Based on multiple media reports, it seems certain that the 2021 minor league season — if there is one — will look very different than it did in 2019.
Major League Baseball’s agreement with Minor League Baseball ends this winter, and Baseball America and others have reported that MLB is intent on not making a new agreement to continue the partnership, but taking direct control of MiLB and drastically cutting costs.
The unfortunate reality is that this means that at least 40 minor league cities will lose their affiliated teams, meaning no more Cardinals prospects playing in Johnson City, Tennessee; no more Giants prospects playing in Keizer, Oregon; and, yes, no more Nationals prospects playing in Hagerstown, Maryland.
A “kill list” of 42 minor league teams facing the axe was leaked and widely publicized last November, although Baseball America has reported the list has changed significantly since then — with the result being that some teams that believed they were safe are now targeted for de-affiliation.
Some of the teams on that list are obvious cuts. The Hagerstown Suns draw fewer than 1,000 fans per game and play in a subpar facility that’s well off the beaten path for most of the teams in its league. The Appalachian League already exists at the mercy of MLB and is a collection of generally low-drawing teams in small markets and elderly facilities, so — aside from the Pulaski Yankees, which do draw well, have a nice ballpark, and could fit geographically into a league with other Virginia teams — it’s toast. Ditto the Pioneer League, and much of the New York-Penn League.
In fact, it’s considered prohibitively likely that short-season play will be eliminated altogether in the affiliated minors. Baseball America has reported the 2021 draft will be held in mid-July rather than June, pointing to exactly that likelihood. (Reports suggest the Northwest League, although facing cuts, will be promoted to full-season status rather than axed like the Appalachian, Pioneer, and NYP leagues.)
Here’s just one possible, purely speculative alignment:
Here’s the rundown:
Triple-A now consists of three leagues instead of two, with a third league based in the Old South.
Additionally, the three teams in West Coast states have been demoted from Triple-A to lower levels. That would make the name of the Pacific Coast League even less apropos than it currently is (the league, as constructed, extends as far east as Nashville).
For the sake of simplicity, we will call these three leagues the Western League, the Old South League, and the International League.
The Western League stretches as far west as Reno, Nevada, and as far east as Des Moines, Iowa. It’s a twelve-team league that would probably be split into three four-team divisions, which would look something like:
- Reno, Las Vegas, Salt Lake, Albuquerque
- El Paso, San Antonio, Round Rock, Oklahoma City
- Wichita, Omaha, Kansas City, Iowa
No, we haven’t demoted the Royals to Triple-A! Reports indicate that a number of independent league teams may join the affiliated minors as part of realignment, and with the Kansas City T-Bones struggling to pay their bills and the Kansas City Royals apparently dissatisfied enough with longtime Triple-A affiliate Omaha to seek a different alternate training site, we are predicting that the agreement between the T-Bones and Royals to host the minor league site this season will evolve into a player development agreement for 2021 and beyond.
Another possibility is that the St. Paul Saints become the Triple-A affiliate of the Twins. While the Saints, like the T-Bones, are providing an alternate training site this season, and Baseball America has reported the possibility of them being invited into the affiliated minors, team brass have been coy about their interest in extending that partnership. If that were to happen, though, it could mean either that the Royals stick with their Omaha arrangement or that another city (perhaps Wichita, which has yet to host a Triple-A game since taking over as the Marlins’ top affiliate from New Orleans after the 2019 season) is left on the outside looking in.
Old South League
The Old South League consists of teams in Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia, a compact group of states. It is an eight-team league likely with two divisions:
- Gwinnett, Nashville, Memphis, Louisville
- Norfolk, Richmond, Durham, Charlotte
Here’s where the Nats land with their Triple-A team: Richmond, which is promoted from Double-A under this realignment and drops its affiliation with the Giants, which instead take a somewhat closer team location in Wichita. Richmond previously hosted a Triple-A team and could almost certainly support one again.
The rest of these teams are pulled in either from the current Pacific Coast League or the International League. Creating this new league minimizes travel and keeps each team’s top minor leaguers close at hand.
