It’s mid-November, 2020, and while some details have slowly started trickling out about what the minor leagues will look like in 2021 and beyond, we are still mostly in the dark. Thanks primarily to the fine reporting by J.J. Cooper at Baseball America, and some other well-connected writers at other websites like Ballpark Digest, there are a lot of things we are reasonably expecting. But the whole, and a lot of the details, are still very much unknown.
Obviously, the biggest questions are:
- What are the 120 teams that will be in the affiliated minor leagues next year?
- Which affiliates will be assigned to which Major League teams?
But there are still a lot of other things to learn, many of which may not matter to casual fans, but still fascinate me and others. So, aside from the teams that will be around, and the longer-term answers we won’t know right away (like will Major League teams actually help pay for the facilities upgrades that MLB wants in the minors), here are the questions I’m most looking forward to hearing the answers to:
Will the realignment in the Southeast actually reduce travel time?
The South Atlantic League is ridiculous. With 2 teams in Maryland, one in West Virginia, one in Kentucky, and one in New Jersey, with other teams in Georgia and the Carolinas, it spans more geographic territory than almost any other league under Triple-A. the Carolina League has half of its 10 pre-2020 teams outside of the Carolinas, with three in virginia, one in Maryland and one in Delaware.
That’s why it made sense that there would be a new league, tentatively named the Mid-Atlantic League, that I initially assumed would take those teams and make a more geographically appropriate circuit. But recent leaks have made me question what’s going on up there.
The New York Yankees and New York Mets are the only teams to announce their new affiliates (much to the obvious chagrin of…well, everyone else in the know), and both have teams that are not officially announced to be a part of the as-yet not officially announced Mid-Atlantic League, but both the teams are promoted from the New York-Penn League: Brooklyn and Hudson Valley. Baseball America has reported that the new Mid-Atlantic League will have six teams. If this new league also swallows up the two New Jersey and one Delaware team (which is my guess, barring other realignments), that still leaves all these Maryland and Virginia teams way up north from the actual southern teams, and a lot of travel.
Now, the Carolina League will likely shed some teams. As assumed by the BA reporting, there are 18 spots to be spread across the Midwest League and the Carolina League, who had 16 and 10 teams previously, respectively. According to Ballpark Digest, the South Atlantic League will drop from 14 teams to 12 teams. Barring a major realignment, just dropping that number of teams in each league will not realistically affect the teams’ travel in those circuits.
Will baseball actually try to tell us that the New Jersey-New York area is “Mid-Atlantic”?
Seriously. It was bad enough that New Jersey was “South” Atlantic. But then, the country still hangs onto the name of the “Midwest” meaning Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Iowa, despite none of those actually being in the eastern half of the country, much less what would be between the middle of the country and the west coast…so eh. But still.
(And yes, I remember the days when the NFL had an NFC West that contained San Francisco with….Atlanta, St. Louis, Carolina, and New Orleans (while Dallas and Arizona were in the eastern division). At least there were explanations to that geography teacher’s nightmare. Also, believe it or not, Atlanta is further west than Detroit.)
Will the Northwest League be a split-season League?
This has not been a heavy rumor, but it splits from two different rumors.
First is the Florida State League, which has been rumored to go to a half-season for money reasons, and its move to Low-A (which is confirmed) is a part of that since it will be closer to the spring training facilities for players to move into that league. The first half of the season would be more like a complex league. We don’t know if the FSL is going to a half season as described under that rumor yet, although the level change has been confirmed.
Second is the reporting that the Northwest League owners are hesitant about going full season. The Northwest is obviously well-known for its rain. (The former Triple-A team in Portland once had “The Wet Sox” as a potential name change.) That is a big reason it’s been a short-season league for its recent history.
The thought is that for teams in the NWL, they might play the first few months of the season in Arizona, before it gets very hot, and then go to the Northwest, after it stops being very wet. It’s almost assured that all six teams in the NWL will be in the Cactus League, so this would be feasible.
