Buffalo, Rochester Consider New Affiliates

International League Franchises Are Ready To Win Again

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See also: Projecting The Affiliation Shuffle For Every Minor League Team

The dash for Bud Selig's newly-minted wild-card spots won't be the only race taking place in September, as several major league teams will also vie for minor league affiliations when the bi-annual shuffle kicks off. The tightest competition appears to be for the final spots in the International League.

Just two International League franchises were left with expiring player development contracts (the agreement that binds major league teams with minor league franchises) after the Phillies extended their deal four years with the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs in late July. The Buffalo Bisons (currently affiliated with the Mets) and Rochester Red Wings (Twins) remain up for grabs and both franchises desperately seek the same thing: a winning team.

Most minor league executives contend that the action on the field is secondary to the experience in the stands and that building an affordable, family friendly atmosphere will always trump a 10-game winning streak. Buffalo and Rochester executives don't dismiss that thinking, but insist that winning means more to their fan base than in most minor league markets. That lack of success has opened the door to the possibility of a change for the Red Wings and Bisons, and that chance will come on Sept. 16, when the 15-day open period begins for minor league franchises to negotiate two- or four-year contracts with unattached affiliates.

One team on the outside hoping to get into the International League is the Blue Jays, who have spent the past four years in Las Vegas (Pacific Coast League) after its 34-year relationship with Syracuse came to an end following the 2008 season. As BA co-editor in chief Will Lingo wrote recently, Buffalo has promise as a Blue Jays affiliate. Coca-Cola Field is closer to Rogers Centre than Citi Field, and a partnership between Toronto and Buffalo could lead to the cross-promotional opportunities Bisons' management envisioned when the franchise beat out Syracuse for the Mets affiliation after the 2008 season. The Bisons had high hopes for creating a regional partnership with the Mets, and the team achieved some of those goals by broadcasting a half-dozen of its games each season on the Mets' SNY Network.

But the expected attendance spike at Buffalo's Coca-Cola Field has not materialized. In fact, the opposite has taken place. Average attendance has dipped from 8,812 in Buffalo's final season with the Indians in 2008 to 7,784 last season. The outlook isn't much brighter this year. As much of the sport is experiencing a renaissance at the gate after three years of declining attendance, Buffalo is averaging just 6,979 fans. Its overall attendance of 383,861 is on pace for the lowest in Coca-Cola Field's 25-year history.

The problem isn't with the affiliation, Buffalo vice president/general manager Mike Buczkowski said, but rather the team's performance on the field. In other words, Bisons fans are tired of rooting for a loser.

"Buffalo is a little different than some minor league teams," Buczkowski said. "Our two other pro teams are major league teams. I think we know winning and losing is a little more important to our fans than in some other places. I think people come to a Bisons game and they cheer just like when they go to a Bills or Sabres game . . . 

"Sure, there are fans who come to see the young pitching prospect or a player on a rehab assignment or a guy on another team that is a high-profile guy. But I think in this city, there has been a deep connection to the pro sports teams. It is an identity for a lot of people. The fact that neither of the (major league) teams has won a Super Bowl or a Stanley Cup sticks with people, and I think that carries over to our games. We have casual fans as well, but I think it just matters more to people in Buffalo."

The Bisons kicked off their era as a Mets affiliate in 2009 by posting the International League's worst record (56-87) and finishing 26 games out of first place in the North Division. They improved to 76-68 in 2010 (11 1/2 games back) but dipped to 61-82 last season (third-worst in the IL) and 20 1/2 games out of first. That left the Bisons 193-237 entering this season, one in which Buffalo hosted the Triple-A all-star game and the Mets focused on fielding a better team—top prospect Zack Wheeler moved up to Buffalo when No. 2 pitching prospect Matt Harvey was promoted to the big leagues in late July. But Buffalo still sat two games under .500 and six out of the wild-card race with 30 games remaining.

Buczkowski could not comment on the possibility of the Blue Jays coming to town, as Minor League Baseball rules prohibit teams from negotiating with another franchise's affiliate until the open period begins. And while the veteran Buffalo official, who has risen from media relations director to GM during his 26 years in Buffalo, believes the Mets have sent more prospects their way this season, he notes that fielding a winning team is critical to the franchise staying relevant late in the summer.

"The wins and losses have not been where we hoped they would be, and I'm sure it's not where (the Mets) hoped their Triple-A team would be at," Buczkowski said. "In a town like ours, the Bills are always going to dominate the headlines this time of year. We're always looking for ways to keep the Bisons on top of fans' minds, and I think winning is the best way to do that."

Winning Counts In Rochester

Rochester has experience sending a losing affiliate packing.

