Minors Will Also Make News At Winter Meetings

ORLANDO—The Winter Meetings are for the minor leagues, too.

In fact, the annual gathering of the baseball industry is hosted by Minor League Baseball, which coordinates locations and other details with Major League Baseball. And when the relationship between the two organizations became contentious in the 1990s amid negotiations for the Professional Baseball Agreement, the majors and minors held separate Winter Meetings.

So while the headlines and chatter in the Disney Swan and Dolphin lobby will be dominated by topics such as whether the Rays can net Taijuan Walker for David Price or if Matt Kemp is Boston-bound, there is still plenty of minor league fodder to keep an eye on. It may not be as sexy as hot stove rumors—what, Lee Landers’ annual search for Appy League affiliates doesn’t grab you?—but it is part of what Baseball America will be tracking this week. Here are a handful of story lines of particular importance to those in the minor leagues:

Who Is Going Where?
With new ballparks scheduled to open in Biloxi, Miss., and Morgantown, W.Va., in 2015, two minor league franchises will be on the move after next season. No league has officially announced which teams are moving, however.

A Southern League franchise is expected to make a home at the new ballpark on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico in Biloxi, and the Huntsville Stars and Jackson Generals have long been considered the favorites to move in. Both teams have annually brought up the rear in Southern League attendance, with the Stars average a league-worst 1,877 fans in 2013—just behind the Generals’ 1,954 average.

Huntsville owner Miles Prentice has long said his franchise needs either a new ballpark or a significant renovation to Joe Davis Stadium to be successful—neither of which appears to be on the horizon. And while he has not returned previous phone calls for comment, he reiterated previous comments to the Huntsville Times that “in the right place, anything is for sale.”

Jackson signed a lease extension with the city in 2011 that will last through 2020, with a $1 million buyout clause.

The Southern League has yet to approve a franchise move, though Southern League president Lori Webb said Monday that the topic will be discussed this week. “We are going to address it,” Webb said following the opening session of the Winter Meetings, “but nothing (has been decided) yet.”

Ken Young and Tim Bennett will own the new franchise in Biloxi, and both have previously said that a purchase agreement is in place. Young is a veteran owner—and the 2009 Baseball America Minor League Executive of the Year—with a portolio that includes the Albuquerque Isotopes (Pacific Coast), Norfolk Tides (International), Bowie Baysox (Eastern) and Frederick Keys (Carolina). Bennett has been responsible for making the ballpark project a reality, just as he did in Pearl, Miss., for the Mississippi Braves 10 years ago. The $36 million project will be paid for by the city of Biloxi and with a $15 million contribution by the state of Mississippi from its portion of the $1 billion settlement of the Gulf oil spill with BP.

A New York-Penn League franchise is expected to move into a new ballpark in Morgantown as part of a partnership with West Virginia University, similar to the one between the State College Spikes (New York-Penn) and Penn State. The official groundbreaking took place in October, and the ballpark is scheduled to open for the 2015 college baseball season. NYP president Ben Hayes has declined comment and no franchise relocation has been approved by the league.

The Bakersfield Blaze (California) are also looking for a new home after plans to replace dilapidated Sam Lynn Ballpark in Bakersfield fell through last fall. That allowed former owner D.G. Elmore to reclaim control of the team from local entrepreneurs Gene Voiland and Chad Hathaway as part of a contract stipulation.

California League president Charlie Blaney has been determined to find a new home in California, a task much harder than it sounds due a lack of state money for such projects, and has repeatedly denied any intention of revisiting a proposal to move two Cal League franchises to the Carolina League. The topic will likely be discussed at league meetings this week.

Lookouts Looking For An Owner

Another Southern League franchise is on the market, though this one should stay put. Chattanooga Lookouts owner Frank Burke announced in late November that he is planning to donate the team’s ballpark, AT&T Field, to a local nonprofit committed to revitalizing downtown Chattanooga. Burke hopes the donation to River City Co. will help spur the sale of the team.

"We're very interested in keeping the stadium and the team," River City president Kim White told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "It's a tremendous part of downtown."

Burke has been trying to sell the team for the past three years in an effort to settle the estate of his late father, Daniel Burke, the former owner of the team who died in October 2011.

Building Boom Coming Back?

After having just four new ballparks open during the economic slowdown the past four years, as many as six new ones could debut by the start of the 2015 season.

The El Paso Chihuahuas (Pacific Coast) are moving from Tucson to a new downtown venue next season, while the Charlotte Knights (International) will finally play in their hometown at BB&T Field, after spending the past 20 years in Fort Mill, S.C.

In addition to Biloxi and Morgantown, three franchises long seeking new ballparks may be closing in on new homes. Last month, the Nashville Sounds (Pacific Coast) and Richmond Flying Squirrels (Eastern) each announced plans to move into new ballparks with public financing plans in place, though both plans still need final approval.

The Sounds have struggled to take advantage of one of the larger markets in the PCL at Greer Stadium, the team’s 35-year-old ballpark. Nashville mayor Karl Dean’s proposal to build a new ballpark just north of downtown in the historic Sulphur Dell neighborhood needs to be approved by the city council. It took a step forward when a state board approved a $23 million land transfer to the city in exchange for the construction of a parking facility. The new 8,500-seat stadium would cost $65 million.

Richmond’s quest for a new ballpark predates the Flying Squirrels’ arrival in 2010. The International League’s Richmond Braves called the city home for 42 years, and former general manager Bruce Baldwin spent much of the team’s last 10 years in town trying to persuade local officials to build a new ballpark to replace the dilapidated Diamond. The Braves ultimately gave up and in 2009 moved to a new ballpark in the suburban Atlanta, becoming the Gwinnett Braves.

Chuck Domino and the Flying Squirrels have picked up the cause and may have finally hit the jackpot, with the city announcing plans to build a new ballpark as part of a downtown development in the Shockoe Bottom neighborhood. The proposed $200 million project, including $48.8 million for the ballpark, has drawn the ire of some residents, who oppose the location because of its historical significance as a slave-trading center. Richmond mayor Dwight Jones has included a memorial for the area’s slave-trading past in the project. The project still needs approval from the city council.

The Potomac Nationals (Carolina) may also be closer than ever to landing a new ballpark. Longtime owner Art Silber announced last July plans for a new ballpark to be built along Interstate 95 in northern Virginia as part of a mixed-used project. A lot of the money for the stadium was to come through a naming-rights agreement, which Silber told a local planning commission earlier this month is close to being finalized. The $70 million project would include a $15 million state grant that would cover a parking deck that will double as a commuter hub. The team would cover the $23 million to build the ballpark.

Silber stressed at the meeting that financing must be completed by the end of next year to keep the team in town—though where the P-Nats would move is unclear.

"If this did not happen, there could be a real question as to the future of the club continuing in Prince William County," Silber said, according to The Washington Post.

New Era In Syracuse

The 2014 season will mark the first since the Syracuse Chiefs (International) ousted longtime general manager John Simone and his father Tex, who had been a member of the organization 52 years and most recently served as executive vice president and CEO. Poor attendance and profits ultimately doomed the Simones, as did new leadership on the board that sought greater involvement in the franchise’s operations. Taking over as GM is Jason Smorol, who had been out of baseball for nearly 10 years and previously operated several New York-Penn League franchises.

Syracuse had reportedly been looking for a CEO to help support Smorol, but that post had not yet been filled. Smorol has his work cut out for him, as the team is looking to bounce back from a significant dip in attendance in 2013 and a tight budget. The team received some heat from the community earlier this offseason over confusion in its new season-ticket pricing.