The New Orleans Zephyrs' long road trip is finally over. Unfortunately, so is their season.
Pacific Coast League president Branch Rickey III said the decision wasn't easy, but in the end he decided to cancel New Orleans' final four-game homestand against the Iowa Cubs, rather than force the Zephyrs to play a second straight home series on the road.
The Zephyrs were among those in New Orleans displaced by Hurricane Isaac, with a scheduled four-game homestand against Round Rock moved to the Express’ Dell Diamond. New Orleans lost all four games there, including last night’s series finale, which officially knocked the Zephyrs out of playoff contention. But even before the first pitch was thrown last night, the league decided it would be New Orleans' last game of the season.
Zephyr Field was unplayable and without power, and travel into New Orleans was uncertain at best. That meant the Zephyrs would have needed to move their series against Iowa to either the Cubs’ Principal Park in Des Moines, or to Round Rock, which had already completed its home schedule. Rickey decided the expense and logistics of a last-minute switch to each of the teams involved were too significant.
"Given the extensive impact of Hurricane Isaac on airline schedules, municipal infrastructure, and the safety and well-being of people across the region, we felt it was important at this time that the PCL allow all of those affected to more importantly focus on local recovery," Rickey said in a statement.
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The Yankees' player-development contract with Double-A Trenton was not set to expire for another two years, but that didn't stop New York from working out an eight-year extension with their Eastern League affiliate that will run through the 2022 season.
It's a deal may that very well be the first of its kind. Teams are allowed to extend player-development contracts with their current affiliate in two- or four-year increments. So in order to work out an eight-year deal, the Yankees and Thunder signed two successor contracts—with the second one postdated from Oct. 1, 2018 to Sept. 30, 2022.
"We are both honored and humbled to remain part of the Yankee family for the next ten years," Thunder president Joe Finley said in a press release. "We are proud to be an integral part of the premier player development system in all of major league baseball and look forward to remaining in that role for many years to come."
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman shouldn't have to worry about negotiating any PDCs for awhile. New York owns both its Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (with Mandalay Baseball) and high Class A Tampa affiliates. Their low Class A Charleston club is owned by Marv Goldklang, who owns a minority stake in the Yankees. New York previously owned its short-season Staten Island club before selling the team to a Connecticut-based partnership of financial investors who won't be parting ways with the hometown Yankees.
In other affiliation news, the Mets signed a four-year extension with Double-A Binghamton (Eastern) through the 2016 season. The two teams have been together since 1992. The Akron Aeros, who have been with the Indians since debuting in 1989, remain the only unsigned Eastern League team.
No Double-A team has changed affiliation since 2009, and that streak appears likely to continue this year. Three Southern League teams have contracts set to expire after this season: Huntsville (Brewers), Jackson (Mariners) and Jacksonville (Marlins). Arkansas (Angels) is the only franchise with an expiring contract in the Texas League, which has not had a team change affiliations since 2007.
See here for an update on every team's affiliation status.
Chicago fans weren’t the only ones to get worked up over this week’s news that the Cubs may have already agreed to move their low Class A affiliation from Peoria to Kane County in the Midwest League, and will sign a player-development contract with the Cougars when the affiliation shuffle begins in September.
The Chicago Sun-Times’ story also caught the attention of Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner. Normally a fan of promoting anything and everything related to the minor leagues, O’Conner would rather not have seen this story in print. If the Sun-Times’ report is accurate, it means Kane County and the Cubs could be guilty of tampering.
According to the Professional Baseball Agreement—the rules that guide the relationship between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball—teams can discuss new affiliations only during a two-week open period that begins on Sept. 16. Any contact before then is prohibited, as is any public comment on other teams’ affiliates.
Asked when Minor League Baseball might open an investigation into possible tampering, O’Conner responded: “As soon as that article hit my desk . . . As soon as we were aware of it, we started to look into it.”
The PBA outlines in detail how and when major and minor league teams can pursue new player-development contracts. They’re free to renew existing deals at any time. Once the minor league regular season concludes, teams have until Sept. 11 to inform either MLB or MiLB that they intend to seek a new affiliation. From Sept.12-15, the central offices provide their clubs a list of teams seeking new affiliations. Beginning on Sept. 16, teams have 15 days to negotiate a new deal.
“There is a process that is designed to make it as competitively balanced and as fair as possible,” O’Conner said. “If you do have these guys jumping the gun and essentially cheating, then the system’s competitive balance and credibility are out the window.”
The secretive nature of the affiliation shuffle leads to plenty of speculation throughout the season about who is going where, and it’s not unusual for teams to have arrangements in place before the affiliation shuffle kicks off. If Kane County and the Cubs do end up together, their biggest mistake appears to be letting the news slip in advance.
“We don’t take any of it lightly,” O’Conner said.
Tampering penalties include a fine of $500,000 for a major league team and up to $100,000 for a minor league team, according to the PBA. O’Conner said he has contacted Kane County officials and commissioner Bud Selig’s office regarding the Cubs.
The end of August often brings a rush of affiliation extensions, and a pair of long-term partners extended their deals earlier this week.
The Padres and high Class A Lake Elsinore (California) extended their player-development contract two years through the 2014 season. The Phillies and low Class A Lakewood (South Atlantic) also agreed to a two-year extension. Both relationships date back to 2001.
See here for a complete listing of every team’s affiliation status.
Finishing near the bottom of the Midwest League standings may not be the worst thing to happen to the Peoria Chiefs this season. Seeing their eight-year affiliation with the Chicago Cubs come to an end would certainly top that. And according to the Chicago Sun-Times, that’s exactly what the Cubs plan on doing when their player-development contract with the Chiefs expires after this season.
