MLB Presents Ultimatum To Fresno: Move To Class A Or Get Dropped
In its first proposal to Minor League Baseball more than a year ago, Major League Baseball’s reorganization of the minor leagues ticketed Triple-A Fresno for a move to the Class A California League.
The Grizzlies and the city of Fresno have never supported such a move. Now in the final days of the long-running MLB-MiLB talks, MLB has presented what appears to be an ultimatum to the Fresno Grizzlies: accept a move to Class A or be dropped from affiliated baseball altogether.
The Fresno Bee reported on Thursday that MLB deputy commissioner Dan Halem sent a letter to the mayor of Fresno, the mayor elect and the Fresno city council. In it, MLB said that the Grizzlies and the city of Fresno have until Monday to accept the move to Class A or they will not be part of the affiliated minor league system.
The Bee reported the Grizzlies are slated to be the Rockies low Class A affiliate in the California League if they accept the demotion. The Grizzlies would also have to agree to not sue MLB or any individual clubs.
When MLB announced it planned to reduce the number of affiliated minor league teams from 160 to 120 and reorganize league structures to improve travel, Triple-A—and most notably the Pacific Coast League—was always going to be one of the trickiest issues to resolve.
There are currently eight PCL teams in the Mountain or Pacific time zones. There are also eight MLB clubs in the Mountain or Pacific time zones. That would seem to create a one-for-one relationship if not for one hurdle. The Dodgers own Oklahoma City, another PCL team, in the Central time zone.
That has long created an imbalance where one MLB team from the East Coast or Midwest has been forced to have a Triple-A affiliate out West. For a while, it was the Mets having to play in Las Vegas. Eventually the Mets bought Syracuse to get out of the cross-country travel. That led the Nationals to be the last MLB team standing at the end of the affiliation shuffle, which meant that the Nationals had their Triple-A affiliate in Fresno, 2,785 miles away.
That created logistical issues for the Nationals. They left some of their MLB-ready relievers at Double-A Harrisburg. If a roster move needed to be made to add a pitcher that day, it was doable for the player to get from Harrisburg, Pa. to Washington. If a move was made for a pitcher in Fresno, he would perhaps not make it to the ballpark until after that night’s game.
From the start of its efforts to reorganize the minors, MLB planned to reduce the number of Triple-A teams in the West to seven, which would mean the seven MLB teams in Pacific or Mountain Time Zones other than the Dodgers would be paired with a Triple-A affiliate in the Pacific or Mountain Time Zones.
That makes logical sense for MLB. It makes little sense for any team currently in Triple-A.
The California League has significantly reduced travel compared to the PCL. PCL teams often fly while the California League is a bus league.
But to drop from Triple-A to Class A likely means a significant reduction in franchise valuation. It also means less home dates—Triple-A teams are scheduled to play 144-game schedules while low Class A teams will play 132 games—in a business where every home date is a significant chunk of yearly revenue.
Triple-A teams draw fans at a scale that seems unthinkable for California League clubs. Fresno averaged 5,759 fans per game in announced attendance in 2019. The California League, by contrast, has consistently had the second-lowest average attendance in full-season baseball ahead of only the Florida State League. Fresno’s average attendance was more than the largest crowd of the season for all but two of the eight California League clubs. No California League team averaged 2,700 fans per game in 2019.
If MLB does hold fast to its ultimatum, Fresno’s decision will have ripple effects as well. To move Fresno down to the eight-team California League means MLB would have to drop one California League team from affiliated baseball. If Fresno declines to accept a move to low Class A, it could also lead to a last-minute reprieve for a California League affiliate that was set to be dropped.
The Fresno mayor and mayor-elect have responded in a statement.