The Great Class A Flip-Flop: How It Saves MLB Clubs Travel Time, Money
Major League Baseball optimized the Triple-A and Double-A leagues for travel, but kept those leagues largely intact and recognizable. The same is not true of the Class A leagues.
Not only did MLB elevate the former short-season Northwest League to full-season status—it is now the six-team High-A West League—but it flipped the classifications for what were the Low-A and High-A leagues. In addition, four teams from what were the New York-Penn and Pacific Coast leagues join the new Class A structure as well, forcing a total of 10 former Class A teams out of affiliated baseball.
The old High-A California and Florida State leagues move down a level to become the Low-A West and Low-A Southeast leagues, retaining all but three clubs—Lancaster in the West; Charlotte and Florida in the Southeast. Lancaster was replaced by Fresno, which dropped from Triple-A.
Seven of the 10 clubs of the former High-A Carolina League also move down a level to form the core of the 12-team Low-A East League. Former Carolina League clubs Wilmington and Winston-Salem retain High-A status, while Frederick was dropped from affiliated baseball.
The reverse is true for the former Low-A Midwest and South Atlantic leagues. The majority of surviving clubs are now members of the High-A Central and High-A East leagues, with a few exceptions.
The High-A Central League preserves 12 of the former Low-A Midwest League’s 16 franchises. Burlington, Clinton and Kane County were dropped from affiliated ball, while Bowling Green perseveres in High-A East.
The 12-team High-A East League preserves six of the former Low-A South Atlantic League’s 14 clubs. Five others keep their old classification but move to the Low-A East League. Former SAL clubs Hagerstown, Lexington and West Virginia were dropped from affiliated ball.
There was a method to MLB’s madness at the Class A levels. MLB states that it improved travel from clubs’ spring complexes in Arizona and Florida to Low-A affiliates by an average of 643 miles per team across the board.
In practical terms, this means that MLB clubs that host spring training in Florida will for the most part assign their youngest players directly to the 10-team Low-A Southeast League, the successor of the Florida State League.
Eight of the 10 MLB West Division clubs that train in Arizona will assign their youngest players to the eight-team Low-A West League, which used to be the California League.
Not only are relocation costs for Low-A assignments reduced in this format, but for teenagers from Latin America or warm-weather U.S. states embarking on their first full seasons, the spring weather in California and Florida will be much more favorable than it was in the old Midwest and South Atlantic leagues.
Even the remaining 12 Low-A affiliates located outside of California or Florida are in mid-Atlantic states where spring weather is typically warm.
The Class A flip-flop also reduces travel between High-A and Double-A leagues by an average of 157 miles across the board and intra-affiliate travel overall by an average of 200 miles.
Six MLB organizations save more than 2,000 miles of travel between affiliates. In descending order of reduced intra-affiliate mileage, they are the Twins (2,471), Yankees (2,205), Mets (2,201), Cardinals (2,153), Dodgers (2,127) and Phillies (2,072).
Five of the six cited clubs—all but the Dodgers—train in Florida and have Low-A Southeast League affiliates.
Another five clubs save more than 1,000 miles of intra-division travel, but not everybody wins with the new Class A alignments. The Brewers (678), Cubs (516) and Red Sox (440) all add hundreds of miles of travel between affiliates.
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Location, Location, Location
MLB clubs in East and Central divisions come out ahead in terms of travel time between minor league affiliates.
When it restructured the minor leagues, Major League Baseball created West Coast leagues at Triple-A, High-A and Low-A by porting over what were the Pacific Coast, Northwest and California leagues.
However, no West Coast minor league exists at Double-A to serve West Division major league organizations. The closest any Double-A affiliate comes to the Pacific Ocean is Amarillo, Texas, which is two time zones away.
As a result, many West Division clubs face grueling travel both to and from Double-A affiliates. No team will rack up more frequent flier miles than the Giants, whose prospects trek from High-A Eugene to Double-A Richmond and back to Triple-A Sacramento. The total distance to drive between those affiliates is 5,656 miles.
Average distance between successive minor league affiliates, sorted by MLB division
The Rockies (4,790), Mariners (4,547) and Angels (4,081) also have High-A, Double-A and Triple-A affiliates that crisscross the country. What the four clubs have in common is they have High-A affiliates in the Pacific Northwest, Double-A clubs in the Eastern or Central time zones and Triple-A affiliates in the Pacific or Mountain time zones. That puts miles on the odometer and racks up travel costs.
Bigger picture: major league teams in the West Divisions have eight of the nine highest cumulative mileage totals between affiliates. The two exceptions are the Astros and Rangers, who are centrally located in Texas and are not truly West operations.
Interestingly, the Blue Jays rank No. 1 for most miles between affiliates because Toronto wanted to keep its affiliation with Vancouver, the only minor league affiliate based in Canada. This means that Blue Jays players travel from Low-A Dunedin in Florida to High-A Vancouver in British Columbia and then back to the Northeast for Double-A and Triple-A.
But regarding those eight West organizations that face the most grueling minor league travel.