A Watershed Moment Between MLB, Independent League Baseball Is Here

UPDATE: The story has been updated to reflect the official announcement of the American Association and Frontier League’s partnerships with Major League Baseball.

Major League Baseball, the Atlantic League, the American Association and the Frontier League are now partners.

The Atlantic League’s partnership was announced on Wed., Sept. 23. The Frontier League and American Association’s announcements came one day later on Thurs., Sept. 24. 

Baseball America first reported on this likely development as part of MLB’s One Baseball plans during the summer.

Such relationships signify a watershed moment for independent baseball. Going back to the founding of the Northern League and Frontier League in 1993, independent baseball has always been kept at an arm’s length from affiliated minor league baseball and MLB, largely because of MiLB’s somewhat antagonistic views of the leagues.

MiLB passed rules prohibiting independent league owners from also owning affiliated teams (although some owners who already owned teams in both were grandfathered in).

Now, with MLB expected to take over the operations of the minor leagues, such barriers are quickly disappearing.

The Atlantic League had started to begin this shift in recent years. It shared information about its pace-of-play initiatives with MLB for several seasons. Then, in February 2019, the league agreed to a partnership to implement MLB-proposed experimental rules and equipment initiatives. Many of those were adopted in 2019, as the Atlantic League utilized computerized strike zones and other in-game tweaks. As part of its announcement, the Atlantic League and MLB announced that the partnership on rules and equipment experimentation will extend through 2023.

These partnership agreements will take that even further for all three leagues.

As partner leagues, these independent leagues will be able to cross-promote, cross-market with MLB. MLB would also bring the leagues into their statistical services and gather analytical data at the games. Such a system will make it easier for MLB teams to scout and acquire players from the independent leagues.

As part of these deals, the leagues also will agree to work with MLB to incorporate teams and cities that were in affiliated baseball and are left out by MLB’s proposed shift to 120 full-season affiliated clubs. MLB has promised to provide opportunities in all the cities that lose affiliated baseball as part of the MLB-led reductions. Partnering with established independent leagues provides a viable avenue for a number of the teams slated for elimination from affiliated ball. MLB is expected to cover the costs of teams moving to independent leagues.

It’s possible that the shifts that come with MLB’s takeover and reduction of the minors may also lead to further tweaks to the independent leagues. It is expected that at some point the current Appalachian League cities will become part of a new MLB-developed summer college wood bat league.

But the biggest question that remains is whether some league will end up filling MLB’s desires to provide a viable place for undrafted players in their late teens and early 20s.

With fewer players being drafted (next year’s draft will be no longer than 30 rounds and may be as few as 20 rounds) and fewer roster spots in affiliated ball, a logical argument can be made that a need exists for a league for undrafted players as well as players who have been released after a limited time in affiliated ball.

The current independent league structure does not particularly fulfill that need. The Atlantic League and American Association are generally focused on more experienced players in their late 20s and 30s, raising the overall experience level to a point that makes it difficult for a younger player to break into those leagues in a significant role.

When the Frontier League arose in 1993, it was a league aimed at players in their early 20s, but the eligibility requirements have been raised to the point where the league has plenty of players older than 25.

Currently, the Pecos League out west and the United Shores Professional Baseball League (which had four teams at one site in Michigan) are the only two independent leagues set up primarily for younger players.

There are a multitude of options to potentially fill this need. Atlantic League founder Frank Boulton and then-commissioner Joe Klein proposed the “Diamond League” in 2014. At the time, the league was slated to fill what they saw as a gap in the independent league landscape for young, undrafted players. The league was shelved because of a lack of viable cities and stadiums.

The elimination of the short-season New York-Penn League as well as teams being dropped from Class A leagues would provide a significant number of potential markets for such a league in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic in 2021 and beyond. The need for such a league is significantly larger in 2021 than it was in 2014, providing a chance for the Diamond League to resurface.

It is also possible that the Frontier League could decide to go back to its roots and become a younger, more developmentally focused league. Consistently, the players who sign with affiliated ball out of the Frontier League are the younger players in the league—MLB teams are much more interested in signing a 23- or 24-year-old who was overlooked than a 26- or 27-year-old.

The Frontier League is likely to add Ottawa to its stable of teams in the next few days—a lease has been signed between the city and long-time Winnipeg Goldeyes owner Sam Katz. Such an addition strengthens the eastern side of the league, which added the former Can-Am League teams in a merger before the 2020 season. That eastward move could provide the league a number of opportunities to attract affiliated cities and teams who are left out of the 120-team minor league system.

Some around the minors have also speculated that the Pioneer League, slated to be eliminated from affiliated ball in MLB’s plans, could fill the role.

With the 2021 draft slated for the second week of July instead of mid-June, hybrid leagues could arise. Potentially, a league could serve as a showcase league for potential draftees in June and early July before shifting to a league for undrafted players. The Frontier League has dabbled in that in the past—righthander Tanner Roark, one of the most storied of the league’s MLB alumni, made three appearances for Southern Illinois in 2008 in a tune-up before being drafted by the Rangers in the 25th round.

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