Let The Madness Begin

Surprises start early, with news Blue Jays are leaving Appalachian League

See also: Affiliation Status of Every Minor League Team 

Before the affiliation shuffle has officially gotten under way, a major alteration could be taking place in the Appalachian League.

The Blue Jays have notified the league that they won't be back in Pulaski next year, and they apparently intend to drop to five affiliates next season, rather than the conventional six.

Yankees Eye Scranton
Teams are about to find out who's available on the affiliation market, and it looks like one of the big prizes has already been claimed.

Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, which started this season with the bad news that it would be losing its longtime Phillies affiliation, will come out smelling like a rose by grabbing the Yankees as its new major league partner.

Major and minor league teams have notified their central offices and each other of their intentions to seek new affiliates, and teams will get the list of who's available today. They can start signing new deals tomorrow.

But local media in Scranton are already reporting that the Red Barons already have a deal in place. The Times Leader of Wilkes-Barre quoted one New York source saying: "The Yankees are definitely coming to Scranton."

While there's no official word on that yet, the Columbus Clippers are preparing for life without the Yankees, who have been their affiliate since 1979.

"We are excited about the prospects of Huntington Park and the future of professional baseball in Columbus," team president and general manager Ken Schnacke said. "The Yankees have been a great partner, and while the door is open for them to return, we are committed to partnering with any major league organization that shares our excitement for professional baseball in Columbus."

Triple-A could see several interesting changes this offseason, with longtime affiliations potentially ending in Scranton, Columbus and Norfolk as well. The Phillies had been with Scranton since 1989, while the Mets have been in Norfolk since 1969.

A potential new affiliate for Norfolk would be the nearby Washington Nationals, who will be leaving New Orleans after two seasons there.

The Phillies will sign an affiliation agreement with Ottawa, which will play one more season in Canada before moving to a new ballpark in Allentown, Pa., for the 2008 season.
That leaves the Appy League to look for another major league organization to come in and take the Blue Jays' place.

"They have shown their intent to leave Pulaski, and we are exploring options to replace them," league president Lee Landers said. "One is good and two are bad."

The good one is simply finding another major league team to take the Blue Jays' place. But that's more complicated than it seems. All the franchises in the Appy League are owned by major league teams, and the Professional Baseball Agreement allows Major League Baseball to expand or contract the league at its discretion. In that way, the Appy League is like the complex-based Arizona and Gulf Coast leagues.

All other minor leagues establish their affiliations through player-development contracts, the documents that teams are in the process of signing now.  MLB guarantees affiliations for those 160 minor league teams, and its rules prohibit a team from leaving one of those leagues in order to add a team in the Appy League.

The Blue Jays aren't adding an affiliate anywhere, so there won't be a domino effect that will push a team into the Appy League. So the only way for the league to replace the Blue Jays would be for an organization to add an affiliate or replace a complex-based team with one in the Appy League.

"Our focus right now is to find another club to go into Pulaski," Landers said. "We have clubs that want to come into the league, but they're not in a position to add an affiliate."

If the league can't replace the Blue Jays, the less palatable options come into play: operating a co-op club in Pulaski, or playing with just nine teams. The co-op situation, in which a number of major league clubs would supply players for Pulaski, is more attractive to Landers than going back to nine teams.

"The worst-case scenario is playing with nine clubs," he said. "To me, that's unacceptable."

Landers considers that idea unacceptable because it would mean an empty stadium in Pulaski, where the city has put more than $750,000 into ballpark improvements over the last decade.

"I think there is a credibility issue here," he said. "We have made improvements throughout our league, so these cities deserve to have teams."

Interestingly, Pulaski returned to the Appy League a decade ago to help out MLB, which faced a shortage of affiliates after the expansion involving the Devil Rays and Diamondbacks. The Rangers were squeezed out in the affiliation shuffle following the 1996 season, so the league returned to Pulaski to give the Rangers another affiliate. The move also benefited the league because it operated with nine teams in 1996, after the franchise in Huntington, W.Va., folded. The Blue Jays replaced the Rangers in 2003.

Since Pulaski has returned to the league, the team has responded to every request for stadium improvements and had more planned, including a renovation of the visitors clubhouse.

"They have done a first-class job with everything," Landers said. "They have bent over backwards, and not only have done everything asked of them but have added to it."

Landers was on a conference call with farm directors who have teams in the league and officials from MLB on Thursday to talk about the Blue Jays leaving and what can be done about it.

"Pulaski deserves to have a team, so I hope we can find a solution," one farm director said.

Officials from Pulaski, the Blue Jays and MLB did not immediately return phone calls.

The Appy League has already gone through one change this offseason, with the Royals replacing the Indians in Burlington. The Indians are dropping from seven affiliates to six, while the Royals want to move up to seven.