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Orioles affiliates brace for next steps in minor league contraction in wake of pandemic

The general manager of the Aberdeen IronBirds said the Orioles' short-season affiliate is preparing to transition to a schedule double in length. The Delmarva Shorebirds' GM thinks the Low-A team’s recent ballpark upgrades have it positioned for the future. The owner of Baltimore’s three highest minor league affiliates is confident they will remain so even as Major League Baseball’s development pipeline contracts.

In the coming weeks, one of those forecasts could be proved incorrect.

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MLB has already begun whittling the number of affiliated minor league organizations from the previous 160 toward its desired 120, a plan first reported this time last year. That was before the coronavirus pandemic canceled the minor league season and simultaneously devastated teams' finances.

“There will be some teams that don’t make it,” said Ken Young, the president and owner of the Frederick Keys, Bowie Baysox and Norfolk Tides. “There just will.”

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For some of the Orioles' five highest minor league affiliates, the lack of baseball games to host meant instead becoming a hub for socially distant community events, including blood drives, movie nights, company picnics and outdoor college graduations. Still, the lack of traditional revenue prompted furloughs and layoffs for staff members.

The pandemic’s impact has carried into the offseason. Teams don’t yet know when their 2021 season will start, the schedule that will follow or how many fans will be able to attend. There’s also the question of whether they will even be part of the affiliated minor league structure.

The 120 figure is a mathematical ideal: Each of the 30 major league franchises will have four minor league affiliates, not including the complex-based teams in the Gulf Coast League, Arizona League or Dominican Summer League that are owned by their parent clubs. In the Orioles' case, the restructuring will mean losing one of their five top affiliates.

Young, who is also on the Minor League Baseball Board of Trustees, was critical of the league’s approach to the restructuring, saying it was “probably not as well thought out as it should’ve been.”

“They just decided they were going to cut 40 franchises, boom,” Young said. “I think they probably should’ve looked at that closer as to how that would be done, and certainly COVID interfered with that somewhat. But I just felt and feel that they should’ve taken a closer look at how to manage that and, if that’s what they wanted to do, do it over a little bit more time.”

The changes largely coincide with the September expiration of the Professional Baseball Agreement between MLB and Minor League Baseball.

“Major League Baseball continues to work with Minor League owners to grow the game by building a new player development model that will better serve fans, players and communities throughout the United States and Canada while preserving baseball in the cities and towns where it is currently being played,” MLB said in a statement. “While we are making preparations for 2021, our focus is on preserving the health and safety of players, fans and team employees with all of our decisions about next season guided by our team of medical experts.”

Many organization’s simplest solution to the reductions will be cutting from the bottom, as MLB will eliminate rookie-level and short-season leagues. That process has started, with the Appalachian League and New York-Penn League being converted into amateur wood bat leagues.

The IronBirds, owned by Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr. and an Orioles affiliate since their inception in 2002, are part of the NYPL, but Jack Graham, the team’s general manager, said the organization is not required to follow the league’s path.

“We’re going to make the best decision we can for our club and for our community,” Graham said. "The other teams in the New York-Penn League look very different from us in their facilities, their locations, their proximity to other minor league teams, their relationship with their big league club.

“I think we might be physically one of the closest minor league teams to their big league affiliate in the country. I would challenge the general manager of the Bowie Baysox to a footrace to Camden Yards.”

Graham hopes going from a short-season affiliate to a full season wouldn’t present many challenges beyond “not having enough seats for everyone to come and enjoy some higher-quality baseball,” he said. But where the IronBirds would fit into the overall minor league structure is not yet clear, though Graham believes they could fit into numerous levels and leagues.

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Much of MLB’s desire to reorganize minor league baseball relates to eliminating facilities that are considered disadvantageous to grooming prospects while geographically aligning leagues to improve the lengthy travel minor leaguers experience. Graham noted that neither the Orioles nor MLB have requested specific upgrades to Aberdeen’s Ripken Stadium, though the IronBirds plan to add synthetic turf and improved lighting in the coming years. Delmarva general manager Chris Bitters said the Shorebirds' Perdue Stadium has a relatively new field and lights, leaving him confident the team can handle whatever elevated standards MLB has for minor league facilities.

