Through a tumultuous yearlong period in which the future state of minor league baseball was in question, Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias was firm in his belief that his organization was happy with their affiliate setup even as minor league contraction talks loomed.
Still, there were only four spots for their five teams, and the Frederick Keys were ultimately the team left out of their setup going forward. Instead, Frederick will be joining the new MLB Draft League for draft-eligible college juniors to continue to play and get exposure before the July amateur draft, and the Aberdeen IronBirds were invited to replace them as the Orioles’ High-A affiliate.
The Orioles also invited the Norfolk Tides to remain as their Triple-A affiliate, the Bowie Baysox to continue as their Double-A affiliate, and the Delmarva Shorebirds to carry on as their Low-A affiliate. All those invitations are pending finalization of MLB’s plan to consolidate the minor league system.
In a statement, Orioles chairman and CEO John Angelos said the team “remained committed to retaining our decadeslong presence in our state and region as we work closely with Major League Baseball to evolve and extend our system of local baseball for the benefit of players and communities around the country.
“This steadfast commitment to our home state, the Mid-Atlantic region, and all communities where we do business will create jobs and drive commercial activity while ensuring that residents will continue to enjoy the most affordable, family-focused experience in professional sports,” Angelos said.
Elias said in a statement that the team believes “the structure of our minor league affiliates will enable us to continue fortifying a robust pipeline of talent that will graduate top prospects to Camden Yards in the very near future and for years to come.”
“We are excited to have secured a home for the MLB Draft League in Maryland as well,” he said. “We are eager to continue working with our local communities as we strive to build the best player development system in baseball, with an eye toward our ultimate goal of developing a championship-caliber team.”
In announcements Wednesday, both the Orioles and the Frederick Keys touted the affiliation with MLB continuing through the Draft League and keeping baseball in that community.
The Orioles “will maintain their strong presence in the region through baseball development and a series of entertainment and economic initiatives,” they said in a statement.
Keys owner Ken Young, who also owns the Norfolk and Bowie franchises, said in a statement that they’re “ecstatic to have Frederick continue to be a gateway to the majors.”
“Ask anyone from Frederick, and they will tell you that the Keys are more than just a baseball team,” Frederick Mayor Michael O’Connor said in a statement. “They are a cornerstone of our community, providing affordable family entertainment for our region and the city values this relationship.”
MLB announced the first five teams in the Draft League last week, featuring clubs in Mahoning Valley, State College, Trenton, West Virginia and Williamsport.
State College, Williamsport, and Mahoning Valley were previously in the New York-Penn League with Aberdeen. With MLB’s decision to only have four full-season affiliate levels, that league was disbanded. Aberdeen, which was founded in 2002, was one of several to get bumped to a full-season league.
“The facilities at Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium, its proximity to not only other minor league teams but also Oriole Park at Camden Yards, as well as the support that our fans and partners have shown are all things the IronBirds are proud of,” IronBirds general manager Jack Graham said in a statement. “We are glad for this opportunity to have more baseball at a higher caliber, and to continue being part of the Orioles player development system.”
The adjustments, which will begin for the 2021 season, will mark the first change to the Orioles’ domestic minor league structure since they ended their affiliation with rookie-level Bluefield after the 2010 season. The four full-season affiliates had been in place since 2007, and Frederick had been an Orioles affiliate since the team was relocated from Hagerstown in 1989.
Hagerstown, which has most recently been affiliated with the Washington Nationals, did not receive an invitation from MLB to continue on as a minor league affiliate.
The invited clubs are awaiting information on what the contracts between minor league franchises and MLB will look like, but the invitations themselves meant plenty to the clubs that got them.
“It was obviously very exciting to hear that the Orioles have extended the invitation for us to continue as a minor league affiliate with them,” Delmarva general manager Chris Bitters said. “We’ve been an affiliate with the Orioles for 24 years of our 25 years in existence, so we obviously have a great working relationship with the Orioles and appreciate that they extended that invitation.”
This winter’s changes to the Orioles farm system comes as part of a nationwide contraction in which Major League Baseball is taking over control of the minor leagues and creating more geographically based leagues for the four full-season levels while also raising the standards of facilities required to host affiliated baseball.
Some organizations used the realignment as an opportunity to bring their affiliates closer to their major league city. Norfolk is the only Orioles affiliate outside Maryland and boasts quick and frequent flights to Baltimore to service the major league roster when required.
“Since the club moved to Baltimore in 1954, Orioles baseball has been a way of life in the State of Maryland,” Gov. Larry Hogan said in a statement. “With today’s announcement affirming the club’s long-standing commitment to the region, I am as proud as ever to call myself an Orioles fan. The future of the Orioles and of the game of baseball in Maryland is bright.”
The Orioles referred to the minor league affiliates as “economic development and entertainment partners” in their announcing of the invitations, and touted their economic impact both in Maryland and at their spring training site in Sarasota, Florida.
Elias said Tuesday that, if allowed, the Sarasota site might host a second Gulf Coast League team to accommodate the loss of a minor league affiliate elsewhere. Traditionally, they run one GCL team, as well as at least one team at their complex in the Dominican Republic.
“We’re going to be dropping an affiliate, so to help alleviate the transition for that — even if it ends up being in the short-term — I think that will be helpful,” Elias said. “We’ve got a spectacular facility, we’ve got the space for that, we’ve got the staffing for that right now. So, it’s really not that big of a deal, even if both teams end up with smaller than normal rosters, it’s really not that much extra to say hey, we’ve got two GCL teams. I would expect that that would be the plan this year, and it sounds as if the dust is finally going to settle on this soon, which I think will be good for everybody.”
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Baltimore Sun reporter Nathan Ruiz contributed to this article.