Image credit: Tracy McGrady #1 of the Sugar Land Skeeters warms up in the bullpen before throwing against the Somerset Patriots at Constellation Field on May 10, 2014 in Sugar Land, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
The majority of the last two months has been consumed by negotiations between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association to get a 2020 season underway. Consequently, that’s meant talks between MLB and Minor League Baseball about the structure of the sport in 2021 and beyond have taken a back seat. The two sides have not met since April 22, although there have been some messages exchanged since.
That delay has left many minor league operators very uncomfortable. Until negotiations are resolved, there are no 2021 schedules for anyone in affiliated baseball (which, in many cases would already be in hand), and a significant group of teams is left unsure about its standing in affiliated ball.
That uncertainty is also passed to ticket-holders and sponsors, who might otherwise be persuaded to roll their 2020 dollars into the 2021 season. Multiple MiLB owners said they would not be surprised if some teams have to declare bankruptcy because they do not have the cash on hand to make full refunds on 2020 tickets and sponsorships.
In other years, teams might consider attempting to secure loans to meet those obligations, but the possibility of teams losing their affiliations makes that proposition more difficult.
With the 2020 MLB schedule set, MLB and MiLB officials are expected to resume talks soon. MLB has been asking its 30 teams to share their thoughts on where they would like to place their affiliates in 2021, when each club will have four full-season clubs and (at least) one complex-level team in the Gulf Coast or Arizona League.
When that information is in hand, MLB is expected to lay out to MiLB its vision for the league’s overall structure, including the locations of each of the 120 full-season clubs.
People with knowledge of discussions expect there to be many changes from the initial list of 42 teams on the chopping block that was made public last year. One new development is some MLB teams have requested to affiliate with current independent league teams.
Sources confirmed that multiple independent league teams in addition to St. Paul and Sugar Land (which were mentioned in MLB’s initial proposal) have been approached by MLB teams as possible affiliates for 2021 and beyond, with the Atlantic League’s Somerset Patriots being the team most likely to be brought into affiliated ball.
“We are very proud of our over two decades as a founding member of the Atlantic League,” Somerset Chairman Emeritus Steve Kalafer said in a statement to Baseball America. “The Somerset Patriots strive for excellence in everything that we do. Our staff, partners, fans and community as a whole have enhanced our reputation that has been recognized throughout professional baseball. To hear our name even mentioned in any of these MLB discussions is certainly an honor.”
If multiple independent teams join affiliated ball, the list of teams losing their affiliation could be even larger than the original 42.
In addition to all the other changes that could be coming, the number of leagues and divisions might also look markedly different.
There have been discussions of Triple-A splitting into three leagues, like it was before the American Association was absorbed into the International League and Pacific Coast League for the 1998 season. If Triple-A remained divided into two leagues, it is likely that the leagues would play some interleague series to reduce travel times and distances.
At low Class A, it is expected that the current two leagues will split into four. The South Atlantic League would move to a six-team format, while a new Mid-Atlantic League would also field six teams. The Midwest League would drop to 12 teams and the Northwest League would move up from short-season ball and likely have six teams as well.
It is still possible that the South Atlantic League would remain as a 12-team league and split into North and South Divisions that rarely play each other. Or the SAL and Mid-Atlantic League could also have some interleague play, fulfilling the same purpose in a slightly different structure.
Of course, before any of this happens, the sides have to strike a deal. Right now, even that is in question. If no agreement is reached by Sept. 30, MLB could simply walk away from an expired agreement and form its own structure for 2021 and beyond, knowing the teams they want to play in their redesigned minors would almost assuredly apply to join the new development system.
That scenario would create total free agency for MiLB teams, meaning the current structures and classifications could be completely revamped and all 30 MLB teams would have to line up their affiliates to fit into a completely new system.
That carries some headaches for MLB teams, which would have to do significant initial work to get their new minor league alignments set up in a system that would start as a blank slate.
But there are more significant incentives for current Triple-A and Double-A teams to avoid such a possibility. They have every incentive to accept almost any offer presented to them because they face dire risks if the PBA expires without a deal in place.
If the current PBA is allowed to lapse, all current rules and structures cease to exist. There are no guarantees that Triple-A teams would remain in Triple-A in an MLB-designed minor league system, and the same could be true in Double-A.
Many people involved in the minors have long said there is significant tension between owners of teams in the upper minors (who will largely be only modestly affected by a potential deal) and owners of teams in the lower minors (who will be primarily affected if there is a deal that eliminates teams).
Many questions still need to be answered, including what compensation for teams who lose their affiliations will look like. MLB has long viewed compensation as the responsibility of the minor leagues. They have not guaranteed player development contracts beyond 2020, so while they will not stand in the way of compensation for current MiLB owners, they also do not view it as its responsibility.
MLB has also been clear that cities whose teams lose their affiliation will not lose baseball entirely. That gap could be filled by summer college leagues, independent teams or other alternatives, but the guarantee only extends to the cities. Team operators and owners have not been offered those same assurances.
Among minor league owners, there is no universal agreement on compensation, either. A variety of funding mechanisms could be used to compensate teams that are left out in reductions in affiliated ball. Most conversations seem to revolve around using the ticket tax and/or expansion fees from future expansion. But with time ticking on a deal and the complicated nature such structures would require, there seems to be more pessimism than before that such a structure could be designed, adopted and approved in time for a new deal.
At this point, few MiLB teams have hopes of playing any games in 2020, although there have continued to be some attempts to stave off a completely canceled season. Triple-A teams have continued to offer plans for how they could play a much-shortened season in August and September alongside the return of MLB, although the announcement of expanded 60-man player pools may render their efforts moot.
The expectation is that the official word on the MiLB season will be announced in the next week to week and a half.