Appalachian League Hopes To Now Fill Niche In College Baseball Summer Circuit

Image credit: Dan Moushon (Photo by Brian Westerholt/Four Seam)

From before Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball ever sat down to have their first meeting to discuss extending the Professional Baseball Agreement, the Appalachian League stood out as a hard-to-fit anomaly.

Unlike the other 150 ticket-selling MiLB members, the Appalachian League’s 10 teams are MLB owned. Local operators possess contracts to operate the clubs, but they do not own franchises like members of the other MiLB leagues.

And unlike any other league, MLB has long possessed the ability to shut down the league. It could eliminate the league at any time, as long as it gave six months notice.

The tenuous nature of its place in the minors has long hung over the Appy League. After the 2006 season, when the Blue Jays decided to leave Pulaski, then-Appy League commissioner Lee Landers spent months talking to MLB clubs to ensure that he found a replacement for the Blue Jays. The subtext was that a defection of one club could turn into a fight for the survival of the league.

Over the past few years, the Appy League had found some stability. When it had an opening in Greeneville a few years ago, it had to hold a lottery to select one team from among a slate of interested MLB clubs.

The contentious PBA negotiations soon put that survival back at risk. MLB made clear in its initial proposal to MiLB last year that it wanted to eliminate the short-season and Rookie-level leagues.

Because of its unusual nature, the Appy League was immediately put at the most direct risk of elimination. The Pioneer League and New York-Penn League could hold out hope for survival in a new PBA. Due to the unique structure of the Appy League, president Dan Moushon and the league’s 10 operators quickly realized that it was highly unlikely that MiLB could fight for the league’s survival in affiliated ball.

But that also gave the league a first-mover advantage. While other leagues were trying to find a way to survive in affiliated ball, the Appy League went its own route and began to try to figure out how it could fit in MLB’s ideas for alternative leagues. In doing so, it put itself at the front of the line to land what very likely will be one of the highest-profile leagues that MLB will develop.

MLB officially announced on Tuesday that the Appy League will become the first collegiate summer league in USA Baseball’s Prospect Development Pipeline (PDP).

As such, the Appy League will aim to position itself as the place for the top rising freshmen and sophomores to play on their path to either playing in the Cape Cod League or for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team as rising juniors.

“There has been a dark cloud hovering above us since the last month of last season when rumors (about contraction) began. Today, the sun came out,” said Chris Allen, president and chief operating officer of Boyd Sports, which operates Appalachian League teams in Greeneville, Johnson City and Elizabethton.

The league has an initial three-year commitment from MLB, although MLB’s press release also notes that the plan “retains high-level baseball in the region for the long-term.” Some details, such as whether league operators will own franchises or retain the baseball operation contracts that long existed in the Appy League are yet to be determined.

“Being in the situation where we were on a year to year contract, as long as they gave us six months notice they could walk off. Folks just did not understand that,” said Rocky Malamisura, general manager of the Bluefield Blue Jays.

“I was in industry for 33 years. I’ve sat on both sides of the table. You become a realist. When you understand the dynamics of Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball, it was fairly evident that if there was a contraction it would be with us (going away). We collectively started putting a game plan together with scenario a, b and c to save baseball for these communities. Kudos to MLB, they did exactly what they said they would do.”

All 10 teams will be rebranding as part of their new arrangement—all 10 decided they preferred to rebrand so they could have team names that are more tied to their localities. MLB has committed to funding Appy League team expenses that were previously paid for by MLB teams.

The announcement on Tuesday came after months of talks.

When it became clear that the Appy League could be eliminated from affiliated ball as part of the PBA negotiations, Appy League operators took note of Moushon’s suggestion that they listen with an open mind to MLB’s proposals for continuing baseball in their cities. There were meetings with mayors, city managers, and state and national legislators. Before long, all 10 cities were on board.

“There were no holdouts. No stragglers,” Malamisura said. “Each one of the communities are in love with baseball and are used to having baseball in their communities. This summer with COVID brought it even more into the forefront of what it would mean to not have baseball.”

On the business side, these teams will largely operate in 2021 and beyond as they have for years. And for the average fan, the operators do not think there will be a lot of change.

“The average fan will not know whether you have a first-year late-round draft choice or you have an upcoming sophomore from one of the power five schools. They are not going to notice,” Malamisura said. “The hardcore fan, they will notice. They are the ones you have to explain the true differences to. I think once we explain that to the people, they will embrace it wholeheartedly.”

On the baseball side, this league is being constructed to be an extension of the Prospect Development Pipeline that USA Baseball has already established. USA Baseball invites 80 rising high school seniors to its high school PDP in the summer before their senior year. Now they will also invite 300 top rising college freshmen and sophomores to fill out the 10 Appy League rosters. MLB said that TrackMan and other technology will be present at the facilities and they expect the league to be heavily scouted by all 30 teams.

USA Baseball will have the responsibility for selecting and inviting the players and selecting the coaching staffs for the teams. UCLA’s John Savage, Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin, Illinois’ Dan Hartleb and Georgetown’s Edwin Thompson join a number of MLB scouting officials on the league’s steering committee.

MLB made clear that this league is not designed to compete with the Cape Cod League for talent, as it still expects the top rising juniors to head to either the Collegiate National Team or the Cape Cod League. But when it comes to the Northwoods League and other summer college leagues that attract top rising freshmen and sophomores, MLB’s expectation that this will be an elite-level league does seem to create competition.

“A rising tide lifts all boats,” said Coastal Plain League president Justin Sellers. “We look forward to seeing other collegiate summer leagues attempt to reach the same caliber we’ve delivered for 24 yars in the region. We welcome the opportunity it brings to communities and to the quality of baseball in the country.”

For the Appalachian League teams, the move will lead to a reduction in games. Teams played 68 games as an affiliated league. They will play 54 games in the new league, meaning each team will lose seven home dates.

In 2010-2011, an average of four to five players per Appy League team became major leaguers. MLB officials in Tuesday’s press conference seemed confident that the new league could match or exceed that sort of talent level, even if professional players are being replaced with amateurs.

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