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What's Next For The 43 Teams Left Out Of Affiliated Baseball?

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(Photo by Mike Janes/Four Seam Images)

More than 40 minor league teams found out officially on Wednesday they are no longer part of Major League Baseball’s plans for affiliated baseball.

For 23 of those teams, Wednesday’s invitations confirmed what was already known. The Appalachian and Pioneer Leagues previously announced they would not be part of affiliated baseball going forward, but will continue to operate in new formats. Five teams (four from the New York-Penn League and one from the Eastern League) announced that they would join the MLB Draft League. Frederick, formerly in the Carolina League, will also join the MLB Draft League.

That’s 24 of what eventually will be 43 teams that are now considered former affiliates moving forward. For many of the remaining 19 teams, the days are spent with a lot of Zoom calls and discussions to figure out the next step.

For some of those teams, the most likely option will be joining a summer amateur wood bat league. Others are trying to figure out the best professional partner league option. Partner leagues are the the leagues that were known as independent leagues until just recently.

Major League Baseball has indicated it will pay entry fees for teams that were left out of affiliated baseball to join new leagues. MLB will pay their way in, but as a condition those teams are expected to waive a right to sue.

MLB had begun reaching out to teams that were left out in advance of the invitations being sent. But there were some teams for whom the news was somewhat of a surprise. For others, it was confirmation of something long known.

Lexington Legends President and CEO Andy Shea knows that his team is officially on the outside of affiliated baseball now. After 20 years in the South Atlantic League, the Legends will have to forge a different path in 2021.

None of this is news to Shea and the Legends. They were on the originally proposed cut list and have remained stubbornly on the outside of the 120 for more than a year. So when the official word came down, it may have been confirmation, but it wasn’t a shock.

After the experience of last summer, Shea isn’t as disappointed as one might expect. With the coronavirus pandemic forcing a complete shutdown of the minor leagues in 2020, the Legends ended up setting up their own independent league. The Legends and the nearby Florence Y’all’s, who normally play in the Frontier League, set up a four-team Battle of the Bourbon Trail. Both cities stocked their own teams, largely with players from the area.

The fans seemed to enjoy it. The players seemed to enjoy it. And the Legends found that there was life outside of affiliated ball.

“What we did this last summer opened my eyes and the community's eyes too,” Shea said. “That in itself has given us a huge leg up on all of the other teams in a similar situation. I was able to see what it means to have Brandon Phillips and Ben Revere in Lexington Legends’ uniforms. We had players from Kentucky, players that grew up in Lexington Little Leagues. Seeing that not only once but with many guys, it was awesome. It was very enlightening and reassuring.”

Shea said that MLB officials have been in contact with him and the Legends on numerous occasions as the team talks through its next steps. He hopes the Legends will be able to announce their plans for 2021 in the next week or so. One thing has already happened. Shea said the Legends have secured a commitment from former Red Sox lefthander Henry Owens, who has said he’s looking forward to playing for the Legends in whatever league they end up in.

If Lexington was always expected to be on the outside of the 120, that was not the case for the Kane County Cougars.

The Cougars could best be described as one of the clubs left without a partner when the music stopped. The Arizona Diamondbacks were one of the teams that moved from the Midwest League to the Northwest League in the shuffle, which left Kane County without an MLB affiliate. To make room for a six-team Northwest League, MLB had to drop four teams from the Midwest League (Clinton, Burlington and Kane County all did not receive invites while Bowling Green moved out of the league) to go along with two teams being dropped from the Florida State League.

Cougars owner Dr. Bob Froehlich was naturally dispirited in being on the outside looking in.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed,” Froehlich said. “We were really looking forward to being on the list of 120.”

But Froehlich was also upbeat about the potential for the Cougars going forward.

“What really changed today with this announcement? It really implemented Commissioner (Rob) Manfred’s One Baseball,” Froehlich said. “To execute that vision you need to blur the line and maybe erase the line between affiliated teams and what we used to call independent teams that are now partner league teams. He did that.”

Froehlich noted that in a partner league, the Cougars will continue to be under MLB’s umbrella and he expects to display MLB’s logo prominently at the ballpark.

“We’ve had six different affiliations over the past 30 years. We understand what it is like to have change from this perspective,” he said. “From this change where we will be under the umbrella of MLB in a new partner league, we have to remember to do what we do best. We provide a quality baseball experience. I’m very proud of our family friendly atmosphere. That won't change. We’re an affordable entertainment venue. We will continue to provide that. None of that changes whether we are an affiliated team or an MLB Partner League team.”

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The Burlington Bees released a statement that said that they are sad, but also looking to soon announce plans for what they will be doing in 2021.

“The entire Bees organization is heartbroken by this announcement, but we are honored to have been in the Midwest League and a part of Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball for so many years,” Burlington general manager Kim Parker said in the statement. “We are as deeply saddened as our fans. However, that does not mean baseball is over in Burlington. We are continuing to work to form a partnership with Major League Baseball to provide Southeast Iowa and Western Illinois with the summer tradition that area individuals and families have grown accustomed to for decades.”

The Clinton LumberKings were the last remaining charter member of the Midwest League. They said they should have an announcement of their future plans in the near future.

“We have been doing extensive work and are considering several options for the future of the LumberKings franchise,” Clinton general manager Ted Tornow said in a statement. “We will announce our plans for the franchise in the very near future, but our great fans can rest assured that there will be baseball played at NelsonCorp Field in 2021 and beyond. We are working with MLB on making sure that Clinton has baseball in the future. We will have a different relationship with MLB moving forward.”

“MLB’s announcement, while disappointing, does not signify the end of baseball in Clinton,” Tornow said. “We want to thank our loyal fans for all of their support and encouragement since the news broke that we may lose affiliated ball in Clinton. We know what this team means to this community and we look forward to coming back better than ever in 2021.”

The full list of teams that did not receive invites includes 11 full-season teams:

Double-A: Jackson Generals (Southern), Trenton Thunder (Eastern)

High Class A: Charlotte Stone Crabs (Florida State), Florida Fire Frogs (Florida State), Frederick Keys (Carolina)

Low Class A: Burlington Bees (Midwest), Clinton LumberKings (Midwest), Hagerstown Suns (South Atlantic), Lexington Legends (South Atlantic), Kane County Cougars (Midwest), West Virginia Power (South Atlantic)

The final invite in the low Class A California League has as of yet not been extended by MLB. It will either go to Fresno, which would be moving down from the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, or Lancaster, which is already in the California League.

Trenton and Frederick are going to be part of the MLB Draft League, a summer amateur wood bat league.

The short-season/rookie ball clubs that did not receive invitations are:

Appalachian League: Bluefield, Bristol, Burlington, Danville, Elizabethton, Greeneville, Johnson City, Kingsport, Princeton and Pulaski.

Pioneer League: Billings, Grand Junction, Great Falls, Idaho Falls, Missoula, Ogden, Northern Colorado (formerly Orem) and Rocky Mountain.

Northwest League: Boise and Salem-Keizer.

New York-Penn League: Auburn, Batavia, Norwich, Lowell, Mahoning Valley, State College, Staten Island, Tri-City, Vermont, West Virginia and Williamsport.

All Appalachian League clubs have agreed to participate in a new summer amateur wood bat league.

All Pioneer League clubs have agreed to participate in a new professional partner league. Boise has also joined the Pioneer League’s new partner league.

Four New York-Penn League clubs (Mahoning Valley, State College, West Virginia and Williamsport) have agreed to participate in the MLB Draft League, a new summer amateur wood bat league.

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