Four Factors Dominate List Of 120 Minor League Teams
So why did one minor league team make it onto Major League Baseball’s list of 120 invited teams while another nearby team did not?
The answer can be boiled down to four factors: caliber of stadium facilities, geography, the desires of major league teams and political considerations.
All four of those factors played roles in the structure of the 120 teams that have been invited. But often those four factors were in tension with each other, which explains why the 120 invitations sent out do not always meet all of those criteria. (The 120th invitation is pending MLB's discussions with the city of Fresno and the Fresno Grizzlies).
And at the end of the day, the desires of the MLB teams largely trumped the other considerations if the factors were in conflict.
From the first time MLB announced its plan to reduce the minors to 120 affiliated clubs from the 160 ticket-buying affiliated teams that existed before, the league stated it wanted minor league players to play in top-notch facilities in leagues where teams were largely close together, cutting down on travel time. Also, it wanted those minor league teams to be as close as possible to their respective MLB-parent club's city.
But once MLB reached out to hear from its 30 clubs who they wanted as affiliates, it quickly learned it was important to have all four affiliates as close to the big league city as possible only for some teams. For others, that was not nearly as important.
While few MLB teams got their full wishlist, MLB did not push too hard to get teams to drop current affiliates. As multiple MLB front office officials explained, there was a “if you want to keep your affiliate, you can keep it” rule that governed all of the moves.
That is why the geography of the 119 invited teams is not as compact as might have first been expected.
Take Bowling Green for example. No team’s facilities meet all of MLB’s vastly upgraded facility standards, but the Hot Rods’ Bowling Green Ballpark is considered a solid Class A facility. Politically, retaining a team in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s home state is beneficial for Major League Baseball as well.
But there was one problem. Geographically, Bowling Green is a poor fit for every team at the Class A level.
As a Midwest League team, Bowling Green is 265 miles from Dayton, 345 miles from Fort Wayne and more than 400 miles from almost every other team in the league. Move it to the new Mid-Atlantic League and the distances don’t get much shorter. Bowling Green is 270 miles from the Rome Braves, 320 miles from the Asheville Tourists and 350-plus miles from the rest of the southern grouping in the league. The teams in the northern portion of the league are 700-950 miles away, which would turn the Class A league into a Triple-A-style flying league.
The new health and wellness standards for players are expected to require teams to fly for any trip that is longer than 350 miles unless that travel is done on an off day.
Multiple minor league have teams said that flying turns a $2,000 bus trip into a roughly $10,000 trip by air, which is a concern for operators looking at their bottom lines. On top of that, there are no commercial flights from Bowling Green’s airport. If the Hot Rods need to fly for a road trip, they will have to bus over an hour to the Nashville airport or 90 minutes to the Louisville airport. Most likely, they will then need to take a flight to a hub airport and connect for a second flight to their destination.
New High-A League Travel Will Be Rough, But Better Than Expected In 2021
Thanks to an odd number of teams in each division, the High-A East League will have plenty of long-distance travel, but operators found the schedule a little better than expected.
So how did Bowling Green end up in a Class A league?
The Tampa Bay Rays liked having Bowling Green as an affiliate. And if a team wanted to keep an affiliate, MLB usually worked to find a way to do so.
Similarly the Blue Jays wanted the lone Canadian minor league team in affiliated ball to be in their farm system. So a Blue Jays prospect will begin his minor league career at low Class A Dunedin, then trek more than 3,000 miles to high Class A Vancouver. Then they will travel 3,000 additional miles if they get promoted to Double-A New Hampshire.
Travel-wise that may not make sense, but it made sense to the Blue Jays for other reasons, and the desires of an MLB team to keep an affiliate proved to be the overriding factor.
Geographical considerations did play a significant role in how the various leagues are being constructed. The move of six Northwest League teams to full-season high Class A was designed around the idea of ensuring that West Coast clubs could move their development closer to their MLB city. Now, West Coast teams can have a low Class A team in the California League, a high Class A team in the Northwest League, a Double-A squad in the Texas League (further away, but the closest Double-A league to the West Coast) and a Triple-A team in the Pacific Coast League.
The proposed move of Fresno to the low Class A California League, which has not been finalized, was based on geography as well. There was one more Triple-A team in the Mountain and Pacific time zones than there were MLB teams in those time zones. Without a move to take one West Coast team out of Triple-A, some Midwest or East Coast team would have ended up with a West Coast Triple-A affiliate. MLB found no teams that wanted to take such a cross-country trek.