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Aberdeen IronBirds to play High-A baseball as part of MLB’s new Minor League agreement, unsure on timetable

Aberdeen's Andrew Daschback is held by teammates as another approaches with a water cooler to douse him, in celebration of his walk-off hit in the bottom of the 9th inning to defeat Brooklyn 5-4 during the IronBirds final home game of the 2019 regular season at Ripken Stadium.
Aberdeen's Andrew Daschback is held by teammates as another approaches with a water cooler to douse him, in celebration of his walk-off hit in the bottom of the 9th inning to defeat Brooklyn 5-4 during the IronBirds final home game of the 2019 regular season at Ripken Stadium. (Brian Krista/Baltimore Sun Media)

The Aberdeen IronBirds are one of 120 Minor League clubs that accepted Major League Baseball’s invitation to become a Professional Development League license holder. These teams, selected as partners by Major League clubs and being announced in full today, will provide both facilities and communities that are essential to the development of the next generation of big-league stars.

Each MLB club will provide Minor League players and staffs to their four affiliates — one at each of the Triple-A, Double-A, High-A and Low-A levels. Aberdeen, will play High-A East baseball, a true step-up from the short-season Class A schedule the team played for 18 seasons as part of the New York-Penn League.

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The IronBirds remain an affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles are also retaining ties with the Norfolk Tides (Triple A), Bowie Baysox (Double-A) and Delmarva ShoreBirds (Low-A).

“We are excited to unveil this new model, which not only provides a pipeline to the Majors, but continues the Minor Leagues’ tradition of entertaining millions of families in hundreds of communities,” MLB Commissioner Robert D. Manfred Jr. said in a statement.

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As a part of the realignment, many Minor League affiliates will be in significantly closer geographic proximity to the Major League clubs with which they are associated. On average, Major League clubs will now be over 200 miles closer to their Triple-A affiliates. By creating better geographical synergy between a Major League club and its affiliates, more fans will be able to watch an organization’s players progress in their careers from the Minor Leagues to the big leagues in their home region.

Minor League clubs will receive PDL licenses from MLB that entitle them to operate in the Professional Development Leagues, ensuring a new set of standards in terms of facilities and player working conditions.

The licenses will create many improvements to the experience and lifestyle of Minor League players, such as player salary increases ranging from 38% to 72% for the 2021 season; modernized facility standards better suited for professional athletes; improved amenities and working conditions for players and staff; reduced in-season travel for players and coaches; and better geographical alignment.

“In modernizing our Minor League system, we prioritized the qualities that make the Minor Leagues such an integral part of our game while strengthening how we develop professional athletes on and off the field,” Manfred said. “We look forward to demonstrating the best of our game through out local communities, supporting all those who are working hard to grow the sport, and sharing unrivaled technology and resources with minor league teams and players.”

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No word yet, however, on when play might begin.

“There is still, obviously, really big optimism that we’ll be able to play a lot of baseball this year,” Aberdeen General Manager Jack Graham said. “I think that everything that you’ve seen in the news media and that I’ve seen in the news media, indicates that Major League Baseball is going to have Spring Training first and then everyone else will come later. We don’t know what that means.”

While Graham can’t say when fans might see baseball in 2021 at Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium, they at least know who the IronBirds will be playing.

Some are very familiar and others are not. Former New York-Penn League opponents Brooklyn (New York Mets) and Hudson Valley (New York Yankees) are in the North Division, as are Jersey Shore (Philadelphia Phillies) and Wilmington (Washington Nationals).

Making up the South Division are Asheville (Houston Astros), Bowling Green (Tampa Bay Rays), Greensboro (Pittsburgh Pirates), Greenville (Boston red Sox), Hickory (Texas Rangers), Rome (Atlanta Braves) and Winston-Salem (Chicago White Sox).

Currently, the Aberdeen facility can allow just 250 people, under current COVID-19 protocols.

“We’re obviously hoping that between now and the time to start playing baseball, that number increases significantly,” Graham said.

Might Aberdeen fans see some familiar faces?

“It’s certainly possible, I would say that there’s a couple of factors going into that,” Graham said. “The number one factor being, obviously, there was no true Minor League Baseball last year, which means the development of those players was limited. They obviously did their best at the alternate training site or guys were at home.

“The other component to that is the draft was only five rounds last year. It’s not like there’s a whole bunch of guys backfilling any spots and pushing everybody up,” Graham added. “The guys we had in Aberdeen were between the ages of 18 and 22 as usual. I think that it’s likely to assume, that the ages of the average High A baseball players is probably closer to 21 to 24. So, if you add two years to every guy on the IronBirds roster two years ago, you more or less get a High A baseball player, so I think that’s likely.”

In combination, the integrated player development system now includes 179 teams across 17 leagues in 43 states and four provinces. Including the Arizona and Gulf Coast Leagues, there are 209 teams across 19 leagues in 44 states and four provinces.

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