Minors Shift

Cal League May Send Two Teams To Carolina

A major shift is brewing in the minor leagues.

The high Class A California League is considering the transfer of a pair of franchises to the Carolina League, beginning with the 2009 season, sources familiar with the negotiations told Baseball America.

Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner confirmed that discussions have taken place among California League owners. He declined to elaborate on the specifics of the negotiations.

"(Owners) have participated in a conversation and they are willing to continue participating in a conversation," O'Conner said when asked about the movement of franchises from one league to the other. "But we don't have a deal."

Two sources, who requested anonymity, said the league had an agreement in principle, though money issues still had to be worked out. Figuring out an entry fee for the Carolina League and financial compensation for the California League losing two teams are the principal roadblocks to completing the deal.

The teams that would move are not set in stone, but Bakersfield and High Desert are at the center of negotiations. Both have been laggards in attendance for several seasons, and complaints about conditions in Bakersfield from the Rangers—the Blaze's major league affiliate—provided impetus for the change.

Richmond is the hot market available in the minor leagues, with plans for the Braves and the International League to release the territory when the R-Braves move to Gwinnett County in surburban Atlanta. One source said High Desert had the inside track to moving to Richmond, and that Bakersfield would end up in Fayetteville, N.C.; another source said more markets within the Carolina League footprint were under consideration.

"Nothing is set in stone, but do I think it is going to happen? Yes, I think it is going to happen," one source said. "And I think it should happen."

O'Conner said the status of the Richmond market is not tied to the possible transfer of teams from the California League to the Carolina League.

"Right now, because of the quality of that territory, it is like everything connects to Richmond," O'Conner said. "I'm not going to be able to create a new franchise for Richmond, so therefore acting on Richmond alone is not possible. There will be a domino effect. For someone to go to Richmond someone will have to leave somewhere else. We may have waves of shuffling once the shoe drops."

Several major league teams in the East and Midwest have made requests to expand the Carolina League from eight to 10 teams in recent years, in order to keep their high Class A affiliates closer to home. At least two non-Western organizations are always forced to put affiliates out west because the Carolina and Florida State leagues have a combined 20 teams.

The Red Sox have been in Lancaster for the past two seasons, making them the easternmost California League organization. So desperate were they to avoid a similar problem during the next affiliation process that they bought the Carolina League's Salem franchise during the offseason and will move their affiliation there next season. The Rangers are the only other non-West Coast team in the league.

"The need for this is to service our clients, which is major league baseball teams," a source said.

O'Conner agrees.

"We take seriously that we view Major League Baseball not only as a partner but as a customer as well," he said. "I take seriously the responsibility of serving our customer well."

There are significant financial implications as well, particularly for a team playing in a struggling California League market that could move into a major metropolitan area like Richmond, which has a population of over 1 million.

Carolina League president John Hopkins declined comment. A telephone message for California League president Joe Gagliardi was not immediately returned.
Both Bakersfield and High Desert play in aging, publicly owned ballparks and the teams have been unable to convince local municipalities to pay for new facilities or upgrades to the old one.

Bakersfield's Sam Lynn Ballpark was built in 1941 and no longer meets Organized Baseball's facility standards. Both Blaze ownership and the Rangers have expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of the facility, but Bakersfield public officials have not followed through on promises to address the situation.

"We are pleased with the ownership group there, but the stadium issue is a large one for us. It is one that we are displeased with," Rangers director of minor league operations John Lombardo said. "We have been told time and again by the city that things would be rectified to no avail . . . The ill repair that the facility is under is not conducive to baseball, player development or fan atmosphere."

A source said the Rangers have expressed their dissatisfaction with Bakersfield to major and minor league officials and could terminate their player-development contract with Bakersfield, which runs through the 2010 season, if the team doesn't move. Bakersfield drew 78,888 fans in 2007, the lowest total in the California and Carolina leagues.

Lombardo said the team is looking at all alternatives, though it will try to work within the parameters of the player-development contract.
High Desert has also had little success in getting a new ballpark in discussions with Adelanto, Calif., officials. The Mavericks broke league attendance records in their first two seasons after debuting in 1991, but attendance has steadily declined since then, and Mavericks Stadium is in need of significant upgrades.

At an emergency Cal League meeting led by O'Conner and Gagliardi on July 18, league owners were told that city officials planned to significantly increase High Desert's rent when the team's lease expires in two years and that the city is considering selling the ballpark. Though the city would like to keep minor league ball in town, it is not interested in renovating the ballpark, a source said.
One source said a plan discussed at the meeting included the Carolina League purchasing Bakersfield and moving it to Fayetteville. There were conflicting reports whether High Desert or other teams were tabbed to move to Richmond.
A source said Cal League bylaws require the owner of a team transferring out of the league to pay a small percentage of the team's estimated value. The league also has the option of absorbing a team, with no financial implications, if it fails to maintain facility standards and loses its player-development contract with a major league team.

The league could then sell the team to a new owner who would move it. With attempts at negotiating a new ballpark with Bakersfield city officials having failed, and its affiliation with the Rangers in question, the league could stake a claim to absorb the Bakersfield club if ballpark renovations don't go through, the source said.
In order to join the Carolina League, each new team would have to pay the league $1.5 million, based on league bylaws.
"Everyone is getting rich except (California League owners)," a source said.