The International League is essentially Triple-A teams in the Northeast plus Ohio and Indiana. Despite its name, it remains a U.S.-only league, although Buffalo (currently hosting the Blue Jays for the season) is still a Toronto affiliate. It’s a ten-team league, and the only way to do a ten-team league is with two divisions of five:
- Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Worcester
- Indianapolis, Toledo, Columbus, Lehigh Valley, Bowie
With their 10,000-capacity stadium, Bowie BaySox move up from Double-A, the third of the new additions to the Triple-A ranks to replace demoted Tacoma, Sacramento, and Fresno. The Southern quintet of Norfolk, Louisville, Durham, Charlotte, and Gwinnett move to the Old South League. That’s pretty much it for the changes here.
Double-A is a three-league setup, as it is at present, but with the California League taking the place of the Southern League, which moves down a level.
The revised Eastern League has been slimmed down by a pair of teams and done some trading with other leagues. With ten teams, again expect two divisions of five, something like:
- Altoona, Harrisburg, Reading, Erie, Bowie
- Trenton, Brooklyn, Hartford, New Hampshire, Portland
It’s generally believed that Mets affiliate Brooklyn will move up to Double-A, so at least one team is likely to be cut. And the independent Somerset Patriots have been mentioned as a possible minor league affiliate of the Yankees, leaving Trenton in search of a dance partner. But Bowie and Richmond move up to Triple-A, and Akron drops down to the Midwest League, so either another team must be added or one must be cut to make the number of teams even. Ultimately, we give Binghamton the axe.
There are a few other possibilities here as well. When last year’s list was leaked, Erie was on the chopping block, but team executive are hoping that stadium improvements being done this year are enough to convince MLB to give them a reprieve. Binghamton, the other team on the block, has less going for it, with an old ballpark that has seen better days, a smaller market, and a Mets affiliation that won’t help it. Still, the New York congressional delegation does have some clout and has urged MLB to reconsider. Expect this one could go either way.
Harrisburg, the Double-A affiliate of the Nats for many years, is not believed to be in any danger, although its facility does have the unfortunate tendency to flood every so often.
They say everything is bigger in Texas, and the Texas League is actually growing under this alignment plan. It becomes a ten-team league as well, likely with these two divisions:
- Arkansas, Northwest Arkansas, Tulsa, Springfield, Mississippi
- Amarillo, Corpus Christi, Frisco, Midland, Sugar Land
The two additions come from different places. One is the independent Sugar Land Skeeters, generally expected to be on track to join the affiliated minors. The other is the Mississippi Braves, who slide over to the Texas League as the Southern League shrinks.
The name of this league remains a misnomer, with only half of its teams actually based in the state of Texas and the rest in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and now Mississippi.
The California League, freshly promoted to Double-A, also picks up a pair of new teams to become a ten-team league. The two divisions could look like this:
- Sacramento, Stockton, Modesto, San Jose, Fresno
- Visalia, Lancaster, Inland Empire, Lake Elsinore, Rancho Cucamonga
The geography of this league is a little tricky, with Fresno and Visalia closer to one another than they are to any other team. Ultimately, Fresno goes to the north and Visalia goes to the south.
Needless to say, the Nats’ affiliation with Fresno would end with just one season played as Washington’s Triple-A team. Fresno was mentioned as a candidate to be demoted to the California League last year, but at least under this plan, it 1) only drops down one level and 2) takes archrival Sacramento with it.
High-A remains under this plan, although there have been rumblings that MLB could shave down the minors to just 90 teams and merge the A-ball levels. That seems unlikely, so we assume it stays. It’s comprised of three leagues that aren’t currently at the High-A level at all.
What we’ll call the Mid-Atlantic League is effectively an amalgamation of the current South Atlantic, Carolina, New York-Penn, and Appalachian leagues. It’s an eight-team league with clubs in Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and Virginia, so it’s geographically tight. Its two divisions could look like this:
- Lakewood, Wilmington, Aberdeen, Delmarva
- Frederick, Fredericksburg, Salem, Pulaski
Here’s the anatomy: Wilmington, Frederick, Fredericksburg, and Salem come from the Carolina League. Lakewood and Delmarva come from the South Atlantic League. Aberdeen is rescued from the New York-Penn League, which is otherwise eliminated under this plan. Ditto Pulaski from the Appalachian League. Both of those teams become full-season affiliates after previously playing in short-season ball.
