOR LEAGUES

Before the changes, there were 160 minor league clubs affiliated with major league teams, not including the complex league clubs and foreign rookie league clubs. There are now 120 such minor league teams. Forty-three teams were eliminated from the minor leagues. The reason the number is 43 instead of 40 is that 3 clubs that were in independent leagues took the place of what used to be affiliates. The St. Paul Saints (St. Paul, MN), formerly of the independent American Association will now be the AAA affiliate of the Minnesota Twins. The Sugar Land Skeeters (Sugar Land, TX), formerly of the independent Atlantic League is the new AAA affiliate of the Houston Astros. And the Somerset Patriots (Bridgewater Township, NJ), also formerly of the Atlantic League, is the new AA affiliate of the New York Yankees.

NO STATESIDE SHORT-SEASON BASEBALL OTHER THAN COMPLEX LEAGUES

Not including teams in the Dominican Summer League, clubs used to have as many as 3 clubs in different domestic short-season leagues. That has all changed.

COMPLEX ROOKIE LEAGUES

The Arizona League and Gulf Coast League will continue. In recent years, these clubs have played anywhere from 52 to 56 games (typically from mid-June to late August or early September) at the spring training complexes of the various major league teams, and they don’t sell tickets or concessions. In the Gulf Coast League, the Phillies, Tigers and Yankees fielded 2 teams. The Athletics, Brewers, Cubs, Dodgers, Giants, Indians and Padres all fielded 2 Arizona League teams. As of 2019, the Rockies were the only major league club that didn’t have a team in one of these leagues. It’s possible that these 2nd teams will be eliminated and that the Rockies will add such a club, but otherwise the leagues will proceed as normal.

FOREIGN ROOKIE LEAGUE

The Dominican Summer League, which is classified as a Foreign Rookie League, has been the only Latin-American based rookie league since the Venezuelan Summer League shut down after the 2015 season. This league will continue, with the rule maintained that clubs may field up to 2 teams in this league, as about half of the MLB clubs did in 2019.

ROOKIE ADVANCED LEAGUES

Here is where the major change comes. The Appalachian League and the Pioneer Leagues were rookie leagues, informally known as “Rookie Advanced.” They played a short season just like the complex leagues, with the difference being that these clubs were stationed all over the country. The Pioneer League had 8 clubs located in Idaho, Montana, Utah and Colorado. The Appalachian League had 10 clubs across Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee Fourteen MLB teams has no teams in either league, while the Royals and Reds fielded one team in each.

Now, these leagues are out of minor league baseball. The Pioneer League clubs will retain their brand names, but will now be part of an independent league. The Orem, Utah club will relocate to Windsor, Colorado, and there will be a 9th club, the Boise Hawks, which used to be in the Short-Season A Northwest League. In addition to the independent Atlantic League, American Association and Frontier League, the new 9-club Pioneer League will be designated as a “Partner League” of MLB, with each focusing on a different geographic area of the United States. MLB will provide the initial funding for operating expenses, will install advanced scouting technology, as well as create some sort of mechanism for MLB minor league affiliates to purchase the contracts of these players. My sense is that with the draft being reduced from 40 to 20 rounds for 2021 and beyond, these new Partner Leagues will target undrafted or otherwise overlooked players.

The Appalachian League is now a collegiate wood bat summer league for freshmen and sophomores. Since all the clubs in this league were named after parent MLB franchises, they will be re-branded to incorporate names and logos important to their respective local communities. The most recent scouting technology will be available, and players will receive instruction from former MLB players. MLB will provide staffing support.

SHORT-SEASON A LEAGUES

There were 2 leagues classified as Short-Season A, which played a 76-game schedule. These were the New York-Pennsylvania League (14 clubs) and the Northwest League (8 clubs). The Braves, White Sox, Reds, Royals, Angels, Dodgers, Brewers and Twins had no club in either league. While there will still be no domestic short-season minor league baseball other than complex leagues, these two leagues are being handled differently.

