MLB, Atlantic League Sign Player Transfer Agreement

It’s one small step for baseball, one giant leap for the Atlantic League.

Very quietly this January, the Atlantic League signed a formal agreement with Major League Baseball to put on paper the league’s rules for transferring player contracts to Major League Baseball teams and their affiliates.

In practical terms, very little has changed. The Atlantic League has been selling the contracts of hundreds of players to affiliated ball in past years. The new formalized agreement doesn’t change that. Just this week, three players were sold to affiliated teams.

But at the same time, the agreement is a watershed moment for the Atlantic League. It is the first time that there has been any sort of official agreement or even an official acknowledgement of an independent league by affiliated baseball.

“It signifies that we occupy a place within the professional baseball hierarchy. That’s meaningful to the league,” Atlantic League president Rick White said.

“It begins to help us frame the internal and the public perception for the league and its importance in terms of players and their careers. And it helps all concerned recognize that our leagues, teams’ owners and directors that we’re viable. It all leads back to enterprise value and community value.”

In a statement, MLB agreed.

“Since 1998 the Atlantic League has been a great resource for experienced players looking to extend their playing careers. With our new agreement MLB is looking forward to continuing our relationship with the Atlantic League.”

Independent baseball leagues have long been viewed as outsiders by affiliated ball. The fact that independent leagues were able to open teams within markets that were off-limits to affiliated teams because of territorial rules caused plenty of friction, but it went far beyond that. Within some corners of affiliated baseball, there was a belief that merely acknowledging the presence of independent baseball brought with it a legitimacy that they wanted to be withheld.

The Frontier League and many of the teams that formed the Northern League (and later moved to form the American Association) are celebrating their 22nd season this year. The Atlantic League has been around 18 years. At this point, the staying power and legitimacy of the established independent leagues is rather apparent.

This formal agreement is a further sign of what has proven to be a growing relationship between Major League Baseball and the Atlantic League.

“This sort of acknowledges what we’ve been doing,” Atlantic League founder Frank Boulton said. “We’re delighted to sign this agreement. It’s memorializing what we already had, but it’s fun to look at the Atlantic League logo and the Major League Baseball logo on the same page with Joe Torre’s signature at the bottom.”

From its start, the Atlantic League has worked to strengthen its ties to MLB. The league hired Joe Klein, a longtime major league general manager, as its executive director, giving the league added legitimacy inside big league front offices.

“He gave a lot of credibility to us early. It was a large part of our success. Bringing Joe Klein on is one of the best things the Atlantic League ever did,” Boulton said.

Those ties to MLB were further strengthened when White joined the league as its president. White once worked in Major League Baseball’s offices as the president of Major League Baseball Properties.

The league had also informally strengthened ties with its pace of play committee, which was established in 2014 to try to speed up Atlantic League games. Instead of stocking the committee solely with Atlantic League officials, it included former Astros president Tal Smith, longtime major league GM Pat Gillick and D-backs special assistant to the president Roland Hemond.

The committee began adopting rules to see what tweaks could cut the downtime in games. They told umpires to strictly enforce existing rules about batters staying in the batter’s box and requiring pitchers to throw home within 12 seconds of receiving the ball when the bases are unoccupied. For 2015, they also added a 2:05 time limit for between-inning breaks and limited any in-game conference to 30 seconds or less.

It’s not coincidental that the new pace of play rules adopted in Major League Baseball and Double-A and Triple-A this year were largely rules that had first been tested in the Atlantic League.

That’s a role that the Atlantic League wants to fill. It is happy to be the Petri dish in which innovative adjustments to improve the game can be attempted with high-level players. Not all of the ideas will work out—a pace-of-game tweak to have a pinch runner replace any catcher who reached base with one or more outs was removed less than a week after its announcement thanks to massive outcry. But whether it’s composite bats, new technology on the field or any other prospective innovations, the Atlantic League is receptive to trying new things and is happy to share any information on the advantages and disadvantages that they discover.


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