Frederick, infamously, was one of the more head-scratching inclusions on the “kill list” from last year. As the Carolina League’s reigning top draw, we’re assuming MLB sees the light and keeps it around. However, since the Orioles seem unlikely to break their affiliation with Cal Ripken Jr.’s club in Aberdeen, it will need a new major league patron, and the next most obvious candidate, the Nats, are committed to their new affiliate in Fredericksburg.
If Frederick is indeed cut from the affiliated minors — and it’s worth acknowledging its home ballpark is aging and hasn’t been renovated — another possibility here would be the West Virginia Black Bears. They weren’t on the original leaked list, but they face the serious challenge of having to share a ballpark with West Virginia University as a full-season team. The other West Virginia team, the West Virginia Power (based in Charleston), was on the kill list and draws poorly, but it would be another possibility. (Politically, it may be difficult for MLB to abandon West Virginia altogether.) Yet one more possibility would be to bring Lake County over from the Midwest League; that team used to play in the South Atlantic League, although it’s a stretch geographically to say the least, especially with no teams in West Virginia.
The Midwest League is promoted from Low-A under this plan. Fourteen teams are in this league, which has changed its shape somewhat while slimming down from sixteen. Fourteen is a tough number for a league, but we’d expect to see two divisions of seven, something like:
- Beloit, Cedar Rapids, Wisconsin, Schaumburg, Quad Cities, Kane County, Peoria
- West Michigan, Lansing, Great Lakes, Fort Wayne, South Bend, Dayton, Akron
This league seems like a major wild card, because it’s geographically pretty spread out in its current form, it’s one of MiLB’s largest associations at sixteen teams at present, and its territory overlaps with several successful independent league franchises.
This season, the Schaumburg Boomers are hosting the alternate training site for the White Sox, and as with the Kansas City/Kansas City connection, we think that could translate into a minor league affiliation. Schaumburg is one of the top draws in all of indy ball and would be a good “get” for the White Sox, since it’s right next door.
Three Iowa-based teams — Burlington, Clinton, and Quad Cities — were marked for de-affiliation on last year’s leaked list. We’ve given the one closest to the rest of the league’s clubs, Quad Cities, a reprieve while axing the former two teams.
Bowling Green moves to the Southern League; it’s a shorter drive to Sevierville, Tennessee, than it is to its closest Midwest League neighbors. Akron drops down from the Eastern League; that means bad news for the aforementioned Lake County, which is in a smaller market, a smaller stadium, has lower attendance, and shares Akron’s affiliation with Cleveland.
Those changes mean this league gets somewhat more compact, although not by a ton, with Cedar Rapids and Akron standing as its westernmost and easternmost extremities, respectively.
The Southern League is demoted from Double-A in what really amounts to a numbers game. It’s been reduced to an eight-team league, likely with two divisions:
- Tennessee, Bowling Green, Rocket City, Birmingham
- Montgomery, Biloxi, Pensacola, Jacksonville
The Southern League has picked up Bowling Green from the Midwest League, but it’s lost Mississippi to the Texas League, and stalwarts Chattanooga and Jackson (both on the leaked list) are gone.
This league shares some geographic awkwardness with the California League, with Birmingham and Montgomery being fairly close together but one ultimately lumped in with the northern tier and the other with the southern tier. Losing Jackson and Mississippi means the league’s geographic center moves to the east; it’s not a dramatic shift, but every little bit helps.
Low-A rounds things out as the lowest level now, with Short Season-A and the non-complex Rookie level gone. It’s also a three-league setup.
