This weekend, the first solid details began to emerge about the changes that will be seen in minor league baseball for the 2021 season, as Major League Baseball inputs the biggest changes to the minor leagues in decades.  The New York Yankees announced their changes to their system, and it was eye-opening for a few reasons, showing a few of the types of changes fans across baseball could see for their own teams.  With the Yankees announcement, it likely means we’ll see more very soon.

So what will 2021 hold for the San Francisco Giants organization?  Here’s a few things for fans to look for whenever the Giants make their announcement.

No more Short-Season A-Ball

This is probably the most well-known change, as MLB’s proposal to do it dates back to 2019 leaks.  Short-Season A-Ball, a place where higher-level draft picks and very young players not read for a full season would play is going away.  All the other full-season leagues are sticking around.  Also, baseball will keep the league played in their spring training complex, the Arizona League and the Gulf Coast League respectively, as well as the Dominican Summer League.

So, minor league baseball’s level structure will still be:

  • Triple-A (closest to the Majors)
  • Double-A
  • Single-A Advanced (aka High-A)
  • Single-A (aka Low-A)
  • Rookie Leagues (Arizona or Gulf Coast)
  • Dominican Summer League

Teams will have one team in each level (with a possible exception of the Dominican Summer League).

For the Giants, the Short-A level was where the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes played in the Northwest League.  But the elimination of the level does not mean that the team or league are necessarily going away.

A new Northwest League…but is Salem-Keizer a part of it?

It has been long reported that the Northwest League will become a full-season A-Ball league, to give west coast teams closer teams geographically (whether or not all the franchises wanted that).  But in the 2019 proposal, Salem-Keizer was one of the teams targeted to be eliminated.

It appears certain that the Northwest League will be a Single-A level next season, probably a High-A level (more on that in a moment).  But there has been no clarity about Salem-Keizer’s place.  It’s been reported that two teams from the Northwest League will be cut.  There’s no doubt that the Volcanoes’ stadium is not ideal, although they recently added facilities for training.  But that is not particularly rare in the Northwest League.

The team’s home in Keizer, however, is particularly closer to many of the league’s teams, along the I-5 corridor, with three teams further to the east, in Tri-City, Spokane, and Boise.  Tri-City was also originally marked to be eliminated, but there was some chatter that Boise might be considered for that as well.  2020 has made every team’s financial situation questionable, however, and so the teams that survive might just be the ones that don’t go bankrupt (or get bought out).

Baseball seems to want the six teams in the NWL to be MLB’s west coast franchises, so it’s likely the Mariners, Giants, Athletics, Angels, and Dodgers will take up five spots, with either Arizona or Colorado taking the other.  But if Salem-Keizer survives, would the Giants stick with them?  Or would they potentially look to try to snap up the Hillsboro Hops, who have some of the nicest NWL facilities (and as of 2019 were Diamondbacks affiliates)?

If the Giants do stay with the Volcanoes, a new stadium would almost certainly need to be in the cards.  Salem is Oregon’s second biggest market (behind the Portland Metropolitan area), so it’d be a good home for the team, whether a new one could be put on the same plot in Keizer, or a new location would be found.

There are a lot of questions for what will happen at the High-A level in the NWL, and it’s likely the biggest thing for Giants fans to watch.

Split Seasons?

In the summer, there was talk about the Florida State League becoming a split-season league, due to the ticket sales at that league being lower than other leagues.  That was one of the factors leading to the FSL moving to Low-A, since they play at the same complexes as Spring Training, and the first half of the season might just be played at the complexes, without ticket sales or the high overhead.

That led to less substantial rumors that something similar might happen with the Northwest League, whose spring months are often very rainy, and the owners up there were reportedly hesitant about trying to go full-season because of it.  In that sense, teams that are in the NWL could play their teams in the Arizona complexes before moving up to the northwest.

This is not particularly likely, especially since the Northwest League will likely be High-A, but it’s still possible.

