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Major shakeup in minors looks likely

by Will Lingo
August 16, 2005

When no one will talk about it (at least officially), you know something's going on.

Since we first heard rumors about possible changes to the draft and the structure of the short-season level of the minor leagues, Baseball America reporters have called more than 20 people who work in the game, from agents to general managers to scouting and farm directors to minor league presidents to Major League Baseball officials.

Many didn't return our calls. Some responded with a simple no comment. Others said they had heard rumors but didn't know anything concrete. And several people spoke to us on the condition they not be identified.

"I've got stuff on my desk from the commissioner's office that I haven't sifted through yet, but it's going to be for next year," one farm director said.

So while a lot of details remain unclear, one thing seems unmistakable--changes are afoot. And here's your executive summary of the likely alterations based on all the conversations we've had:

• Major League Baseball intends to push the date of the draft back to the end of June for 2006, and hopes to institute a signing date that would be four to six weeks later by 2007.

• There is interest in establishing an MLB-sponsored predraft scouting combine.

• The two leagues based at spring training complexes--the Arizona and Gulf Coast leagues--will not play after this season.

• The Pioneer League will be regarded as the same level as the New York-Penn and Northwest leagues (right now it's a step below), so all three leagues taken together will provide 30 short-season affiliations.

• The Appalachian League will become a co-op league.

• The short-season schedule will begin and end earlier than it does now, likely running from May into August rather than June into September, and will lead into a mandatory instructional league program that will run for at least six weeks.

Death Sentence For Appy?

None of this is certain, of course, and BA wasn't even able to confirm the bureaucratic steps that remain for any of these changes to be implemented. Farm and scouting directors were scheduled to take up all these issues at their meetings in Orlando next week.

What happens from there is not clear. "We will have to sign off if it's approved," said one Minor League Baseball official.

And would Minor League Baseball sign off on such a change as the Appy League becoming co-op, which would seem to be the first step on a path toward eliminating the league altogether?

"It's just hypocritical to say you want to cut costs and eliminate the Appy League--or put it on the road to death by making it co-op--after asking these communities to spend all the money they have spent trying to upgrade their ballparks and bring them up to MLB's specs," said one executive with an Appy League club. "They want to save a couple of bucks that would amount to the salary of a utility infielder in the big leagues, and if that kills baseball in these communities, oh well."

The main thing saving the Appy League from the ax now is the Professional Baseball Agreement, which governs the relationship between the minors and majors. The PBA says the Arizona, Gulf Coast and Appalachian leagues can be expanded or contracted by MLB as it sees fit.

The AZL and GCL are easy to get rid of because they don't operate as true minor league franchises. Teams have no front-office staffs, don't sell tickets and just play day games to give players development time. Appy League franchises are owned by major league clubs but run by local operators as other minor league clubs are.

The league is protected for now by the PBA provision that guarantees minor league teams 160 major league affiliates. Without that, it seems likely the majors would push back to 150.

Many Questions Remaining

So the ultimate long-term effect would seem to be reducing each organization's minor league affiliates from six to five, with only one short-season affiliate for each team.

The wild card is the Appy League. Will it go co-op on the way to going away, or are the creative, untraditional ways to utilize those 10 teams? And if the Braves wanted to keep their full affiliation with Danville, for example, would they be allowed to do that?

The reverberations of the other potential changes could occupy the BA staff through hours of meandering discussions. Will this slow development time for players? Will it benefit college and independent baseball? Can we have the predraft combine in Durham?

About the only thing certain right now seems to be the likely death of the complex leagues, and few people are shedding tears about that.

"Cleaning up the minors, I don't think that is a bad idea at all," one agent said. "Players typically really hate the complex leagues. It kills their spirit, with the heat, no fans. Whether or not that should be the case, it is what happens. It's a point of negotiation at times--guys will trade other stuff to stay out of the complex leagues, so I think it's good to get rid of them."

Beyond that, though, no one is sure how player development will look different in 2006. But everyone is sure that it will look different.

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