The 8-team Northwest League is now a 6-team league and will operate at the Class A-Advanced level. The Boise Hawks (Boise, ID), which was the Short-Season A affiliate of the Rockies, is now out of minor league baseball and will be the 9th club in the independent Pioneer League. The Salem-Keizer Volcanoes (Keizer, OR), formerly the Short-Season A affiliate of the Giants, is also out of minor league baseball and has not been offered a place anywhere. Three of the remaining six clubs are switching MLB affiliations. The Giants picked up the Eugene Emeralds (Eugene, OR), which used to be affiliated with the Cubs and the Rockies picked up the Spokane Indians (Spokane, WA), which used to be affiliated with the Rangers. The Tri-City Dust Devils (Pasco, WA), formerly affiliated with the Padres, will now be with the Angels.

The clubs that used to be involved in the New-York Penn League have been scattered all over the board. Half of the 14 clubs have been excluded from all MLB-sponsored leagues. These teams include the Auburn Doubledays (Auburn, NY), Batavia Muckdogs (Batavia, NY), Lowell Spinners (Lowell, MA), Norwich Sea Unicorns (Norwich, CT), Staten Island Yankees, Tri-City ValleyCats (Troy, NY) and the Vermont Lake Monsters (Burlington, VT).

Three clubs have kept their MLB affiliation, but have switched from Short-Season A clubs to Class A-Advanced clubs. These include the Aberdeen IronBirds (Orioles, Aberdeen, MD) Brooklyn Cyclones (Mets, Brooklyn, NY) and the Hudson Valley Renegades (Yankees, Fishkill, NY).

The remaining 4 clubs—the Mahoning Valley Scrapper (Niles, OH), State College Spikes (formerly the Cardinals’ short-season entry out of State College, PA), West Virginia Black Bears (Granville, WV) and the Williamsport Crosscutters (Williamsport, PA) are going to be part of a new 6-team league that MLB is billing as the MLB Draft League. This league will be stocked with college players that are eligible for the draft that are projected to be premium selections, and will be supported by MLB with staffing, administrative functions and scouting technology. The other two teams slated to be part of this showcase league include the Trenton Thunder (Trenton, NJ), formerly the AA affiliate of the New York Yankees and the Frederick Keys (Frederick, MD), formerly the Class-A Advanced affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles.

MOST CLUBS IN CLASS A AND A-ADVANCED SWAP CLASSIFICATIONS

With respect to full season classification leagues (AAA, AA, A-Advanced and A), there have been geographical restructurings. The Fresno Grizzlies, which had been the AAA affiliate of the Washington Nationals was told to accept a Class A classification or get out, and are now the Class A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies. There have been other clubs switch affiliations in various ways, because it would make the article unnecessary lengthy. You can compare this list, which captures the 2019 affiliates with this one, which outlines the new set.

The most important thing to note for our purposes is that many leagues that were Class-A Advanced Leagues (California League, California League and Florida State League) are now Class A Leagues. With the exception of the Lancaster JetHawks, who used to be the Class-A Advanced affiliate of the Colorado Rockies and are now out of the picture, all California League clubs are now Class A clubs of the same affiliates.

Similarly the Florida State League, formerly a 12-team Class-A Advanced League, is now a 10-team Class A League. The Charlotte Stone Crabs (Rays, Port Charlotte, FL) and Florida Fire Frogs (Braves, North Port, FL) are out of minor league baseball. It is apparently unclear what the old Class A-Advanced Carolina League will be called. All the clubs in that league, which was a Class-A Advanced League with the exception of the Frederick Keys (now in the MLB Draft League), Wilmington Blue Rocks (staying in Class A-Advanced and switching affiliates from the Royals to the Nationals) and the Winston-Salem Dash (sticking with the White Sox in the High-A classification), the Carolina League clubs will all be Class A clubs.

The corollary is that most of the Midwest League and South Atlantic League clubs, which were Class A clubs, will now be Class A-Advanced clubs. For the Midwest League, the Lansing Lugnuts (Lansing, MI) are switching affiliations from the Blue Jays to the Athletics and the Quad Cities River Bandits (Davenport, IA) are switching affiliations from the Astros to the Royals. The Burlington Bees (Angels, Burlington, IA), Clinton LumberKings (Marlins, Clinton, IA) and Kane County Cougars (Diamondbacks, Geneva, IL) are all without a home. Otherwise, all other Midwest League clubs are sticking with their affiliates and just moving up a classification.