The California League gets demoted

Earlier last week, Ballpark Digest reported that the California League would be one of the A-Ball Leagues to switch levels, to make the numbers work for other other decisions being made.  So the California League and the Florida State League switch to Low-A, joining the South Atlantic League (both the Florida State and South Atlantic Leagues will lose two teams).  Meanwhile, the Northwest League and a new “Mid-Atlantic” League will go to High-A, alongside the Midwest League and Carolina League.

The California League will also see at least one rumored change in teams, with Lancaster getting the axe (reportedly due to ridiculously offensive-friendly conditions in the high, windy desert), and the Fresno Grizzlies getting demoted from Triple-A all the way to Low-A.  Ouch.

San Jose – Not changing but in need of changes

The San Jose Giants are the surest bet in the Giants system to stay within the Giants system, both because they are so close to San Francisco, and because they are part-owned by the Giants.

That said, they have some of the worst facilities in the California League.  Excite Ballpark (formerly known as Municipal Stadium) was built in 1942, and has not had substantial facility upgrades anytime recently.  It’s doubtful that they meet the clubhouse size requirements, nor could easily add more space for that, women’s locker rooms, enhanced food or training facilities to the building as it is.  And despite the assuredness that comes from the San Francisco Giants and their location, they are not going to get a pass forever.

The San Jose Giants need a new stadium, and the watch for it starts soon.

Last year, a proposal to upgrade the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds included a new stadium for the Giants, so a path may be there.  But with 2020’s affecting both businesses and governments financially and changing priorities, nothing is for sure.  The Giants (both cities) can not afford to take an Oakland-esque path to finding a new stadium across decades and broken plans.

Augusta – Saying goodbye

Assuming the Single-A changes are true, the end has almost certainly come for the Giants affiliation with the Augusta GreenJackets, right after the Giants had helped support the franchise through its push for a new stadium that opened in 2019.

The South Atlantic League will remain at the Low-A level, the same as the California League will be.  There is absolutely no way the Giants would dump San Jose for Augusta, even with the difference in facilities, so that spells the end of it.

The GreenJackets have been the affiliate of the Giants since 2005 (the Giants had previously been with the Hagerstown Suns), and though it did have many championships (they won one in 2008), the two teams seemed to have a very pleasant relationship even as the GreenJackets fought through several plans to open a new stadium before moving across the river (and to a new state) to play in North Augusta, South Carolina at SRP Park.

The one very, very, very remote possibility is that Augusta changes leagues to the High-A Carolina League, and the Giants convince baseball to let them stay aligned with Augusta rather than affiliate in the realigned Northwest League.  But with baseball seemingly focused both on the west coast being on the west coast, and eastern teams’ needs (and Augusta’s shiny facilities will be very much in demand by other teams), don’t hold out hope on this.

Richmond and Double-A – Some Questions

And not many answers.

There are no west coast Double-A leagues, so the geography doesn’t seem like much of an issue here.  The Giants have been affiliated with the Richmond Flying Squirrels since 2010, but have been affiliated with the owner, Lou DiBella, dating back to 2003 with the Norwich Navigators/Connecticut Defenders before the team moved to Richmond.  So generally this seems steady.  But there are some questions that add a little uncertainty.

First is the facilities that MLB has a focus on, and whether MLB would eliminate them without decent facilities.  The Squirrels home, The Diamond, was built in 1984 and does not meet many modern needs.  They’d likely need to do some changes to meet MLB’s requirements, but they sit on a large plot, so this situation isn’t as dire as what San Jose faces.  But the team has also plans for a new stadium along with local VCU, with movement as recently as February 2020 on those plans.  Even with the uncertainty that this year has brought into sports, MLB probably won’t eliminate a team that has a pretty solid ballpark plan in place.

