5 Major Shakeups That Could Come To Minor League Baseball In 2021
Major League Baseball shocked the baseball world last October when its intention to scale back and reorganize the minor leagues was first reported.
MLB made clear it did not want to maintain the century-old status quo that allowed individual minor leagues to define their own geographical footprints or dictate terms of affiliation agreements with major league organizations. MLB wanted minor leagues affiliations that were more permanent, that made greater geographical sense, that were more cost efficient and that had higher facility standards.
And MLB wanted fewer minor league affiliates overall. Its plan called for 120 of them—four apiece for each of the 30 organizations—rather than the 160 ticket-selling minor league affiliates that operated in 2019. To achieve that goal, MLB intended to eliminate the entire Rookie-advanced and short-season classifications.
Against the backdrop of a Professional Baseball Agreement set to expire on Sept. 30, MLB and Minor League Baseball began negotiating a new working agreement.
Then the coronavirus hit.
PBA negotiations went on the back burner in mid March, when MLB halted spring training, and remained there for three months as MLB began an often contentious negotiation with the players’ union about a plan to return to play. The two sides reached an agreement in June and a 60-game major league season began on July 27.
That resumption of play allowed MLB to resume PBA negotiations with Minor League Baseball—and for information to trickle out about what a reorganized minor leagues could look like in 2021. Five of the more dramatic possibilities for a new-look minor leagues are presented here, though it’s important to note that none of these scenarios is guaranteed to come to pass.
All of these minor league shakeup scenarios were first reported by J.J. Cooper. They are simply being curated here.
1. The short-season and Rookie-advanced classifications could be eliminated.
Under MLB’s plan, the short-season New York-Penn League and Rookie-advanced Appalachian and Pioneer leagues would cease operating as affiliated leagues. The vast majority of minor league teams lost in the downsizing from 160 to 120 affiliates would be lost in these three leagues, which operated 32 total clubs in 2019.
The canceled 2020 season deprived those Appalachian, New York-Penn and Pioneer league clubs on the chopping block the chance to stage farewell seasons. Note that the NYPL could survive in an altered state. See No. 3 below.
The short-season Northwest League could survive the contraction but be reclassified as a Class A league. The NWL’s facilities and geography make it attractive to West Coast-based major league organizations.
The Rookie-level Arizona and Gulf Coast leagues, as well as the Dominican Summer League, would operate as usual at each organization’s complex.
2. The high Class A and low Class A leagues could switch classifications.
MLB was strongly considering the possibility of flipping the classifications of the low Class A and high Class A leagues.
In other words, the low Class A Midwest and South Atlantic leagues would operate as high Class A leagues, perhaps along with the Northwest League and a new Mid-Atlantic League. See No. 5 below.
The high Class A Carolina, California and Florida State leagues would switch to a low Class A classification.
Such a move would ease the transition to full-season ball for some players. Those who spend spring training at Florida complexes could remain stationed at those complexes when promoted to the new low Class A Florida State League.
The warmer climate of the reclassified Carolina, California and Florida State leagues would also allow players from Latin America—or warm U.S. climates—to adjust to full-season ball without it also being their first exposure to the bracing April cold in the North.
3. At least one league could split its season between southern and northern locales.
One potential compromise solution floated by minor league clubs to keep more teams afloat would see a low Class A league split its season between two home bases. In this scenario, the Florida State League would play the first half of its season in Florida and then head to the cities of the existing New York-Penn League for the second half.
FSL clubs are not generally big draws, but getting fans to games gets even tougher in the summer months because of the heat, humidity and constant threat of rain. Also, many Florida snowbirds have headed back north by July.
In such a scenario, the NYPL would stage a similar number of games as it traditionally has as a short-season league, while the FSL would forego its least profitable games.
A similar but less likely plan could be enacted in the West, with the Arizona League playing until mid June before transferring operations to the Northwest League for the second half.
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4. A third Triple-A league could be formed.
Minor League Baseball folded the Triple-A American Association following the 1997 season and redistributed its Midwest-based clubs among the International and Pacific Coast leagues. This created awkward fits, particularly in the PCL where clubs spanned the Pacific to Central time zones, from Tacoma to New Orleans.
The dissolution of the AA coincided with major league expansion in 1998 and a desire to reduce travel costs. Having two leagues instead of three also simplified the logistics of a Triple-A World Series.
Now, momentum is building to reinstate a third Triple-A league based in the Midwest that would serve major league clubs from the Central divisions, just as the PCL serves the West and the IL the East. The possibility for interleague play would exist among the three Triple-A leagues.
5. The South Atlantic League could spin off a Mid-Atlantic League.
The South Atlantic League as it existed in 2019 had affiliates as far north as Lakewood, N.J., and as far south as Rome, Ga. The 857 miles between them is excessive for a bus league.
That is the impetus behind tightening the geographical footprint of the SAL by spinning off a six-team Mid-Atlantic League.