For the South Atlantic League, the Ashville Tourists (Asheville, NC) will move up to Class A-Advanced, but now be an Astros farm team instead of partnering with the Rockies. The Augusta GreenJackets (North Augusta, SC) are sticking in the Class A classification and switching affiliates from the Giants to the Braves. The Charleston RiverDogs (Charleston, SC), formerly the Class A affiliate of the Yankees are sticking with that classification, but partnering with the Rays. The Columbia Fireflies (Columbia, SC) are staying as a Class A club, but switching their affiliation from the Mets to the Royals. The Delmarva Shorebirds (Salisbury, MD) are standing pat as the Class A club of the Orioles, and the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers (Kannapolis, NC) will remain the Class A club of the White Sox. The Hagerstown Suns (Nationals, Hagerstown, MD), Lexington Legends (Royals, Lexington, KY) and West Virginia Power (Mariners, Charleston, WV) are now out. All other Sally League clubs are sticking with their affiliates but moving from Class A to Class A-Advanced. With a few clubs not jumping classifications, there will have to be some type of restructuring.

CLUBS CAN REJECT THE OFFER

When I said a club will be moving classifications or switching leagues, it was a little bit premature. What MLB has announced is actually deemed an offer for a Professional Development License. Teams still have to mull the offer over and accept it, and it is theoretically possible, that some clubs won’t be able to or have no interest in handling the requirements. As long as these negotiations have been however, I would suspect most clubs were just glad not to be on the chopping block.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR CARDINALS

For the Cardinals, not much changes, except the whole situation is much more favorable from a logistical and geographical standpoint. The State College Spikes and Johnson City Cardinals, as non-complex short-season clubs, are no longer affiliated with organized minor league baseball.

But Palm Beach and Peoria swapping classifications makes a lot of sense. The Cardinals should continue to operate a Gulf Coast League complex rookie club. The next rung on the ladder will now be straight to Class A, which is now the Palm Beach club that plays home games in the same stadium. Peoria’s switching to Class A-Advanced means that the top 3 Cardinals’ full-season affiliates will be within roughly a 4-hour drive of Busch Stadium, and of course, much shorter than that by plane.

The AAA Memphis Redbirds won’t play the Fresno Grizzlies (Washington Nationals affiliate) anymore, because that club has been downgraded to a Class A club. The Nashville Sounds switched affiliations from the Rangers to the Brewers, but the Brewers’ old AAA club (San Antonio Missions, now the AA club for the Padres) was in the Pacific Coast League the last two years, so that doesn’t affect us. The New Orleans Baby Cakes, the Miami Marlins’ old AAA affiliate, doesn’t exist anymore, but now that their old AA affiliate Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp is being elevated to AAA, perhaps they will be in the Pacific Coast League. The AA Springfield Cardinals will play a Padres affiliate instead of a Diamondbacks affiliate because the Amarillo Sod Poodles switched classifications. There may be a restructuring of the divisions for the full-season club, but that’s all to watch out for.

ROSTER SIZES

The one thing to pay attention to going forward is the roster sizes that will be permitted. We already know that the first-year player draft will be reduced from 40 rounds to 20. In addition, MLB had initially told the minor league clubs that it would be limited to a total of 150 domestic minor league players. This includes the complex league clubs, but does not include the Dominican Summer League.

That would have been a tight squeeze. With major league clubs having a 40-man reserve list and a 26-man active roster, that gives you 14 players right there that would be on a minor league club. Let’s assume that the club had a full reserve list for every other minor league classification. That would require you to add 38 for AAA, 37 for AA and 35 each for Class A-Advanced, Class A and the Gulf Coast League clubs. That’s 196 players. Brian Walton’s roster matrix, which you can find here, says the Cardinals have 259 players in the organization. That total includes all of the Dominican players, but even if you excluded them, that would still have an excess of about 50 players.

MLB has since softened their stance, and has now thrown the figure of 180 domestic players around. That’s a much better number, but it would still require trims, and you can expect both the roster and reserve limit sizes to be adjusted going forward as well as several players being released. It is something to keep an eye on.

CONCLUSION

While there are 18 former minor league clubs that got voted off the MLB minor league island altogether, the Cardinals’ basic structure is intact. The fanbases of the Cardinal affiliates that were eliminated will still get to watch baseball of some kind. Our full-season affiliates make more sense geographically. There are also some quality of life upgrades in the form of travel restrictions that are in the works. Now we just have to hope we get a minor league season for 2021.