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What is behind the proposed MiLB contraction?

The outrage to MLB’s proposal to cut down the number of MiLB’s affiliated clubs was clear from the moment it was announced. MiLB team owners saw mixed messages, including no clear direction of what deficiencies MLB found with their affiliates, uncertainty regarding what would happen with debts already acquired to update stadiums and requirements for settling bond issues already consummated with local governments. As an example, NYC paid over $70 million to build the ballpark on Staten Island. There is also the obvious problem of owners losing a team and their investments in an organization.

The reaction of the fans was no less angry. Already reeling from cheating scandals, fans saw the move as a tone-deaf attempt from MLB to be greedy, which is not entirely wrong, and close down cheap alternatives to watch quality baseball. Many fans are already angry about blackout rules and MLB’s restrictions on sharing content compared to other professional sports leagues. To these fans, it only justified the anger. Manfred, in his habit of only making it worse, then sharply criticized minor league teams for complaining and later threatened to disaffiliate with MiLB altogether.

It’s important to point out, however, that this is just a proposal in negotiations. MLB may get everything they demand, nothing, or most likely somewhere in the middle between now and the beginning of the 2021 season. MiLB does have some leverage with the reaction of the fans, possible legal action, and response from Congress led by presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

The proposal

The primary changes in how the minor leagues are to change were the brainchild of the Houston Astros, called the “Houston Plan,” and are as follows:

  • 42 minor league teams would lose their affiliation. It includes 26% of the teams, although they would be free to join independent leagues. Unfortunately, the teams have an unfortunate history of financial success. People want to watch players they believe may play in the major leagues at some point, not a character from Eastbound and Down. The proposed reduction is from 160 to 118.
  • Four advanced rookie leagues and short-season A leagues would be eliminated. These include the New York-Penn League, Northwest, Pioneer, and Appalachian leagues. The Gulf Coast League and the Arizona League would still remain as they are “team complex” leagues. MLB owns these teams, have the lowest of prospects, and does not sell tickets nor concessions.
  • Surviving teams from the defunct rookie and short-season leagues would change levels to full-season A or higher level.
  • The proposal moves the draft to August, and drafted players would not play until the next season. Instead, they would remain at the team complexes the remaining of the first year and learn the intricacies of analytics.
  • Organizational rosters would be limited to 150 players, cutting minor league players by approximately 2,500.

One of the perceived problems of this plan is that minor league owners have no idea what criteria MLB is using. On the one hand, the Pulaski Yankees would be the only Appalachian League team to survive and move up to A ball. They have an updated stadium and double the attendance of other teams in the league. On the other hand, the Frederick Keys are the only Carolina League team proposed to get the ax even though they led the league in attendance.

Cutting travel is also a stated factor for the proposal. Similar to the other reasons given, some of these make sense toward achieving the stated goal, and others do not. Personally, losing the PONY/NY-Penn league hurts the most as I spent the first 25 years of my life within easy driving distance of the Little Falls Mets, Oneonta Yankees, and Utica Blue Sox. I was able to watch the likes of Dwight Gooden make one of his two Little Falls starts along with Wally Backman, Larry Walker in Utica, and Donnie Baseball in Oneonta. Around since 1939, the league will be eliminated with the surviving teams joining the proposed defunct South Atlantic League to create a Mid-Atlantic League. Having a team from Albany, NY, play teams in the south seems to be a mixed message.

As a carrot, although a rotten one, MLB has also proposed a “Dream League” in addition to other unaffiliated leagues. It would consist of some of the contracted teams using undrafted local players who did not make an affiliated roster. Although technically a MLB/MiLB joint venture, no legitimate MLB commitment, and no MLB money almost definitely mean no future for the member teams.

The real reason? Blame the Astros

As stated previously, the Astros are behind the proposal, and the most likely reason behind it is analytics. Old style scout-based evaluation and the eyeball test are now seen as all but obsolete. Players at the lowest levels will go through an extensive analytics process, teams will determine very quickly their ability to improve into a major league player, and they will “cut the fat” at the earliest time possible. The result is fewer players and teams. In the case of a potential minor-league minimum wage, paying fewer players for fewer teams are easy dots to connect. Extorting higher franchise fees has also been theorized as a possibility.

It has also been suggested that this was a direct shot at the Yankees, who have the most players in all of MiLB. More players equal more chances of finding a gem, and limiting the number of players evens the playing field.

Impact on the Yankees organization

  • Removing about 135 players, from 285 to 150.
  • The organization would lose the Staten Island Yankees.
  • The Charleston RiverDogs in the South Atlantic League would be retained but are in limbo. Speculation is they could move to High Class A or AA.
  • The Pulaski Yankees would move from rookie league to A.