The countdown to the affiliation shuffle will never be mistaken for the rush of the draft signing deadline, but major and minor league teams will be making important decisions about their player-development contracts in the coming days, particularly at the Class A level.
The deadline for teams to renew affiliation agreements has passed, so free agents now know what is available, and they can officially begin negotiating new deals starting on Sunday. Teams will have two weeks to work out new deals, and they can sign two- or four-year agreements.
No Double-A franchise has changed affiliations since 2009, and that run will continue for at least another two years. The Jacksonville Suns (Southern) signed on for another two years with the Marlins just before the deadline, as did the Huntsville Stars (Southern) with the Brewers, and the Jackson Generals (Southern) with the Mariners. The Arkansas Travelers (Texas) and Angels have not announced an extension of their player-development contract, but with no other Double-A options available they'll be sticking together.
Turnover will be minimal on the Triple-A front as well, though there will be one flip. After months of speculation about where the Mets would land if the Blue Jays displaced them in Buffalo, in the end they didn't end up having a choice. Sources said the Buffalo Bisons (International) were going to end up with the Blue Jays, and with no other team making a switch, that left only the Blue Jays' previous affiliate, the Las Vegas 51s (Pacific Coast), as the Mets' Triple-A home.
While there are plenty of bright lights and opportunity for spectacle in Las Vegas, as a minor league market it's anything but glamorous. That the Blue Jays chose not to stay in Las Vegas after four years of play at aging Cashman Field is hardly a surprise, as their desire to move closer to home in Buffalo had long been rumored. Cashman Field is arguably the worst ballpark in Triple-A, and 51s ownership has tried unsuccessfully to replace it in a city hit hard by the recession. It's also 2,500 miles from Citi Field.
Changes will be more plentiful at the Class A level, though one of the biggest surprises of the process came with the Reds’ announcement that they will stay with Bakersfield (California) for two more years. The Blaze play at 81-year-old Sam Lynn Field, an outdated ballpark that averaged just 637 fans per game this season. But the team has new ownership intent on improving the situation—including the ballpark—though any changes likely would not happen before the Reds’ new contract expires following the 2014 season.
In reality, though, Cincinnati had few alternatives. The Carolina League and Florida State League will likely remain static, and they represent the only opportunities for the Reds to move their high Class A affiliate closer to home. Just two teams in the FSL had yet to announce an extension—the Daytona Cubs and Fort Myers Miracle (Twins)—but both have been affiliated with their big league partners since 1993 and are unlikely to change.
The team likely to be available in the California League is Lancaster, which is one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the minor leagues, so much so that teams have been reluctant to send their best pitchers there. The Astros may have been holding out hope that they could leave Lancaster, but it doesn't look like they'll have anywhere else to go. The Mariners announced yesterday that they had renewed their player-development contract with High Desert, and while it had not been announced, Inland Empire and the Angels are likely to renew their agreement as well.
The most change is likely to come in the Midwest League, where reports leaked early that several teams will seek out new affiliates. According to reports from various local media outlets, the Cubs are on their way out of Peoria and headed to Kane County, which had been a Royals affiliate the past two seasons, the Cardinals are cutting ties with Quad Cities, and the Angels are leaving Cedar Rapids. Several other teams also had not announced affiliation renewals, though, including Beloit (Twins), Burlington (Athletics) and Fort Wayne (Padres). In the other low Class A outpost, the South Atlantic League, just two teams had not announced renewals: Hagerstown (Nationals) and Lexington (Houston).
Change is orderly at the Triple-A, Double-A, high Class and low Class A levels because each major league team can have one and only one affiliate at each level. Short-season clubs are less predictable because teams can have two or three clubs, depending on their development philosophy, and three of the leagues are made up of major league-owned franchises. In the Appalachian, Arizona and Gulf Coast leagues, the standard affiliation rules don't apply because major league teams can add or drop their franchises in those leagues from season to season.
In the other leagues—the New York-Penn, Northwest and Pioneer—it looks like relative calm will be the order of the day, with only the NY-P likely to see any change. The Cardinals appear to be looking for an alternative to the troubled Batavia franchise. The Muckdogs have been operated by their neighors the Rochester Red Wings (International) for the past four seasons, after nearly folding because of financial troubles. The team has been on the market ever since, and while Rochester president Naomi Silver has said she has received inquiries from people who would buy and move the team, no deal appears imminent.
The Cardinals apparently will have two NY-P teams to chose from if they leave Batavia: the Jamestown Jammers (Marlins) and State College Spikes (Pirates). The Jammers would seem the more likely fit, as the Pirates are a regional draw in State College.
No spots are available in the short-season Northwest League after the Cubs and Boise Hawks extended their affiliation through 2014.