South Atlantic League
The South Atlantic League still exists, but it’s sort of merged with the Carolina League and has definitely shifted to the south. It stays at a fourteen-team size, which means those awkward seven-team divisions again, maybe something like this:
- Asheville, Winston-Salem, Hickory, Rome, Augusta, Greenville, Kannapolis
- Greensboro, Carolina, Down East, Fayetteville, Myrtle Beach, Columbia, Charleston
This is a tricky one, because the Carolina and South Atlantic leagues have a number of clubs that underperform in terms of attendance or are big geographic outliers, yet are unlikely to go anywhere.
Although they draw terribly, Hickory and Down East are both owned directly by the Texas Rangers; we assume that with a new focus on geographic compactness to reduce travel time, the Rangers will need to sell one of those franchises as they move into the same league. MLB would likely get some complaints from Rangers ownership if they devalued one or both of those clubs by cutting them from the affiliated model.
Rome is in a similar position, but its awkwardness stems more from being well outside the rest of the teams’ geographic area. Every other team in this grouping is in North or South Carolina or, in the case of Augusta, right on the border of South Carolina. Rome is all the way across Georgia from Augusta. But it’s owned directly by the Atlanta Braves, so the chances that it will be de-affiliated are nil.
So we’re left with some different changes. Officially, it’s the South Division teams from the Carolina League that join the South Atlantic League here: Carolina, Down East, Fayetteville, Myrtle Beach, and Winston-Salem. In exchange, five teams exit the South Atlantic League.
Nats-affiliated Hagerstown is an obvious cut for reasons aforementioned. Geographic outliers West Virginia and Lexington, which lack Rome’s ownership connection, are also facing the axe because it’s just too awkward to fit them into this league, even though they play in nice stadiums and Lexington draws well. Delmarva and Lakewood move into the new Mid-Atlantic League.
The odd team out ends up being Lynchburg of the Carolina League, which is a geographic outlier and a relatively poor draw in a small, elderly ballpark.
While predicting affiliations at this point is basically just throwing darts, we’ve given the Nats a new affiliation with Columbia, currently a farm team of the Mets. That’s because the Mets are already committed to another affiliate at this level, in the demoted Florida State League.
The Northwest League stays at eight teams as it moves into full-season play, the only short-season league to survive. It remains at two divisions, something like:
- Vancouver, Spokane, Everett, Tacoma
- Hillsboro, Eugene, Boise, Idaho Falls
Salem-Keizer and Tri-City have by far the worst attendance in the Northwest League, and they play in aging, substandard ballparks. They were on last year’s list and there is no reason to believe anything has changed for them.
But while a six-team Northwest League has been bandied about in other possible realignment scenarios, we don’t see how it works out. The Pacific Northwest is a sizable geographic area — Oregon alone is the ninth-largest state in the country — and with just six teams, two of them (Spokane and Boise) well removed from the rest of the league and not particularly close to one another, that would be a difficult schedule with a lot of travel time involved.
Instead, Tacoma drops out of the Triple-A ranks all the way to Low-A, and Idaho Falls is rescued from the eliminated Pioneer League.
Tacoma is one of the oldest continuously operating baseball teams on the West Coast, but it has by far the smallest seating capacity in Triple-A at just 6,500, smaller than two current Northwest League ballparks, and it’s a huge geographic outlier even in the sprawling Pacific Coast League. It would be a shame to eliminate it altogether, so it makes sense to bring it into the reformed full-season Northwest League — although it sets up an awkward situation for their parent club, the Mariners, who already enjoy a nearby affiliate in Everett.
As for Idaho Falls, it gets the nod with a ballpark that’s less than 15 years old and is considered one of the nicest facilities in the league. Missoula is also a possibility here; it’s closer to Spokane, and while its ballpark is a few years older, it has a slightly larger crowd capacity. However, Idaho Falls has significantly better attendance; Missoula actually under-draws both Salem-Keizer and Tri-City, which would harm the argument for de-affiliating them.
Regardless, the geographic configuration of this league is awkward. For one, it’s the only league that still has passport controls to deal with, since Vancouver is the only MiLB team based in Canada. For another, it’s tough to get around the vast distances of the Pacific Northwest, where population centers simply are not very close together, especially in the expanse that lies between the Cascade Range and the Rocky Mountains.