The second question has to do with realignment.  The reality is that Richmond is the southernmost (by far) team in the Eastern League, which stretches as far north as Portland, Maine.  There remains a non-zero chance that Richmond could get realigned to a different level.  That could mean moving up to Triple-A, as Richmond was once a Triple-A team in the International League.  It could also mean moving into High-A, as they could fit either into the geographic regions for a Mid-Atlantic or the existing Carolina League (which includes teams in Virginia, Delaware, and Maryland further north than Richmond).  Realignment also seems unlikely, but it’s not impossible.

The third, and probably biggest possibility for the Giants moving away from the Squirrels, is MLB’s single-minded focus on geographic proximity.  That might mean the Giants being moved to a Texas League affiliate, both for them moving to the furthest-west Double-A league, and for Richmond being available for an East Coast team (though both of the nearest MLB clubs, Washington and Baltimore, have solid Double-A affiliates in the Eastern League).  The Texas League mostly has a pretty well-set group of teams and affiliates, but with rumors that Wichita moving from Triple-A to Double-A into the Texas League, that may be a silver lining with brand new facilities.  San Antonio, which is getting moved back to Double-A from Triple-A, is also a possibility.

(If you haven’t heard of the Wichita Wind Surge, don’t worry.  They were the former New Orleans Babycakes franchise and had moved with an intention to begin play in their new home in 2020.  They had been affiliated with the Miami Marlins.  A sad note, the team’s owner died in 2020 due to COVID-19.)

All in all, the most likely possibility is that the Giants remain with Richmond, but the possibility that they do not is there.

Sacramento – Almost certainly not changing, though Triple-A will

The Sacramento River Cats will almost certainly still be the partner of the Giants in Triple-A.  The only reason they are not as sure as San Jose is that the Giants don’t have an ownership stake in them, but they check off every other box.

Sacramento’s home, Sutter Health Park, is not a bad facility, but having opened in 2000, probably would need some facility upgrades to match MLB’s desires.  It’ll be worth looking into to see what Sacramento needs, but a new stadium likely wouldn’t be in their future.

What wlll be more interesting to watch will be what the Pacific Coast League will look like.  There’s been a lot of rumors that Triple-A will be broken up (probably to reduce travel), with a third Triple-A League created in the middle of the country, pulling teams from both the PCL and the east coast International League.  While it won’t have a direct effect on the Giants and the River Cats, seeing who their rivals will be, and won’t be, in 2020 will be worth watching.

Down to one Arizona League team

For the past few years, the Giants have had two teams in the Arizona League (as a few other franchises have had), called the Black and Orange teams.  It’s likely that all teams will be limited to one team at the complex going forward.

This means less spots for players to be playing.  It will likely have a heavier effect on players coming from the Caribbean and international signings, who made up a significant portion of the two teams int he past.  The spots available for them will be greatly lessened, especially since top draftees won’t have Short-A to go into.

Independent League teams invade!

It’s unlikely the Giants will be considering any independent teams to come into affiliated minor league baseball, but watching teams that might come into the affiliated minor leagues will be fun to watch.  Minnesota’s St. Paul Saints have been oft-discussed, but the Yankees announcement that they were affiliating with the Somerset Patriots rather than their longtime affiliate the Trenton Thunder, was a surprise.  Trenton called the move “Despicable” and felt “Betrayed” by the Yankees.

Every indy team that makes it to the affiliated minors is another previously affiliated minor league team losing their spot, so this would be a lot of drama to watch and see how the minor league landscape changes.

Any news about schedules or other plans

What we called Minor League Baseball was its own, separate organization from MLB.  But 2020’s negotiations have led to the Minor League offices effectively being dissolved, with Major League Baseball taking over direct control of the administration of the minors.

The next thing fans and teams need to know once the 120 teams are announced are what the schedules will be.  There’s even talk that different levels may have less games than they used to have.  But the schedules are the next step, and the sooner they are announced, the better for teams, that need to be able to start selling tickets and booking other events.