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Explaining The New MLB Draft, Pioneer Leagues For 2021


When Major League Baseball laid out its plan to cut the affiliated minors from 160 to 120 teams, it also repeatedly said it planned to offer baseball alternatives for the cities left out of affiliated baseball.

After a very busy Nov. 30, MLB is more than halfway there.

MLB announced the formation of the MLB Draft League, which will include five former affiliated clubs. MLB also announced that all eight teams in the Pioneer League will shift to a new professional partner league for 2021.

With the previous announcement that the 10-team Appalachian League would switch to a summer amateur wood bat league, MLB has now announced destinations for 23 formerly affiliated clubs. MLB also said that it expects to announce a sixth team for the MLB Draft League before long.

With the expected moves of St. Paul, Somerset and Sugar Land to affiliated baseball from independent leagues, it is believed 43 teams that were in affiliated baseball will be left out of MLB’s 120-team minor league format moving forward.

The announcements of the MLB Draft League and the Pioneer League are yet a further indication that MLB is getting close to finalizing the 120 teams it is inviting to be part of affiliated baseball.

But Monday’s news was significant on its own, as two new leagues were created that will fill new slots in the baseball landscape.

The MLB Draft League will be a 68-game, summer amateur wood bat league set to play in four former New York-Penn League locales—State College, Williamsport, Mahoning Valley and West Virginia—as well as Trenton, which was a member of the Double-A Eastern League. It is designed for draft-eligible players.

While high school players will be allowed to participate, the league is primarily designed for players who have just completed their junior and senior years of college baseball and are therefore draft eligible. Draft-eligible junior college players (who are eligible to be drafted after each year of college) would also be a potential target for the six-team league.

The league will begin play in late May and run until mid-August. The league is designed to offer draft-eligible players a chance to play in the leadup to the draft, which has been moved from its traditional early June date to an early July date that coincides with MLB’s All-Star weekend.

“Times change, our stances need to change with them," State College Spikes owner Chuck Greenberg said. This new concept as a baseball fan is one I believe is truly exceptional. From a baseball standpoint, it will be everything we have had with a greater concentration of talent.”

In conversations with multiple player agents, they said they expect few potential first-round picks will opt to play in a pre-draft league because the risk of a potential first-rounder harming one’s draft stock would be worse than the upside of improving their stock.

That won’t be much of a change for New York-Penn League teams. Of the 32 first-round picks who signed in 2018, only three played in the NYPL.

But the total amount of potential draftees that will play in the league could mean that Greenberg’s prediction comes true.

Former MiLB Affiliates Changing Leagues
TeamPrevious LeagueNew LeagueFormat
Pro partner league
Summer wood bat
Summer wood bat
Summer wood bat
Summer wood bat
Summer wood bat
Grand JunctionPioneerPioneer
Pro partner league
Great FallsPioneerPioneer
Pro partner league
Summer wood bat
Idaho FallsPioneerPioneer
Pro partner league
Johnson CityAppalachianAppalachian
Summer wood bat
Summer wood bat
Mahoning ValleyNew York-PennMLB Draft
Summer wood bat
Pro partner league
Northern ColoradoPioneerPioneer
Pro partner league
Pro partner league
Summer wood bat
Summer wood bat
Rocky MountainPioneerPioneer
Pro partner league
State CollegeNew York-PennMLB Draft
Summer wood bat
TrentonEasternMLB Draft
Summer wood bat
West VirginiaNew York-PennMLB Draft
Summer wood bat
WilliamsportNew York-PennMLB Draft
Summer wood bat

Also on Monday, the Pioneer League announced it will be a professional partner league in 2021. That fulfills the promise that multiple Pioneer League owners made months ago that they intended to field professional teams.

The league does include one facility change. The Orem Owlz are now the Northern Colorado Owlz, as they will move to Windsor, Colo. in 2022.

The new league will play a 92-game schedule (a significant increase over the 76 games the league played before). It will be slotted to be a professional league for recently undrafted players as well as players who have been released from affiliated ball early in their professional careers.

“Over the past year, we have worked closely with Pioneer League owners and elected officials to ensure the continued success of baseball in the Mountain West,” said Morgan Sword, MLB Vice President,  Baseball Economics & Operations, in a statement. "We’re excited to support this new initiative and look forward to Pioneer League baseball returning in 2021."

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The three other MLB partner leagues—the American Association, Atlantic League and Frontier League—all have roster eligibility rules that allow veteran minor and major leaguers to play in the league. The Pioneer League will aim to attract recently undrafted players. It is expected the league will have relatively strict age limits to ensure it remains focused on young players who have the potential to move on to affiliated ball.

“We felt like, and MLB agreed with us, that there was this void for players who would have been drafted in rounds 21-40 or who have played a year or two in MiLB before being released,” Idaho Falls Chukars owner D.G. Ellmore said. “I have to give Morgan Sword and (Rockies owner) Dick Monfort credit. (Monfort) owns Grand Junction. We worked on this for a while. They were willing to think about and explore different ways of looking at this. I think this will work out really well.”

Major League Baseball will provide “initial funding” for the league’s expenses, but the league will have to be self-sustaining going forward. As a partner league, the Pioneer League will gather analytical data from Trackman and other MLB-provided data tracking and will be able to use MLB statistical services and other support. As a partner league, it will also be able to engage in joint-marketing, ticketing and potentially sponsorships with MLB.

The Missoula Paddleheads, in their release announcing their participation in the new league, suggested some of the league's players could be affiliated players under contract with MLB teams who have been loaned to the Pioneer League clubs. Multiple sources with knowledge of the negotiations said that no such agreement for player loans has been reached between MLB and the Pioneer League.

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