See also: Tracking the Affiliation Shuffle
Minor league baseball's bi-annual game of musical chairs is still more than two weeks away, yet it's never too soon to start speculating about which teams might be on the move.
The affiliation shuffle, the every-other year event when major and minor league teams are allowed to pursue new partnerships, runs for two weeks beginning Sept. 16. Its secretive nature forbids team officials from discussing other teams' affiliations, but that doesn't mean they're not talking. Below are a few possible changes to the minor league landscape based on off-the-record conversations with minor league officials and reports by other publications. (Again, this is merely an exercise.)
(A chart of each team's affiliation and the expiration of their player-development contract, the agreement that binds minor and major league teams, are included at the bottom of the story.)
One minor league official said to keep an eye on the Pacific Coast League, where just three teams have changed major league partners over the past two affiliation shuffles. However that streak of stability is likely coming to an end next month. Five of the eight PCL teams whose player development contracts expire after this season--Albuquerque (Dodgers), Fresno (Giants), Nashville (Brewers), Oklahoma City (Astros) and Sacramento (A's)--appear to be preparing for a change. The other three--Colorado Springs (Astros), El Paso (Padres) and Las Vegas (Mets)--are likely to renew their current affiliations.
A quick summary:
• The Sacramento River Cats have been an Athletics affiliate since joining the Pacific Coast League in 2000, and the two sides have had high times together. Sacramento topped the minors in attendance each of its first nine seasons and won four PCL championships during that span. Attendance has dipped in recent seasons, but Sacramento remains one of the minors' elite franchises--the River Cats are in a virtual tie with Round Rock for the top spot in the PCL with an 8,321 per-game average.
The A's era in Sacramento may be coming to an end, the San Francisco Chronicle's Susan Slusser reported earlier this season, because the River Cats are pursuing an affiliation with the Giants.
The Giants, a Fresno affiliate since the Grizzlies debuted in 1998, are appealing to the River Cats because they have a larger presence and television audience in the Bay Area than the A's. A partnership would create a variety of promotional opportunities for the River Cats and would move the Giants Triple-A affiliate just 90 minutes away from AT&T Park.
• So where will the A's land if they are out of Sacramento? The obvious geographic fit would be Fresno--which has had issues with ownership and staying current on its lease amid declining attendance but is just three hours north of Oakland. However, the Modesto Bee reports that the A's plan to head east to a new ballpark in Nashville.
Nashville has been an affiliate of the Brewers since 2005, but a minor league source confirms that the Brewers--who have toughed it out at Greer Stadium the past 10 years--are unlikely to follow the Sounds to $65 million First Tennessee Park.
Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash recently told MLB.com that there is "no news" in regards to the Nashville ballpark. “Conversations to be continued. Nothing of any substance.”
• Meanwhile, the Dodgers’ second stint in Albuquerque might be coming to an end after six seasons. Los Angeles is rumored to be heading to Oklahoma City, currently an Astros affiliate, because Dodgers minority owner Peter Guber is close to purchasing the franchise. Guber, the famed Hollywood producer, is chairman of Mandalay Entertainment, whose sports division owns Oklahoma City but is in the process of selling off its five minor league franchises.
• A change in Oklahoma City would send the Astros packing for the second time in four years. Houston had been in Round Rock from 2005-10 but was forced out after team owner Nolan Ryan bought a stake in the Texas Rangers and brought them to town.
The Astros and Brewers will likely vie for a spot in Albuquerque with the last one standing ending up in Fresno.
• There had been speculation that the Mets would try to leave Las Vegas after this season, but general manager Sandy Alderson put a damper on those rumors when he told the Review-Journal that the Mets are likely staying put.
"That's a very strong possibility," Alderson said. "We have a great relationship with the 51s organization. I've known (team president) Don Logan a long time, and he runs an excellent operation."
A lack of landing spots in the International League is also likely influencing Alderson's decision to stay at Cashman Field, Las Vegas' outdated ballpark that the team has repeatedly failed to replace with a new venue. The IL will probably stand pat this offseason since the three teams with expiring PDCs--Durham (Rays), Norfolk (Orioles) and Pawtucket (Red Sox) have long-standing relationships with their big league affiliate and will likely re-sign.
All three Double-A leagues have remained unchanged in the past two affiliation shuffles and there is no obvious reason for that streak to end. The most recent change came in the Southern League in 2009, when Chattanooga (then the Marlins) and Jacksonville (Dodgers) swapped affiliates.
High Class A
In the Carolina League, Myrtle Beach's player development contract with the Rangers expires for the first time since Chuck Greenberg was ousted as Texas' CEO in March 2011. Myrtle Beach inked a four-year PDC with the Rangers after the 2010 season, just months after he led an ownership group to buy Texas out of bankruptcy court. However, Greenberg's relationship soured with Rangers president and state icon Nolan Ryan, and he was forced out the following spring.
Greenberg declined to comment if Myrtle Beach would re-new its deal with the Rangers, but he has often praised Texas as an ideal affiliate. The Rangers have sent plenty of prospects through Myrtle Beach the past few years and the Pelicans are closing in on an attendance record this year, so there is no obvious need for a change. But . . .
Bringing the Braves back to Myrtle Beach would have some appeal to a fan base that still considers Atlanta its hometown team. The Braves had been Myrtle Beach's affiliate since the Pelicans joined the league in 1999 before being forced to leave for Lynchburg. Atlanta's PDC with the Hillcats is up after the season, so there could be opportunity for a reunion in Myrtle Beach.
The Braves had an agreement in place to purchase the Lynchburg franchise in 2012 and relocate it to a new ballpark in Wilmington, N.C. However, Wilmington residents balked at paying for the stadium and the deal fell through. Lynchburg remains on the market and sources have said that the Braves have not given up on buying the team and bringing it to Wilmington.
Low Class A
It all comes down to the Cubs in the Midwest League. If Chicago renews its affiliation with Kane County, which it is expected to do, then there likely will be little movement in the league. However, if the Cubs opt for a new home--perhaps in South Bend (which will add a new grass playing surface and indoor training facility this offseason) or Fort Wayne (which has one of the top ballparks in the circuit)--then anything is in play.
Twelve of the Midwest League's 16 franchises remain unsigned because, as one Midwest League team official said, clubs are waiting for the Cubs to make a move before renewing their affiliations because a partnership with the region's flagship franchise is too tempting to ignore. That same official said the Cubs and Kane County are expected to renew their PDC but are finalizing a deal for a new playing surface at Fifth Third Field Ballpark.
The Cubs ended their eight-year run in Peoria after the 2012 season, moving just an hour from Wrigley Field to Kane County and setting off a six-team shift in the Midwest League during that offseason's affiliation shuffle.