Shuffle Always Adds Intrigue

The minor league affiliation shuffle brings its usual number of changes every other year, though for the most part the changes don’t resonate with the average fan.

Even I have to confess that after going through numerous affiliation shuffles, the changes aren’t the foremost thing in my mind at this time of year.

What’s more, the changes just assure more for my aging brain to keep up with as the deck gets shuffled yet again. In the California League, for example, affiliations have changed so much that I have no hope of remembering who’s where without my trusty BA Directory.

For those of you just tuning in, here’s what’s going on: Major league teams are joined to their minor league affiliates through agreements called player-development contracts. Major League Baseball requires that these be negotiated in two-year increments, so after each even-numbered season teams can look for better affiliations if they like.

Major league teams generally consider facilities, geography and weather, while minor league teams will care more about the quality of players they get from an organization, and whether their major league affiliate will resonate with local fans.

Either the major league or minor league team can break up an affiliation, and about a quarter of the minor league affiliations come on the market every couple of years. Fewer than that actually change, as teams often find the grass isn’t actually greener on the other side of the outfield fence.

Making Up In Memphis

One of the most interesting examples of this in the current round of affiliation talks happened in Memphis, where the Cardinals finally re-upped with the Redbirds.

The Memphis-St. Louis arrangement seems to be a match made in heaven, and the Cardinals have been the Redbirds’ major league affiliate since the team joined the Pacific Coast League in 1998. The affiliation makes geographic sense, and Memphis fans tend to be Cardinals fans, so it seemed inevitable that the two sides would get together.

They finally did, just as the affiliation process was about to open up, but it was much later than it had been in the past, as Memphis had become unhappy with the quality of players it was getting from St. Louis.

It’s easy for minor league teams to feel like their major league parents see them as little more than a place to house their players. Responsiveness from the big league club can become a big issue, and the affiliation process gives the minor league team a chance to be heard. And for teams with bargaining power, it gives them a chance to ask for stuff.

In the case of Memphis, the Redbirds play in one of the best parks in the minors and would be highly coveted on the open market, so the Cardinals definitely were paying attention.

That became obvious when the teams announced the renewal of their player-development contract for four years. At the time they made the announcement, the teams also announced the Cardinals and Redbirds would play not one, but two exhibition games in Memphis next April.

Bargaining Chips

It should be noted that offering exhibition games as part of the affiliation process is specifically prohibited by baseball’s rules. Of course, pre-draft deals and hiring an agent while you’re still an amateur are against the rules as well.

As you might guess, exhibition games are gold for minor league teams, virtually guaranteeing the payday from a full ballpark before the regular season even starts. So it’s no wonder you often find exhibition games announced within close proximity of affiliation announcements.

Even though Memphis was finally, officially out of the picture, most of the intrigue worth watching in the affiliation shuffle remained in the Triple-A ranks. Upstate New York cities Buffalo and Syracuse lost (or dumped) their longtime affiliates and were competing for the Mets, while it looked like the Dodgers might be renewing their longtime relationship with Albuquerque. Los Angeles had its Double-A or Triple-A affiliate in the New Mexico capital from 1963 until the franchise left after the 2000 season. When Albuquerque returned in 2003, it was as a Marlins affiliate, which has worked out well, but the city’s heart is clearly still with the Dodgers. When Albuquerque hosted the Triple-A all-star game last year, it was former Dodgers greats like Steve Garvey and Tommy Lasorda who were featured guests.