The Cubs plan on bringing their low Class A affiliate closer to home, from Peoria to Kane County (whose affiliation with the Royals expires in September) after this season, the Sun-Times reported on Tuesday. Peoria and Chicago have been partners since 2005. They were previously together for 10 seasons from 1985-94.
Of course, minor league franchises are not supposed to negotiate with another team’s big league affiliate, as Minor League Baseball bylaws prohibit franchises from “tampering” with another club’s partner. Minor league teams can only begin negotiating with unattached affiliates when a 15-day open period begins on Sept. 16.
“It definitely caught us off guard,” Chiefs president Rocky Vonachen said of the Cubs’ reported plans, according to the Peoria Journal Star. “It’s the first we’ve heard anything like that.”
The Cubs leaving town would be the latest blow to Peoria during a challenging five-year stretch. A recession that hurt minor league baseball’s overall attendance figures in recent years hit Peoria particularly hard. Average attendance at Peoria’s O’Brien Field fell 26 percent, from 4,241 in 2008 to 3,132 in 2011. With seven home dates remaining this season, the Chiefs’ are averaging 2,776 fans and are on pace for an 11 percent dip from last season.
The slide has hurt the team’s bottom line, as the Chiefs suffered financial losses in four straight seasons from 2008-11, according to a report last December in the Peoria Journal Star.
The Cubs’ shift would also be a blow to the Royals, who relocated to Kane County two years ago after ending their 10-year run in quaint-but-comfortable Burlington. Kane County is regularly the runner-up in Midwest League attendance to the Dayton Dragons (who have sold out every game since debuting in 2000) but is on pace to finish third in average attendance behind the Fort Wayne TinCaps this season. The Cougars are averaging 5,446 fans this season, down 11 percent from 6,123 in 2011. The TinCpas are set to finish their fourth season at Parkview Field with a 5,707 average, up 1.6 percent from 5,612 last season.
A total of 11 teams in the 16-team Midwest League have player development contracts expiring after this season, though several are likely to renew longstanding relationships before the affiliation shuffle kicks off in September.
And then there was one.
The Rochester Red Wings’ two-year extension of its player-development contract with the Minnesota Twins late last week leaves the Buffalo Bisons as the only International League franchise without an affiliate lined up for next season.
Buffalo’s status is unlikely to change before Sept. 16, when teams are allowed to begin negotiating with unattached affiliates and the two-week bi-annual affiliation shuffle officially kicks off. That’s because the Bisons, who have been with the Mets the past four years, are expected to ink a deal with the Blue Jays, who have spent the past four years in Las Vegas (Pacific Coast) and appear eager to move their top affiliate closer to home and into a better ballpark.
A Toronto partnership with Buffalo would force the Mets on the move for the third time in six years and leave them with limited options on a home for the next two seasons. Eight of the 16 PCL franchises remain unsigned, though a change is unlikely for the bulk of that list. A potential landing spot for the Mets is Las Vegas, which likely will be the last team standing in the affiliation shuffle because its ballpark, Cashman Field, is among the most out-of-date in Triple-A.
Rochester considered replacing the Twins after posting consecutive 90-loss seasons. But a second-half surge this season—the Red Wings are in the wild-card race and have posted the International League’s best mark since July 1—secured Minnesota another two years in upstate New York. Rochester is sticking with the Twins not because of a lack of quality alternatives but rather the Twins’ commitment to rebuilding its farm system, Red Wings president Naomi Silver said.
“You don’t know exactly who is going to become available (in the affiliation shuffle),” Silver said, “and there was no option that appeared to be better than the one we have . . . We definitely feel that the Twins are an organization that believes, like we do, that the development of minor league players is a critical part of their business model, and it served us very well. We had a couple of rough seasons with them, but in 10 seasons overall they have been a great partner for us. They believe in teaching and training their players and training their players to do it their way. It is a very instructional organization, so we are very pleased to be with them. These are people whose baseball savvy we respect very much.”
In other affiliation news, the Blue Jays extended its PDC with low Class A Lansing (Midwest) for another two years through the 2014 season. The two sides have been together since 2005 and the Blue Jays sent the Lugnuts three of their best young pitchers this season in Justin Nicolino (8-4, 2.63), Aaron Sanchez (8-3, 2.27) and Noah Syndergaard (7-4, 2.79). Lansing rolled to the Midwest League’s first-half title and, despite a second-half dip, still sport the circuit’s best overall record at 76-47.
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre is preparing to drop one of the most iconic names in baseball for a new one that promises to be a bit, well, less traditional.
So long, Yankees.
The Triple-A International League franchise, which is set to debut a new ballpark next season after spending all of 2012 on the road, announced late last week that a new team identity will be coming to town as well. They’ll remain Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, as the team hopes to draw fans from both cities. They sought fan input on potential new nicknames and received over 2,700 submissions before narrowing that list down to six. Though they are again asking the public to vote for its favorite, the team plans to make the final decision on their future moniker.
“Everyone has got their opinion and we truly appreciate everyone’s opinion,” said new Scranton/Wilkes-Barre general manager Rob Crain, who has been on the job for about a month after spending six years with Triple-A Omaha. “We’ll be able to tie this team name into the local community better than we ever in team history.”
And just how does Scranton/Wilkes-Barre plan to connect local tradition to baseball? Will they follow the Albuquerque Isotopes’ model and incorporate some pop-culture references—perhaps the Dunder Mifflins?
Not exactly, but there does appear to be a couple of winners among the six candidates listed below. (Descriptions of each name were written by the team, not this author. Fans can vote for their favorite at the team’s website.)
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