With billions of dollars in revenue lost by Major League Baseball and a collective bargaining agreement set to expire following 2021, sweeping changes throughout the sport loom large over the next 12 months.
Somewhat coincidentally and entirely unfortunate, MLB is preparing to make grand changes to the landscape of Minor League Baseball, taking over the operation of the minors in an effort to reduce costs, increase revenues and improve the quality of life for prospects.
The biggest element of this transformation is the impending plan to reduce 160 teams across MiLB to just 120 through the removal of short-season leagues. Such a decision not only allows a later date for the MLB Draft, but also creates competition between cities and ballparks across the nation to improve facility standards, a significant point of concern for MLB.
Short-season leagues such as the Appalachian League and the New York-Penn League have already been earmarked for becoming summer collegiate leagues in an effort to not utterly erase baseball from the communities where it had been previously.
While all 30 clubs will save expenses from this downsizing, those players within the system will experience better overall conditions thanks to weekly pay raises, the elimination of clubhouse dues, improved travel arrangements and team provided meals at the stadium.
Though no official announcements have been made by MLB, some news about the reconstruction has already been leaked by the New York Yankees and New York Mets, both of which cut ties with long-standing affiliates. In response, the league has told teams to stop releasing such information, according to Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper via Twitter.
When the final announcement is made, as many as three familiar names could no longer be associated with the Colorado Rockies.
One change almost certain to transpire involves the Pioneer League, home to the Centennial State’s only two minor league clubs, Grand Junction Rockies and Rocky Mountain Vibes. The loss of the 1939 established Rookie-Advanced league would mean no professional baseball clubs under the umbrella of MLB existing within the state other than the Rockies.
In the past, the Fresno (CA) Grizzlies of the Pacific Coast League have been linked with east coast Washington Nationals, and the San Francisco Giants have partnered with the Richmond (VA) Flying Squirrels of the Eastern League.
It’s expected that most of the leagues within the minors will be considered provincial for certain big league divisions through this reshuffling. In Double-A, both the Eastern League and Southern League are positioned east of the Mississippi River; as such, the Texas League would be considered a territory for American League and National League West clubs.
Since traveling 3,000 miles comes at a cost and incredible inconvenience when evaluating your players, a logical restructuring of the minors can help resolve these issues while improving the experience for players (i.e. reducing the length of certain bus rides within large-region leagues).
Should this alteration take place, the Rockies would have only four full-season affiliates in addition to a complex team at Salt River Fields in the Arizona League and one in the Dominican League. Furthermore, of the six affiliates from their organization in 2019, there may only be two recognizable MiLB teams that stick around.
After signing a Player Development Contract (PDC) through 2022 with the Albuquerque Isotopes, it seems Colorado’s Triple-A affiliate will stay put. The proximity between the two is a natural fit but more importantly, it’s unclear if MLB will attempt to break any contracts.
(Of the 120 teams currently listed at Class A or above, 19 have a PDC signed through 2022 and 27 are partially or entirely owned by a Major League club to leave over 60% of those teams untethered.)
Previously, the Rockies’ Double-A partner was the Hartford Yard Goats. Should MLB get its way with changing such unnatural relationships between a big league team on one coast and an affiliate on another, don’t be surprised if purple prospects will travel through another destination before reaching Coors Field.
With the Texas League expected to be designated for teams in the AL and NL West, Colorado’s newest Double-A affiliate could be next door in Kansas.
Previously known as the New Orleans Baby Cakes, the recently-formed Wichita Wind Surge is expected to join the Texas League with a brand new $75 million domain aptly named Riverfront Stadium on the banks of the Arkansas River.
From here, it only gets more confusing as the level previously known as High-A has been tapped to become Low-A and vice versa.
The reasoning is actually quite simple: Since the California League, Carolina League and Florida State League feature warmer climates, the rationale for making these Low-A leagues is to improve playing conditions for those experiencing their first full-season.
Those graduating to High-A will likely find themselves battling the colder environs of the Midwest League, South Atlantic League, a brand new consortium of teams likely known as the Mid-Atlantic League, as well as the Northwest League, previously a short-season league.
The Rockies relationship with the Boise Hawks could continue under this scenario, whereas the one with long-time affiliate Asheville Tourists seems destined to end.
Since 1994, Colorado has known only the Tourists as their Low-A affiliate. The 27-year relationship is among the longest in all of baseball and is the longest at that level. Projections suggest a team from the AL East could call McCormick Field in Asheville their new home as soon as next season.
Taking their place will likely be a team from the Cal League. Though the Rockies have been affiliated with Lancaster since 2017, the JetHawks are rumored to be one of the 43 MiLB clubs on the chopping block due to the extreme playing conditions created by intense wind patterns.
In their stead might be the Fresno Grizzlies, a former Triple-A club tumbling down to the bottom ranks of the minors.
For better or worse, this won’t be the first time Colorado has shifted their affiliates. Many fondly remember the days of the Tulsa Drillers, Modesto Nuts, Colorado Springs Sky Sox, Salem Avalanche, and those unique Casper Ghosts.
However, the situation is far from the same. Instead of a simple game of musical chairs that seats a different minor league club in the comfort and strength of a big league chair, 43 different communities across the country will lose their connection with baseball.
No final game. No last licks. No goodbye.
(Cover Photo: Greg Sorber via Albuquerque Journal)