Major Changes In Triple-A Fall Into Place

Yankees, Mets and Phillies all end longtime affiliations with new deals

See also: Shuffling Heats Up

It's official: Three of the longest-standing affiliations in the minor leagues are coming to an end in the International League, with the announcements of new player-development agreements in Columbus and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

The Clippers, who had been the Yankees' Triple-A affiliate since 1979, announced on Wednesday that they had signed a two-year agreement with the Nationals.

The Red Barons followed on Thursday by formally announcing their new affiliation with the Yankees, which had been rumored for several weeks. Scranton had been a Phillies affiliate since joining the IL in 1989, but the Phillies let the team know early this year that they'd be leaving after this season.

The Phillies will move their Triple-A affiliation to Ottawa--a deal that has not been formally announced yet--and play there for a year before the team is expected to move to Allentown, Pa., for the 2008 season.

The Phillies' move to Ottawa pushed out the Orioles, who will likely end up in a better situation by signing a deal with Norfolk. The availability of the Tides was perhaps the most surprising development of all, because they had been a Mets affiliate since 1969. It was the second-longest affiliation in the minor leagues, exceeded only by the the relationship between the Orioles and Bluefield in the Rookie-level Appalachian League, which began in 1958.

That would leave the Mets to sign an agreement with New Orleans, which is the only Pacific Coast League franchise on the open market. The Zephyrs are the easternmost team in the PCL, but their location is still the least attractive among the available options for the Mets.

As an indication of how desperate the Mets were to try to go back to Norfolk, they enlisted third baseman David Wright to call the Norfolk front office Wednesday night and try to persuade the Tides to continue the relationship with the Mets.

"I'm disappointed," said Wright, who grew up a Tides fan and whose father is assistant chief of the Norfolk Police Department. "The way the minor leagues is now, there are so many teams hopping from city to city. The Mets have been in Norfolk for a long time. That's the reason I'm a Mets fan.

"I think it's disappointing. Hopefully they reconsider. There are a lot of Mets fans in the Tidewater area because of that team. It's sad they're considering it and I think they need to reconsider."

The Mets also had made a push to get into Scranton, but the Yankees had always been the frontrunners there and sealed the deal when team officials visited this week. As part of the Red Barons' new affiliation, the team also announced that Mandalay Baseball would take over management of the team.

Mandalay, which already owns five minor league teams, is also taking over management of the New York-Penn League's Staten Island Yankees. Staten Island has been a Yankees affiliate since joining the league in 1999, but it has faced financial problems in the last couple of years. So the New York Yankees are buying the club, and turning over the operation to Mandalay.

With the Yankees leaving Columbus, the Clippers took a short-term approach in looking for a new affiliate. Both they and the Nationals were excited about the new agreement, but both recognized this could be just a two-year stopover.

"This is a great day for our franchise and we're thrilled to be coming to Columbus," Nationals president Stan Kasten said.

Clippers general manager Ken Schnacke has already said the team will be interested in talking to the Indians and Reds in 2008, when their Triple-A affiliations could be available again. The Clippers will also have a new stadium by then--it will open either in 2008 or '09.

"I’d classify (the affiliation with the Nationals) as an engagement for two years then see if it becomes a marriage," Franklin County, Ohio, commissioner Paula Brooks told the Columbus Dispatch. "Both sides were frank about that."

The Nationals moved out of New Orleans after two years there, and the Mets will likely have to move in unless their push to stay in Norfolk is successful. That seems unlikely, however, given that Tides president Ken Young is also
part of an ownership group that just bought three Maryland-based teams--all Orioles affiliates--from Comcast. Adding Norfolk to a list that includes Double-A Bowie (Eastern), high Class A Frederick (Carolina) and low Class A Hagerstown (South Atlantic) would make sense for both Young and the Orioles.

More Shuffling

The changes weren't limited to Triple-A, of course. The first move in Double-A was on tap with news that the Cubs will move their affiliate down Interstate 40 East, from West Tenn to the Tennessee Smokies, who play outside Knoxville.

The Smokies had been a Diamondbacks affiliate for the past two seasons but sought a team with more appeal to local fans. The only other teams available
were the Cubs, Mariners and Padres, who have been affiliated with Mobile since the BayBears joined the Southern League in 1997.

The Cubs and Smokies announced their new agreement at a Thursday afternoon press conference. That leaves the Diamondbacks and Padres to battle for San Antonio in an effort to move their Double-A affiliate farther west, while the loser in that battle will join the Mariners to fight over Mobile and West Tenn.

"I can honestly say this is a landmark day for the Tennessee Smokies franchise," general manager Brian Cox said. "We are very appreciative of the confidence the entire Cubs organization has shown us by wanting to partner with us."

One other change became public on Wednesday, with the news that the Nationals would move their low Class A affiliation from Savannah to Hagerstown. Both clubs are in the South Atlantic League, but the difference in geography is considerable. Hagerstown is about an hour from Washington, so the benefits to the Nationals and the Suns (who had been affiliated with the Mets for the last two years) are considerable.

"It really is a significant event," Suns general manager Kurt Landes told The Herald-Mail of Hagerstown. "Fans will now be able to watch players at Municipal Stadium and continue to follow them up through the Nationals system to Washington."

The agreement, along with the Triple-A move from New Orleans to Columbus, greatly improves the geography of the Nationals farm system. Washington renewed its affiliations with Double-A Harrisburg, which is about an hour from Hagerstown, and high Class A Potomac, which is in suburban D.C. in northern Virginia.