Change is coming to the Midwest League.
Minor league and major league teams are going through their bi-annual renewal of affiliations this year, and stability has been the watchword at the higher levels, with one swap at Triple-A (Blue Jays to Buffalo, Mets to Las Vegas) and no changes in Double-A. Most teams have renewed their player-development contracts with their existing partners.
That won't be as true at the low Class A level, however. In the Midwest League in particular, six of the league's 16 teams did not renew their affiliations and entered the free agency period that began last Sunday without a partner. (It's important to note here that Major League Baseball guarantees 30 affiliations at the Triple-A, Double-A, high Class A and low Class A levels, so no team is in danger of not having a major league affiliate. It's just a question of whether a team gets its first choice.)
The Cedar Rapids Kernels split from the Angels after 20 years and signed a four-year player-development contract with the Twins, who will leave Beloit after eight years. The Kane County Cougars, who two years ago signed on with the Royals, confirmed a rumor that leaked out weeks ago by signing on with the hometown Cubs through 2014. The Peoria Chiefs were the losers when the Cubs left for Kane County, but they salvaged things by reuniting with the Cardinals, their affiliate before the Cubs came to town in 2005. The Cardinals leave Quad Cities after eight seasons there.
When the Royals got squeezed out of Kane County, they decided to move to the South Atlantic League rather than reuniting with their previous Midwest League affiliate in Burlington. The Lexington Legends, the lone team in the South Atlantic League that was on the market, are expected to announce their affiliation with the Royals today. Lexington had been an Astros affiliate since the franchise debuted in 2001.
That leaves three available Midwest League franchises—Beloit, Burlington and Quad Cities—with three major league organizations: the Angels, Astros and Athletics. The Athletics have been in Burlington the last two seasons and could decide to remain there.
The Cubs’ move to Kane County had been rumored for over a month, and the two clubs drew the ire of Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner for apparently negotiating a deal before they were officially allowed to do so. The agreement, formally announced by both sides yesterday, makes sense for both Chicago and Kane County. The Cubs will have players just 40 miles from Wrigley Field in Geneva, Ill. And partnering with the beloved Cubbies should provide a boost at the gate for Kane County, which finished third in the Midwest League by drawing 391,102 fans but saw average attendance dip 8.75 percent to 5,587 this season.
"I would definitely say we could draw more fans," Kane County general manager Curtis Haug told Brookfield (Ill.) Suburban Life newspaper. "There are a lot of Cubs fans around here, and I know they're excited. The Cubs have some phenomenal young players that fans are excited to see play."
Reports that the Cubs planned to leave Peoria after eight years initially caught Chiefs management off guard, but the team landed on its feet by signing on with the Cardinals. The Chiefs and Cardinals spent 10 years together before Peoria decided to partner with the Cubs in 2005. For the Cardinals, the opportunity to return to Peoria was too great to pass up, farm director John Vuch said.
“It was a tough decision, because it was not like we were trying to get out of Quad Cities,” Vuch told the Quad-Cities Times. “It was an opportunity for us to move closer to St. Louis, and that makes sense for our organization . . . We are definitely excited about going to Peoria, but we had a lot of good things happen for us in Quad Cities. We had some good teams, some very good years, and good support from the staff, the fans and the community.”