Major League Baseball’s preliminary proposal of a new Professional Baseball Agreement with Minor League Baseball could lead to at least one of the five minor league teams in Maryland losing their affiliated status after the 2020 season, with three of the franchises at more risk than the others.
The proposal would reduce the number of affiliated minor league teams nationwide from 160 to 120 when the current Professional Baseball Agreement ends after next season. Each major league organization would be limited to five affiliates in the United States, including Rookie-level teams.
The proposal, as reported by Baseball America, would lead to 42 developmental teams becoming unaffiliated independent franchises at that point.
What that means for the Orioles and the five affiliated minor league teams in Maryland has not yet been determined.
Four of Maryland’s five minor league teams — the Bowie Baysox, Frederick Keys, Delmarva Shorebirds and Aberdeen IronBirds — are affiliated with the Orioles, with the Hagerstown Suns serving as the Washington Nationals’ Low-A affiliate.
Two MLB sources familiar with the negotiations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the negotiations are ongoing, said although all 160 teams are under consideration to lose their player development contracts — the deals that bind them to a major league parent club — Bowie and Aberdeen are well positioned to remain affiliated, while Frederick, Delmarva and Hagerstown have warts that could prove troublesome for those franchises.
A Minor League Baseball (MiLB) representative declined to discuss the status of the five teams in Maryland.
“It’s so early in the process that we don’t want anybody to be panicked or worried at this point. There’s a long way to go still,” MiLB senior director of communications Jeff Lantz said.
MLB’s goals with the proposal, an MLB source said, are to have the best possible minor league facilities for major league franchises to develop their top prospects.
The league also believes the proposal would allow for a better overall geographic layout for minor league baseball, generally eliminating lengthy bus rides and undesirable hotel stays for players while putting top affiliates closer to their parent clubs. The decrease in teams and players would also allow the major league teams to better compensate the minor leaguers.
Although the locations of Frederick, Delmarva and Hagerstown are favorable, MLB desires improvements to their facilities, per an MLB source.
Interview requests to the general managers of the five Maryland-based minor league teams were all forwarded to Lantz. Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias declined to speak about the proposal.
The current Professional Baseball Agreement is set to expire after the 2020 season, and both sides must agree to ratify a new one. Although the proposal from MLB is one that would bring monumental change, Lantz said “the first thing to keep in mind is this is just a proposal.”
“It’s very far from a done deal,” he added. “There’s a lot of negotiations to take place on both sides. Both sides want a deal that’s fair for both sides and in the best interest of baseball, so we’ll do what we can to get there.”
An MLB source said the initial suggestion to MiLB was to improve the facilities MLB didn’t find sufficient. The source said MLB also suggested a revenue-sharing plan where profitable minor league teams subsidized those that were not. The fact that neither of those concepts gained traction led MLB to propose decreasing the number of affiliated teams, the source said.
Lantz said the report of the proposal became public before MiLB could inform all teams of the details. Many of the leagues have fall meetings, and MiLB president Pat O’Conner was using them as an opportunity to discuss MLB’s proposal.
“We obviously like where we’re at now,” Lantz said. “We have 160 teams across the country and drew over 41.5 million fans last year, so obviously, we don’t think anything’s broken. But obviously Major League Baseball has some things that they’d like to see changed, and that’s why you have negotiations. It’s not entirely surprising to us, and our legal team and their legal team will get together and negotiate and hammer out a deal that’s hopefully good for both sides.”
Lantz declined to address whether MiLB’s hope of keeping the status quo was an achievable goal.
As it stands, MLB parent clubs have varying numbers of affiliates. The Orioles have six stateside minor league affiliates, meaning if the proposal’s five-affiliate limit becomes reality, at least one of Baltimore’s top affiliates — Triple-A Norfolk, Double-A Bowie, High-A Frederick, Low-A Delmarva and Short-A Aberdeen — would lose its player development contract or be required to become the affiliate of another organization.