There’s no easy fix for this, but one long-shot idea would be to keep Tri-City and instead cut Eugene.
Although it wasn’t on the leaked “kill list”, Eugene shares a ballpark with the University of Oregon and will face the same scheduling nightmare that awaits the West Virginia Black Bears if they survive the jump to full-season play. Although Eugene significantly outdraws Tri-City, it will have the worst of it as play begins in rainy April instead of sunny June — a dilemma that Tri-City, based in arid Pasco, Washington, will largely avoid.
Cutting Eugene would allow a west/east alignment that would mean far less travel, with the western tier (Hillsboro, Tacoma, Everett, Vancouver) all situated along the I-5 corridor and the eastern grouping (Tri-City, Spokane, Boise, Idaho Falls) still quite far-flung but at least all on the same side of the Cascades.
Florida State League
Finally, we have the Florida State League, which endures in spite of torturous summer weather, terrible attendance records, and scheduling difficulties out the wazoo. Why? Because league play almost exclusively takes place at shiny spring training ballparks directly owned by MLB clubs, so the overhead costs are substantially lower. The revamped league has eight teams (two of which share a ballpark) in probably two divisions:
- Bradenton, Charlotte, Clearwater, Tampa
- St. Lucie, Jupiter, Fort Myers, Palm Beach
There’s not much to love about the Florida State League, which in shifting down to the lowest level of the affiliated minors becomes essentially, for the prospects of the eight MLB teams involved in it, a glorified version of complex play in the Gulf Coast League.
For one, the geography is screwy with really no way of fixing it. Daytona is marked for de-affiliation and is just about a slam dunk to go, since it’s way far away from the other teams in the league and plays in an ancient, non-complex ballpark; however, while it’s well to the north, it’s also the only team on the Atlantic coast other than the Jupiter and Palm Beach teams (which share Roger Dean Stadium) and the Mets’ affiliate St. Lucie. That means to make a four-team division work, those three remaining Atlantic teams need to be paired with a team on the Gulf Coast — in this case the southernmost of those, Fort Myers.
Of course, with Daytona gone, the other three cuts are sort of picked out of a hat, although there’s some logic to each of them. The Florida Fire Frogs in Kissimmee were also on last year’s list, so they’re gone. Even by the standards of the Florida State League, Lakeland consistently draws abysmal “crowds”, so it’s gone. And Dunedin is pinched because unless top-drawing Vancouver in the Northwest League is either de-affiliated or promoted into a league where it would be a huge geographical outlier, Toronto is pretty much set with a team at the Low-A level; so Dunedin is gone.
If nothing else, at least the Florida State League gets a little more compact, the experience for players becomes a little less embarrassing without having to play in front of a few dozen people whenever they’re in Lakeland, and the league moves down to a level more befitting its woebegone status.
This scenario has 44 existing MiLB teams losing their affiliated status, and four independent teams becoming affiliated. Those teams are: the Kansas City T-Bones, the Somerset Patriots, the Sugar Land Skeeters, and the Schaumburg Boomers.
There are 120 teams under this configuration, with each MLB team having one affiliate at each of four levels. All of these teams play full seasons of baseball rather than starting in different months.
As under the current minor league system, all but one affiliated minor league team (not counting the Dominican Summer League) is located in the United States, with the exception being just across the border into Canada.
Every region of the United States still has some geographic representation, although in the case of the sparsely populated Mountain West and Appalachia, it’s tenuous as their leagues have been eliminated. Choosing to keep Missoula over Idaho Falls and/or one of the West Virginia teams over Frederick would help in this department, and those are possibilities under a plan similar to this one.
The Nats’ affiliates are in Richmond (Triple-A), Harrisburg (Double-A), Fredericksburg (High-A), and Columbia (Low-A). Two of those are existing partnerships and two of those are plausible-seeming guesses.
We’ve still got a few more weeks to wait before we know which teams are “in” and which teams are “out” of the official minor league realignment plan. For now, this seems like as good a guess as any, although it almost certainly won’t be completely accurate and may or may not even be close.