The 2020 Minor League Season Is Canceled. So What Happens Next?

Image credit: (Photo by Mike Janes/Four Seam Images)

Updated: Story has been updated to reflect the fact that MiLB has now officially announced the season’s cancellation.

What was long expected has been made official: There will be no Minor League Baseball in 2020.

Minor League Baseball officially announced at 5 p.m. ET today (June 30) that the season has been shelved because Major League Baseball has informed it that it will not provide players.

Now, the focus is on what comes next. First, teams must unravel as much as they can from this season. There will undoubtedly be a flood of fans and advertisers calling and asking for refunds for tickets or deals they’d purchased for games that had merely been suspended and not officially canceled.

Some of those fans and advertisers will choose to roll their dollars toward 2021, but others will want to replenish their own cash flow as best as possible. The stagnation of the economy has negatively affected nearly every industry, and some people and businesses will want to reclaim as much as they can to help themselves stay afloat.

For the rest of what would have been the minor league season, teams will likely continue doing what they’ve been doing. That is, they’ll continue making the most of what they have. For weeks and months, teams have been using their stadiums to bring in as many people as possible while staying within their municipality’s social distancing guidelines.

The Pensacola Blue Wahoos and Salem-Keizer Volcanoes have turned their ballparks into Airbnb properties for fans to rent out overnight. Others have begun hosting in-park restaurants, farmers markets, drive-in movies and anything else teams can dream up to get a few drops of revenue in an otherwise arid season.

Teams across the Texas and Pacific Coast Leagues are getting set to host the Texas Collegiate League, one of a smattering of summer college leagues across the country still slated to play despite the coronavirus pandemic. Other stadiums are hosting high school tournaments and showcases, while one plans on hosting an adult softball league.

A small number of teams—Altoona, Toledo, Port Charlotte and others—will host alternate training sites for members of their parent clubs’ player pools who don’t accompany the team during the regular season.

Without revenue, minor league teams have been laying off and furloughing employees throughout the course of the pandemic. With no games in sight and the payroll protection loans issued in the early part of the shutdown expiring, more jobs will be lost.

Teams will keep on some staff members who can help with whichever path they choose to keep fans in their ballparks, but those numbers will likely be minimal. Notable exceptions can be found in Pensacola, Beloit and Portland, which have all promised zero layoffs or furloughs no matter how long the shutdown lasts.

Perhaps the only silver lining is that teams can now schedule ballpark events unfettered from the questions about whether the season will take place. Even in normal years, minor league baseball is a year-round business—now the calendar is clear for teams to begin scheduling those non-baseball events without the chance of being forced to scrap their plans at a moment’s notice.

For players who are not part of their team’s player pool, the cancellation of the minor league season begins an offseason of uncertainty.

The volatility of the coronavirus and a spike of cases in both big league training states of Florida and Arizona have thrown the possibility of the instructional league and the Arizona Fall League (as well as a potential companion league in Florida) into serious jeopardy.

Spots in foreign winter leagues will be in high demand and will be dependent on relaxed regulations regarding international travel. Some players, with their contracts suspended as part of the country’s national emergency declaration, will opt to play in independent leagues, but those leagues have also been reduced dramatically in number this year because of the coronavirus.

The reality is that many players are simply not going to play organized baseball in 2020. They will lose a year of development and, in some cases, have to wonder from month to month about whether their parent club will continue paying the $400 per week stipends that have been going on since March.

That’s the near future. In the slightly longer view, the picture of what the minor leagues will look like in 2021 will begin to become clear.

Early in the pandemic, Minor League Baseball reportedly signaled its willingness to give in to Major League Baseball’s plan to contract roughly 40 of its teams as part of a massive effort to realign the organization.

The original list of the 42 teams on the chopping block has been fluid throughout the process, and teams have worked their way on and off the list over the past seven months. MLB’s proposals, if adopted, would lead to the short-season New York-Penn and Rookie-level Appalachian and Pioneer Leagues being eliminated entirely from affiliated ball. In many cases those teams had at least wanted to have a farewell season. The pandemic has wiped that away.

Some of the teams in the contracted leagues will remain part of the overall picture—likely sprinkled into various leagues at either Class A level—which will include four full-season teams and at least one Rookie-level complex league team for each of the 30 big league clubs.

Affiliations will change as a part of the plan as well. The standard two-year Player Development Contracts will be wiped out and replaced by much longer agreements (some sources have said the agreements could last as long as 20 years) that will eliminate the bi-annual affiliation shuffle that leads to odd, inconvenient arrangements (the Nationals’ Triple-A affiliate being in Fresno, for example) that make for major headaches for both players and organizations.

The league structure will also look different. Though there are many possibilities, a likely scenario calls for the creation of a third Triple-A league and possibly two more Class A leagues. The short-season Northwest League may go full-time as part of the arrangement, and a “Mid-Atlantic League” may pop up in Class A as well. The low Class A South Atlantic League might also split into two leagues.

All in all, 2020 will go down as the worst season in the minor leagues since at least 1918, when the Spanish Flu pandemic and World War I caused enough havoc that only one league (the International League) finished its season.

There will be no wacky alternate jerseys, no bobbleheads, no kooky concessions, no tarp pulls, no possums on the warning track, no mascots, no pop-up prospects, no seventh-inning stretches and no walk-off home runs.

There will be no joy … anywhere, because the minor league season was snuffed out.

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