Nothing's Permanent In Minor Leagues
Bluefield's loss of Orioles is a surprise
To be honest, after you've been through a few affiliation shuffles you've seen just about all the intrigue the process can offer. Teams fall in love, teams fall out of love, relationships begin, relationships end. Just tell me how it all shakes out at the end.
Another thing you learn over the years is that, just like in life, no relationship is permanent. I never would have thought the Rochester Red Wings would dump the Orioles, but that happened in 2002. I never thought the Yankees would leave Columbus, but that's just what they did in 2006. And I certainly never could have imagined living in a world that didn't have an Orioles affiliate in Bluefield, but that's the brave new world we'll see after this season.
While the specific switches aren't always compelling, what the process reinforces is that very American desire to be on the lookout for a better deal. Sure you may be happy with your current situation, but you could probably do better if you could just get to that hot new market with the shiny new ballpark . . .
The process is at least a lot more orderly than it used to be, when player-development contracts stretched for varying terms and the guidelines for major league teams' affiliations were not as defined. So the shuffling happened after every season, and teams might get stuck with two high Class A or two low Class A affiliations if they weren't careful.
Now teams are compelled to have one team each at each of the four full-season levels, and their affiliations must be for two-year increments. The only improvisation comes at the short-season level, where teams can have more than two affiliates if they desire, and where major league control of the Appalachian, Arizona and Gulf Coast leagues leads to more frequent change.
Still Life In The Appy
The AZL and GCL, the so-called complex leagues because they're based at spring training complexes, are the most purely developmental leagues. The teams exist only on the field and are controlled completely by major league organizations. There are no tickets sold to the games, no crowds to speak of, no front office. So teams are added and subtracted year to year based on the needs of major league clubs.
The Appalachian League is an interesting hybrid. While it has local operators for each of its franchises, the franchises are actually controlled by major league organizations. If you check the league board of directors in your Baseball America Directory (you do that for every league, right?), you'll notice that it's made up of the major league farm directors. So the teams operate at the pleasure of major league organizations, but with the usual trappings of minor league baseball.
So when the Orioles announced late this summer that they were leaving Bluefield, it did not mean that they were taking that affiliation somewhere else. It simply meant they had decided to go from seven affiliates, and three at the short-season level, back to a more traditional six.
Because of all the talk about saving money in player development in recent years, we continually worry that the Appy League's days are numbered. That doesn't seem to be a serious concern, though. Several teams, such as the Braves and Twins, use their Appy League teams as their more advanced short-season team, and when the Orioles left Bluefield it was just days before the Blue Jays stepped in to take over that affiliation.
It's likely harder for the Cal League to find a team that wants to go to Bakersfield, which probably earns the designation as the least desirable affiliate in the entire shuffle. This is due to an old ballpark and geography—there are more teams that would prefer to have their Class A teams in the East. (The Red Sox actually bought the Salem Carolina League franchise in 2008 to make sure they didn't get stuck in the Cal League again.)
The Rangers will leave tracks from Bakersfield to Myrtle Beach thanks to their new ownership, which also owns the Carolina League franchise. Assuming the Padres and Angels return to the Cal League, now that the Braves have signed with Lynchburg, it looks like Cincinnati is headed out West unless the Indians and Kinston break their long-running partnership.