Are The Cubs Leaving Peoria?

Finishing near the bottom of the Midwest League standings may not be the worst thing to happen to the Peoria Chiefs this season. Seeing their eight-year affiliation with the Chicago Cubs come to an end would certainly top that. And according to the Chicago Sun-Times, that’s exactly what the Cubs plan on doing when their player-development contract with the Chiefs expires after this season.  

The Cubs plan on bringing their low Class A affiliate closer to home, from Peoria to Kane County (whose affiliation with the Royals expires in September) after this season, the Sun-Times reported on Tuesday. Peoria and Chicago have been partners since 2005. They were previously together for 10 seasons from 1985-94.

Of course, minor league franchises are not supposed to negotiate with another team’s big league affiliate, as Minor League Baseball bylaws prohibit franchises from “tampering” with another club’s partner. Minor league teams can only begin negotiating with unattached affiliates when a 15-day open period begins on Sept. 16.

“It definitely caught us off guard,” Chiefs president Rocky Vonachen said of the Cubs’ reported plans, according to the Peoria Journal Star. “It’s the first we’ve heard anything like that.”

The Cubs leaving town would be the latest blow to Peoria during a challenging five-year stretch. A recession that hurt minor league baseball’s overall attendance figures in recent years hit Peoria particularly hard. Average attendance at Peoria’s O’Brien Field fell 26 percent, from 4,241 in 2008 to 3,132 in 2011. With seven home dates remaining this season, the Chiefs’ are averaging 2,776 fans and are on pace for an 11 percent dip from last season.

The slide has hurt the team’s bottom line, as the Chiefs suffered financial losses in four straight seasons from 2008-11, according to a report last December in the Peoria Journal Star.

The Cubs’ shift would also be a blow to the Royals, who relocated to Kane County two years ago after ending their 10-year run in quaint-but-comfortable Burlington. Kane County is regularly the runner-up in Midwest League attendance to the Dayton Dragons (who have sold out every game since debuting in 2000) but is on pace to finish third in average attendance behind the Fort Wayne TinCaps this season. The Cougars are averaging 5,446 fans this season, down 11 percent from 6,123 in 2011. The TinCpas are set to finish their fourth season at Parkview Field with a 5,707 average, up 1.6 percent from 5,612 last season.

A total of 11 teams in the 16-team Midwest League have player development contracts expiring after this season, though several are likely to renew longstanding relationships before the affiliation shuffle kicks off in September.