Secondarily: Assuming San Diego and Seattle are both in the NWL and the first half takes part at Spring Training facilities, will they continue to split Peoria during that first half? If the 6 NWL teams are the five California teams and Seattle, the only one to split a Spring Training site are San Diego and Seattle. Would one team get to play games at an otherwise unused site (such as Goodyear, Surprise, or Salt River), or would they simply split the site? Probably the latter, but it would be an odd (yet minuscule) handicap.
Will MLB actually bother to try to keep its promise to western teams?
MLB has stated since 2019 that even in the cities that are cut from the minors, they’d offer some other way to keep baseball there. There was an initially proposed “Dream League” (which has apparently disappeared), and there have been more concrete offers of wood-bat summer leagues for college players, to take up the teams lost from the Appalachian League and New York-Penn leagues (at least, those that aren’t promoted), and perhaps some of the teams losing affiliations from other leagues.
Notably silent has been any proposal for the Pioneer League, a short-season league that spanned Colorado and Utah up to Montana. Also notable, the two teams likely to be cut from the Northwest League (the identities we still don’t know) and Lancaster, which is highly expected to be cut and replaced by Fresno in the California League. Particularly those teams will be isolated from others, making summer college leagues or a dream league almost impossible. The NWL also has no overlapping major independent league, so a move like to the Atlantic League (which Staten Island is reportedly considering after being dropped from the Yankees) is also not an option.
The reality is there just aren’t any obvious feasible solutions for these cities. And that was obvious when the initial plans leaked.
I have come to expect MLB to be all talk and no serious action, but on this, I’m truly curious if they’ll even bother to try to be true to their word.
How is Fresno going to react?
One of the earliest rumors was that the California League would be dropping Lancaster, and its windy, high desert offense factory that was tough on scouting, and be adding a demoted Fresno, going from Triple-A back to the High-A California League (where it was before the Grizzlies moved in after Phoenix got a MLB team in 1998).
Now that’s it’s been heavily reported (not yet confirmed) that the California League will move to Low-A, I can only imagine that Fresno ownership is absolutely pissed. And Fresno has gone through ownership struggles through the 2010’s, which may be why it has lost this prestige. Chukchansi Park will instantly become the biggest park in Low-A baseball (it has two decks and a luxury box level above the top deck!). It is also one of the top few largest markets in minor league baseball that is not part of a metropolitan area already shared with a major league team (over a million residents back in the 2010 census). To be a Low-A team can’t go over well, but what other choice do they have?
What will the third Triple-A League look like?
This is almost part of the question of what teams will be in the 120, but it’s significant enough that I’ll include it. It’s been heavily rumored that Triple-A will be broken up, with a third league, presumably in the central United States. It makes sense from a travel perspective, as the Pacific Coast League stretches from the actual coast to Nashville, where the other league, the Triple-A International League, goes from Worcester, Massachusetts, to Indianapolis, Indiana, and from Rochester, New York, to Gwinnett, Georgia.
How would the new Triple-A league look? They’d probably take the surviving six teams of the Pacific Coast League American Conference: Iowa, Memphis, Nashville, Omaha, Oklahoma City, and Round Rock. (San Antonio and Wichita are expected to be demoted to Double-A). Add in the four teams of the International League’s West Division (Toledo, Columbus, Louisville and Indianapolis), and the two heavily rumored indy league additions in Sugarland and St. Paul, and you have 12 teams.
But the math would not work out for the PCL, which would leave them with seven teams (with Fresno likely to be demoted), and no obvious other additions. Perhaps Oklahoma City might stay in the PCL, as they are tied to the Dodgers through ownership issues. And maybe all of Texas stays in the PCL entirely, with Round Rock and Sugarland both in it, giving each Triple-A league 10 teams. That would still force the PCL to have the biggest travel issues, especially Tacoma, whose closest PCL neighbor is 675 miles away by road (Reno). But it would ease the burden for some eastern teams, which is obviously where MLB’s focus is.
Hopefully we’ll see the answers to all of these questions very, very soon.