The Red Wings raised a generation of Orioles fans during their 41 years as Baltimore's Triple-A affiliate. But when the "Orioles Way" was replaced with five consecutive losing seasons, Rochester cut Baltimore loose and teamed up with the Twins after the 2002 season.

So is Rochester likely to do the same thing with Minnesota, whose Triple-A club posted consecutive 90-loss seasons entering this year?

Not necessarily, says Red Wings president Naomi Silver. Rochester's fall out with the Orioles was about more than just losing, she said. The Red Wings believed Baltimore had taken them for granted and cut off virtually all communication in their final years together.

The Twins have taken the opposite approach, Silver said. They replaced manager Tom Nieto (who went 102-186 in two seasons with Red Wings while rubbing fans and local media the wrong way) with Minnesota native and former big league coach Gene Glynn. In addition, Twins top brass, from general manager Terry Ryan to farm director Jim Rantz, have been regulars at Rochester's Frontier Field this season.

"Our situation with the Twins is nothing like it was with the Orioles in those final years," Silver said. "One of the comforting things with the Twins is the communication they have with us, which is ongoing and regular. And they are in Rochester seeing the ballclub.

"When those final days of the Orioles came, it was as though we didn't have any relationship at all at that point. We didn't feel as if there was any communication and they weren't concerned enough with their minor league system at all. We don't feel that way—in fact we feel quite the opposite—with the Twins."

Silver's endorsement aside, not everything is hunky-dory with the Twins and Red Wings. And like Buffalo, it all comes down to victories—or the lack of them.

The Red Wings (59-57) are hoping a late-season run can push them into the playoffs for the first time since 2006. Rochester has posted winning records in five of their nine seasons with the Twins and reached the Governor's Cup final in 2006, when Mike Hessman belted five homers to lift the Mud Hens past the Red Wings in five games.

But Rochester hasn't had a winning season since 2008, when it went 74-70, and has been the worst team in Triple-A the past two seasons. How the Twins plan to improve will be at the center of their discussions with Rochester over the next few weeks, Silver said. It could also determine whether they remain in Rochester.

"(Winning) means quite a lot," Silver said. "I guess I have to feel confident going forward that there is a real understanding of how important it is to us . . .

"We have delayed talking to the Twins about the affiliation. We're just waiting until a bit later in the season. We've always felt pretty confident in the Twins' ability and comfortable with the relationship there. They know how important it is to us to win games and they really have tried to put a season together for us here. And we have had more success in the last couple of months and it has improved . . . I am reluctant to say where I think we are right now."

Where To?

The secretive nature of the affiliation shuffle leaves plenty of room for speculation. So with that in mind, let's hypothesize how the International League may shape up next season (remember, this is just an exercise).

Considering how the Red Wings are playing down the stretch and Minnesota's courting of Rochester this season, let's assume the Red Wings give the Twins two more years to turn things around. Let's also portend that the rumors coming out of Toronto and Buffalo are accurate and that the Blue Jays do displace the Mets.
That means the Mets—the darlings of the affiliation shuffle just four years ago—are headed to the Pacific Coast League. But just how far west are the Mets headed?

Seven PCL franchises have PDCs expiring after this season: Albuquerque (Dodgers), Fresno (Giants), Las Vegas (Blue Jays), Memphis (Cardinals), Nashville (Brewers), New Orleans (Marlins) and Oklahoma City (Astros).

However, that list is a bit misleading, as several of these clubs are likely to renew with their big league affiliate and not be available when the affiliation shuffle starts in September. Albuquerque certainly wants to be a part of the Dodgers revival and Isotopes Park is among the best venues in the PCL. Fresno has been with the Giants since 1998 and is a good geographic match for San Francisco. Memphis is in the heart of Cardinals country.

So that leaves four franchises as potential destinations for the Mets, and even within that group, some spots are less likely than others: Nashville has been a Brewers affiliate since 2005 and Tucson is currently owned by former Padres CEO Jeff Moorad and appears on its way to El Paso, Texas, in the next couple of years.
By reason of hypothetical deduction, the two likeliest landing spots for the Mets would be Las Vegas (which will be vacant after the Blue Jays leave town) and Oklahoma City (which really would be a best-case scenario for New York considering Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark is among the best in the PCL).

The RedHawks have been affiliated with the Astros since 2011, when Nolan Ryan kicked Houston out of Round Rock to line up with his recently purchased Rangers. Mandalay Baseball purchased the Oklahoma City franchise late last season, and considering the corporate ownership group's penchant for making a splash, affiliating with the big-market Mets seems like a natural.

If not Oklahoma City, then the Mets will likely head to Las Vegas, which plays at outdated Cashman Field and may very well be the last team standing in the Triple-A version of musical chairs.