Teams in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, Arizona League and Dominican Summer League, all owned by their MLB parent clubs, are not included in the count of 160 minor league teams and are not affected by the proposal. Teams in Arizona and the Florida-based GCL count toward the organizations’ limit of five affiliates.
Under the proposal, every organization would be limited to the same number of minor leaguers; the final total has yet to be determined, but will be somewhere between 150 and 200.
The 42-team reduction would include the elimination of the four short-season leagues, which don’t begin play until late June and are used primarily for players drafted earlier in the month. Although the leagues would no longer exist, some of their teams could become full-season affiliates, with the amateur draft shortened and moved to later in the year.
Aberdeen, the MLB sources noted, is a strong candidate to become a full-season affiliate should the proposal come to fruition, given its high-quality facilities and prime location. One source also said high-level minor league teams, which generally have the best facilities and locations — such as Bowie — are likely to remain affiliated.
Upper levels might see some change still, however. The Triple-A International League, which includes the Norfolk Tides, would reportedly expand from 14 teams to 20. The Low-A South Atlantic League, which includes Delmarva, would shrink from 14 teams to six, while a Mid-Atlantic league would be introduced.
Lantz pointed out that MiLB has previously undergone “realignment.”
“It’s not something we’re opposed to doing, so it’s just a matter of negotiating which teams might end up going somewhere and which ones won’t,” Lantz said. “We’ve moved teams from the California League to the Carolina League and South Atlantic League to the Midwest League. So, if it makes sense, we can hopefully work something out there.”
The proposal has two currently unaffiliated independent teams, the St. Paul Saints of the American Association and the Sugar Land Skeeters of the Atlantic League, receiving player development contracts to become affiliated minor league teams. The pair was selected based on their locations close to major league teams and their facilities, per an MLB source.
Courtney Knichel, general manager of the independent Atlantic League’s Southern Maryland Blue Crabs in Waldorf, said her club would be interested in a player development contract should one be offered.
MLB’s proposal, an MLB source said, is not about eliminating professional baseball in the cities where teams would lose their affiliation. MLB believes it’s valuable for the league and the sport itself to have baseball played as many places as possible, the source said, which is the reasoning behind the suggested creation of a league-backed “Dream League,” as well as collegiate summer leagues, at the 42 ballparks that house teams who would lose their affiliated status.
The “Dream League” would be a somewhat independent league that would have support from both MLB and MiLB. That would possibly include equipment, umpires, marketing, and programs that promote diversity among the league’s coaches and umpires, per the source.
Part of those marketing efforts include the potential for the teams’ rosters to be primarily filled with players with home or collegiate ties to the area, compared with affiliated minor league teams where the teams have whatever roster the parent club gave them.
The proposal also includes the reduction of the 40-round MLB amateur draft to 20-25 rounds. The rosters of Dream League teams would be composed of undrafted players that otherwise would have played for the eliminated minor league teams.
The Dream League teams, similar to those in several current independent leagues, would receive compensation from any MLB club who wants to add a Dream League player or coach to its organization, partially or fully subsidizing the team’s cost for that player or coach. MLB believes long-functioning independent leagues such as the Atlantic League and American Association show the model is sustainable and can work, a source said.
For teams that become unaffiliated but decide the Dream League is not a viable option, they can become part of MLB-sponsored collegiate summer leagues.
With the end of the current Professional Baseball Agreement still a year away, there remains a possibility that the number of teams pushed out of affiliated ball decreases from 42, with Lantz saying, “Every negotiation has a little bit of give and take on both sides.” An MLB source said that number certainly wouldn’t get higher, though the simple math of 120 affiliates for 30 major league teams also makes it difficult to see it getting lower.
For now, teams, executives and cities — including five in Maryland — have to wait to learn their fates.
“You don’t want people worried about the future of their franchise or their team,” Lantz said. “Everybody just needs to stick together and let our negotiating team do their job and hammer out the best deal that they can for Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball, as well.”