How 4 MLB Teams Took Extreme Measures To Avoid Landing In The California League

When the California League’s Riverside franchise relocated to High Desert in 1991, it set in motion a game of affiliation musical chairs that was further exasperated when the Dodgers left Bakersfield for San Bernardino in 1995.

In the 1990s, 2000s and early 2010s, the Bakersfield and High Desert franchises would put out “vacancy” signs more often than other Cal League clubs during the biennial affiliation shuffle. And major league organizations took often extreme measures to avoid landing in either location when the music stopped, because their parks were so inhospitable to pitchers and their facilities so outdated.

The table below spells out the number of unique parent organizations (not counting co-op arrangements) for high Class A California League franchises between 1991 and 2016.

Franchise Parent Orgs Seasons Per Affiliation
High Desert 8 3.25
Bakersfield 6 4.33
Visalia 5 5.2
Lancaster 4 6.5
Stockton 4 6.5
Rancho Cucamonga 4 6.5
Inland Empire 3 8.67
Lake Elsinore 2 13
Modesto 2 13
San Jose 1 26


Following the 2016 season, the Bakersfield and High Desert franchises were dropped from affiliated baseball and two Carolina League expansion franchises were added to take their place.

The level of instability in Bakersfield and High Desert was telling. Those two clubs were changing parent organizations every three or four years on average, when most other Cal League affiliates were averaging six or more years per affiliation. Visalia is the only exception, but it has been continuously affiliated with the D-backs since 2007.

The desire by major league teams to avoid being stuck with an undesirable California League affiliate in Bakersfield, High Desert or high-scoring Lancaster led directly to several MLB organizations purchasing franchises in the Carolina League just to avoid the game of musical chairs every two offseasons.

According to reporting from J.J. Cooper, major league owners were not pleased with the arrangement. From their perspective, the values of those Carolina League franchises were artificially inflated by the undesirability of Cal League franchises in Bakersfield, High Desert and Lancaster.

MLB owners reasoned that it was precisely because of their major league affiliation that minor league franchises derived value. So it frustrated and angered them that minor league affiliates were dictating terms of the affiliation agreement.

Four major league organizations—the Astros, Brewers, Rangers and Red Sox (see below)—bowed out of the high Class A affiliation shuffle by purchasing Carolina League clubs just to avoid landing in Bakersfield, High Desert or Lancaster again.

Red Sox: The rare East Coast club to get stuck in the California League, the Red Sox partnered with Lancaster in 2007 and 2008. The experience so scarred them that they bought the Salem franchise and have been ensconced in the Carolina League since 2009.

Brewers: The Brewers operated in Stockton for 22 years before switching to High Desert for 2001 to 2004. They left the Cal League for the Florida State League in 2005, but when they got pushed out of Brevard County after the 2016 season they paid a premium to buy the Carolina Mudcats, a franchise that had recently been demoted from Double-A to the Carolina League.

Rangers: Texas had the misfortune of affiliating with both Bakersfield (2005-10) and High Desert (2015-16), so it eagerly purchased a Carolina League expansion franchise. The Rangers have operated the Down East club in Kinston, N.C., since 2017.

Astros: Affiliated with Lancaster from 2009 to 2016, the Astros jumped at the chance to purchase a Carolina League expansion franchise in 2017. Houston spent two seasons in Buies Creek before moving to a new ballpark in Fayetteville, N.C., in 2019.

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