After Stable Stretch, Minor Leagues Facing Shakeup

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After so much stability in the world of minor league baseball, it's nice to see things shaken up for a change.

Within a couple of weeks in February, news came out that minor league teams could be moving to Wilmington, N.C., Ottawa, Ont.; and Winchester, Va.

Two of those pieces of news were linked with the countervailing moves that teams would be leaving Lynchburg, Va., and Hagerstown, Md. The other came without such a tidy story, making it that much more fun.

The first break came in the Carolina League, where the Lynchburg Hillcats and their major league affiliate, the Atlanta Braves, announced that the Braves intend to buy the franchise and move it to Wilmington—assuming of course that Wilmington procures the money to build a new ballpark.

In the South Atlantic League, news got out that the city of Winchester had a signed letter of intent with the Hagerstown Suns that they intended to move there—again, assuming a new stadium gets built.

And in the Eastern League, the city of Ottawa announced that it too had an agreement in place to bring in a team. Unlike the other cities, Ottawa does have a ballpark—albeit one that will need millions of dollars of work to attract a new team—but unlike the other cities, it's not clear Ottawa has a team lined up. The most likely target appears to be the Binghamton Mets, though leaders there deny their team is moving.

You can read about the nuts and bolts of those transactions in Business Beat, and each situation has its own interesting twists.

Pathway To Realignment

But what really sets the mind racing is trying to figure out how these moves could set off a chain reaction that would have more far-reaching effects throughout the minor leagues. That would require blatant speculation, however. And that's why I'm here.

The most obvious place to look for dominoes to start falling would be in the high Class A ranks. Lynchburg's move to Wilmington sends the Carolina League to an attractive new market, one of the few that is not already home to some form of professional baseball, so that alone is interesting.

Wilmington had a Southern League franchise known as the Port City Roosters in 1995-96, and then tried it again in 2001 with the Wilmington Waves in the South Atlantic League, but neither team gained any traction. The problems were many and varied, but it came down to the lack of a new ballpark in the city.

Assuming that hurdle is overcome, the move would leave vacant two longtime Class A markets, Lynchburg and Kinston, N.C. And while neither is on the list of fastest-growing cities in the country, both are solid markets that have proven their support for Carolina League baseball for years. Their ballparks are decidedly old school, but both cities have invested millions in updating them, and they are two of the most charming parks in the minor leagues.

Meanwhile, the California League is stuck in places where either the market no longer seems willing to support minor league baseball (High Desert) or there is little hope for replacing substandard facilities (Bakersfield). Moving two franchises from the Cal League to the Carolina League has been discussed from time to time in recent years, but one big stumbling block was that there weren't two viable markets with stadiums available.

If the Wilmington ballpark goes forward, that will change. Minor league officials are loathe to talk about it, but from afar it seems like an obvious move that would also be welcomed by major league clubs who want to have more high Class A affiliates available in the East.

Even if the Cal-Carolina realignment does not happen, more shifting would be in the offing because Lynchburg has been promised a tenant for its ballpark if the Hillcats move. If not a Class A team, that would probably mean an Appalachian League franchise.

Movement to Ottawa also could set off a chain reaction, because Binghamton would seem much better suited to be a New York-Penn League market and the league's Batavia franchise is aching for a new market after being propped up by the International League's Rochester franchise in recent years. Things get even more complicated if the Blue Jays want to leave New Hampshire to put their Double-A affillation in Ottawa, as speculated.

It's too soon to tell what will happen, and it's harder to go from renderings to ballparks than anyone ever realizes, but we're just glad to have something to watch for a change.