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Affiliation shuffle will bring inevitable surprises

by Will Lingo
August 26, 2004

And so the madness begins.

The every-other-year hootenanny that is minor league baseball's affiliation shuffle was getting under way as Baseball America went to press, with major and minor league teams declaring their intentions: Love the one you're with, or seek out a new relationship?

A few disclaimers for the uninitiated: Major league and minor league teams sign player-development contracts with one another, with the minor league team agreeing to provide proper facilities and the major league team agreeing to provide players. The contracts run in two-year increments, so this is the year many of them expire.

In truth, though, most of the anxiety just comes from the possibility that teams might seek new affiliates. Many teams sign extensions before the end of their current contracts, and many continue with their current teams at this time of year after considering their options. The Phillies, for instance, have been with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre since the Red Barons joined the International League in 1989. They didn't renew their affiliation agreement until the day before the shuffle started, perhaps considering what options were available before deciding to re-up.

What they found if they were looking around is that there aren't as many options as you might expect. According to research by Baseball America's J.J. Cooper, an average of 30 affiliations have changed during the last three shuffles, about one-sixth of the available teams.

Early in the process this year it looked like no more than six Triple-A teams would be on the market. Assuming the Phillies wouldn't want to go to the Pacific Coast League because of geography, that would probably leave Indianapolis and Ottawa as the only alternatives. Ottawa has no discernible advantages over Scranton, while Indianapolis offers better facilities but worse geography.

Selective Enforcement

So as the days go by, you won't hear about as many affiliation switches as you might expect. You're not supposed to hear about any, of course, according to a strict interpretation of baseball rules, but the rule is really just construed to keep teams from talking publicly about potential new partners.

The process began at the end of August, when major and minor league teams had a week to tell their governing bodies they wanted new affiliates. After the minor league season ends on Labor Day, teams can start talking to each other about new affiliations.

Here again, enforcement of baseball rules is nebulous. Strictly speaking, minor league and major league teams can't talk to each other until the reaffiliation period begins. But if you expect us to believe the Astros and Round Rock (the new home of the PCL's Edmonton franchise) haven't talked about being affiliates, then you don't think very much of us.

When the free-agent market opens, teams have 20 days to sign new affiliation agreements. Teams that haven't signed contracts by Sept. 25 can be joined in a shotgun marriage by Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball, but in practice the two governing bodies just encourage teams to hook up with each other as the process winds down.

A key point for fans to remember is that all current minor league teams are guaranteed a major league affiliate. So if your local team is losing its current partner, that doesn't mean they'll have to shutter the ballpark. You'll just have a different major league team supplying players.

Painful Divorces

The affiliation shuffle will bring predictable changes among the sad-sack minor league and major league franchises, as well as pairings where the geography doesn't make sense. What makes it interesting, though, is the surprising end of longstanding relationships.

Take Modesto as an example. The Li'l A's, as they're known locally, are celebrating the 30th year of their affiliation with the Athletics. They commissioned a special logo for the occasion, and the team is already known as the A's and has a version of the familiar Athletics elephant as its mascot. But now it looks like there will be no 31st year.

"I think Oakland wants to see what's out there," Modesto general manager Mike Gorrasi told The Modesto Bee. "They've been here 30 years and have been happy with ownership and our management, but in my mind, they're somewhat concerned with Modesto Parks and Recreation. They're concerned about the facility and the conditions for our players."

The California League could be the site of the most shuffling this fall. Half of the league's 10 teams are expected to be looking for new affiliates, with Bakersfield, High Desert, Stockton and Visalia joining Modesto on the market. Stockton, now a Rangers affiliate, becomes the most attractive franchise because of a new ballpark scheduled to open next spring. The Ports are even closer to Oakland than Modesto, and Ports GM John Katz worked in Modesto for five years, so it's not hard to figure out why Oakland might be looking around.

And once your affiliate's eye starts wandering, it's hard to bring it back. Just like personal relationships, it's not often a mutual decision to end an affiliation. And the jilted party is often left in denial.

"We will just sit back," Gorrasi told the Bee. "We love Oakland and we respect the relationship and we want them back."

The breakups are always so painful. And the pain is only going to get worse for many teams.

You can contact Will Lingo by sending e-mail to willlingo@baseballamerica.com.

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