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Phils move could start scramble

by Will Lingo
January 19, 2006

The instability surrounding the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons, which we've written about several times in the past couple of years, looks like it will finally cost the club its most valuable asset after the 2006 season: the affiliation with the Phillies.

Philadelphia and Moosic, Pa.--where the Red Barons actually play--are about two hours apart, and the Phillies have been Scranton's parent club since the club joined the International League in 1989. So the teams are tied together in the minds of many fans.

But Philadelphia assistant general manager Mike Arbuckle has told Pennsylvania media the team is likely to leave Scranton after this season in search of greener pastures.

Local coverage of the likely affiliation change has missed a fine shade of meaning, however, by making it sound as if the Phillies are moving the franchise out of town. What the Phillies likely will do is take their affiliation to the IL's Ottawa Lynx after the season, in advance of the Lynx' likely move to Allentown, Pa.

Scranton will not lose its team just because the Phillies are leaving. As one of 30 Triple-A franchises, the Red Barons are guaranteed a major league affiliation. They're just not guaranteed one that's as appealing as the Phillies.

The Phillies considered getting out of Scranton during the last affiliation shuffle but eventually decided to stay. The circumstances in front of them now are too appealing to ignore, though. An Allentown franchise would be even closer--about an hour away--and a new ballpark would be a significant step up from Lackawanna County Stadium, which is now one of the oldest ballparks in the IL even though it opened in 1989.

The Scranton franchise, which is publicly owned by the Lackawanna County Stadium Authority, has also been damaged by political infighting over the future of the team, including whether to spend money to renovate the ballpark. That in turn has led to instability in the front office.

Putting Their Best Face On

It remains to be seen how attractive Scranton/Wilkes-Barre would be on the Triple-A affiliation market. The political turmoil and stadium are negatives, but the team's location could be a benefit.

This is the first shot fired in the affiliation shuffle that will take place in earnest after the 2006 season. Player-development contracts expire after even-numbered years, so theoretically every minor league team will be on the market for a new major league affiliate after the season. In reality, however, most teams are happy with their current situations. Many already have contract that stretch for another two seasons or beyond, and most others will re-up with the partners during the season.

Scranton apparently will be one of the teams on the market, however, even though nothing officially can happen until August. You can be sure that executive will be working in back channels to see what's available, however.

The Pirates would make sense for Scranton on the surface, but in reality that won't work out. Pittsburgh's current affiliate in Indianapolis is only an hour farther away than Scranton, and Indianapolis' Victory Field is one of the best ballparks in the minors. So Scranton could be one of the last franchises remaining when the musical chairs game ends.

Ottawa has been accustomed to being in that position, becoming the home for the Orioles when they were booted from Rochester a few years ago, but the Lynx suddenly are attractive because they're finally leaving Ottawa.

Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Lame Ducks

The Phillies might have to send their Triple-A players to the Great White North for one season, though. While financing has been arranged for Allentown's new ballpark, construction has not started yet, and the ballpark is not scheduled to open until April 2008. There's also the small matter of the Lynx being sold.

So Philadelphia could have a couple of strange seasons in Triple-A ahead. For example, Arbuckle was part of the Phillies' winter tour when it stopped in Scranton. The hot topic, naturally, wasn't which players were going to be headed to Scranton, but where the Phillies were going to be headed after the season.

"Nothing's finalized," Arbuckle said at a press conference in Scranton. "And I don't know where we're going to play in '07."

But Arbuckle made no attempt to give false hope to fans there, saying there was at least a 90 percent chance the team would take its affiliation out of Scranton after the season. The Red Barons also sounded as if they were already moving on.

"This is a big business," Red Barons general manager Jeremy Ruby told The Express Times of Easton, Pa. "You can't stop it. We have no control over stopping the Allentown situation, no matter what. Mentally, in our office, we were prepared for it. We're ready to move on."

Scranton will face a big challenge this year figuring out where to go after nearly 20 years with the Phillies, and it could face even bigger questions in 2007 and beyond as local officials ponder the future of the franchise.

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