Young, meanwhile, acknowledged that upgrades are needed in Frederick and Bowie if the Keys and Baysox are to remain viable minor league affiliates, having discussed the needed changes with both cities.

“They know that they need to improve those venues dramatically if, over the long term, affiliated baseball is to stay there," Young said. "I have every reason after those discussions to be confident that once the facility standards are set that we will begin to be able to make those improvements. It might not be for this year because certainly, who knows what’s going on for this year, but over time, we will be able to make those facilities be excellent ones for the players and organization.”

Frederick was on an original list of the teams that would lose affiliation, though that list was introduced in early negotiations between MLB and Minor League Baseball and wasn’t a final product. Although Young cited the Keys' relationship and geographic proximity to the Orioles in expressing belief they would stay affiliated, the latter is a trait that also benefits all of Baltimore’s other minor league teams, with Norfolk the farthest away among the Orioles' non-complex affiliates and the only one outside of Maryland.

The New York Yankees are the only franchise to already announce their minor league restructuring. The Somerset Patriots, formerly part of the independent Atlantic League, became their Double-A affiliate, while their previous affiliate at that level, the Trenton Thunder, will replace Somerset in the Atlantic League. The Hudson Valley Renegades, previously the Tampa Bay Rays' short-season affiliate in the NYPL, became New York’s High-A affiliate, with the Tampa Tarpons dropping from High-A to Low-A. The moves leave the Yankees' former Low-A (Charleston, South Carolina), short-season (Staten Island, New York) and rookie-level (Pulaski, Virginia) teams unaffiliated for now.

Young said he has not spoken with other organizations about possibly adding the Keys, Baysox or Tides, implying that if they remain affiliated, it will be with Baltimore. Bitters said “it wouldn’t be prudent” to comment on his confidence level that the Shorebirds remain affiliated, given that negotiations are ongoing.

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“The changes that are being discussed are league-level stuff,” he said. “Right now, the pandemic is the thing that we’re strategizing around.”

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Mike Elias, the Orioles' executive vice president and general manager leading the organization through a rebuild focused on cultivating and developing minor league talent, also pointed to the ongoing discussions in saying last week that he had no announcement on Baltimore’s minor league structure for 2021. He said his background in player development and status as the head of a front office has prompted involvement in committees within the league that are preparing contingency plans for how the minor league structure might look next season as the pandemic continues.

“I am very optimistic and hopeful and we’re all very motivated to have much more on the player development side than we had this year, no matter what occurs,” Elias said. “We’ve got to prepare, though, for a bunch of different things across the spectrum, from a full, normal minor league season, which is everyone’s hope, to something that starts a little differently and then morphs into a full minor league season, to other options. We just don’t know what it’s gonna be yet.”

Likewise, the affiliates are preparing for various circumstances. Young said he has discussions with his teams about how they might operate depending on what percentage of fans they’re able to welcome to the ballpark, recognizing the uncertainty the virus provides. Bitters compared the situation to baking a cake, making sure the Shorebirds have all the ingredients they need so they can get to work once someone provides the pan.

“We can come up with the best plan in the world, but we might need to push it back two months,” Young said.

Even with the changes that have already happened, about 20 more clubs will need to lose their affiliation for MLB to hit its desired mark. As the creation of wood bat leagues suggests, MLB intends to find a way to keep baseball in the communities whose teams lose affiliation while also optimizing the minor league structure for its organizations.

Elias said he believes the final format, whatever it is, will benefit development, allowing for players to train specific skills at complexes while also enabling actual games that produce the statistics and data that modern teams rely on to evaluate prospects.

“We’re going to find out that player development and minor league baseball is going to be in a very healthy spot, despite the crisis that has taken place due to COVID,” Elias said. “I think we’re gonna have a really good setup for what the needs are for the minors and for the fans across baseball for the next 25, 50 years, but that work’s still being done.”

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