For the Orioles, Wednesday’s league-wide reshuffling of the minors was relatively straightforward.
There were no new affiliates to welcome to the system. Only one affiliate changed levels. And unlike some of the minor league teams that ended this yearlong game of musical chairs without a seat, the lone member of the Orioles’ setup that became unaffiliated, the Frederick Keys, managed a somewhat soft landing and at least has a general idea of how it will spend 2021.
All four of the minor league organizations that received invitations to remain part of the Orioles’ system in 2021 — the Norfolk Tides, Bowie Baysox, Aberdeen IronBirds and Delmarva Shorebirds — have been Baltimore affiliates for more than a decade. Only the IronBirds, which had been the Orioles’ affiliates at the now-eliminated short-season level, changed where they fit in Baltimore’s minor league ladder, moving to High-A. There, they replace the Keys, who will be one of six teams in the new MLB Draft League.
But this process is not yet finalized. Here’s a look at what’s ahead for the Orioles’ minor league system.
First off, why did this happen?
These changes were first floated a year ago, with Major League Baseball hoping to optimize travel throughout the minor leagues while also trying to ensure that only the best facilities were used to groom prospects.
The plan throughout this process has been to reduce the number of minor league teams to 120, not including the complex-based clubs in the Arizona League and Gulf Coast League that are owned by their major league counterparts. That meant four full-season affiliates for each of the 30 major league franchises, so in the Orioles’ case, there was always going to be one odd team out.
Ideally, whatever organization didn’t receive an invitation Wednesday from the Orioles would get one from another club, but that didn’t end up being the case. Ronald Young, a Democrat representing Frederick County in the Maryland State Senate, said in a statement that he spoke with Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias about the changes and was left understanding that it was the Keys’ facility that left them outside of the 120 affiliated teams.
“Not once have I heard from the team, the League, or the Orioles that they were looking for improvements at the stadium,” Young said. “This move has been under consideration for some time. It would have been considerate if such a move were to be made to inform the City at the onset.
“I would urge the City to inquire what improvements would need to be done to upgrade the facility to bring a team back here.”
With those teams getting invitations, what steps are left?
They have to accept them, and that’s not necessarily guaranteed.
The league is in the process of distributing Player Development Licenses, which unlike the invitations, will detail the plans going forward for minor league travel, facility requirements and various other costs.
“We’ve got our invitation, so we’re excited about that and to work through the next steps of that process,” Shorebirds general manager Chris Bitters said. “Now, as you keep seeing everywhere, with the Orioles and everybody, the term ‘invitation’ being used. This is different than the processes in the past. There’s a new structure with regards to the minor leagues that will be existing, and there are some things on that side that need to be reviewed and details to be worked out throughout the industry.”
Among those topics is franchise valuations, with the level an affiliate plays at impacting how much its worth. That, however, likely won’t factor in much in the decisions of the Orioles’ four invited affiliates. The Tides remained in Triple-A, the Baysox stayed in Double-A and the Shorebirds are still in Low-A, which means their valuations should be relatively the same. Going from short-season ball to a High-A, full-season affiliate should certainly benefit the IronBirds, as well.
What happens if one of them declines?
If, for whatever reason, one of the four invited affiliates decides it doesn’t want to be part of the new minor league structure, the Orioles would be able to invite another club, with the Keys being the obvious solution.
Such a scenario with another club could be another path for Frederick to retain its affiliated status. MLB has yet to formally announce leagues and schedules for the 2021 minor league season, likely because it’s waiting for all 120 PDLs to be signed and each organization’s four affiliated to be official through that process.
What does 2021 and beyond look like for the Keys?
As mentioned, the Keys are ticketed to be inaugural members of the MLB Draft League, which will provide draft-eligible amateurs a chance to showcase their talents in the leadup to the draft. The other five teams are the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, the State College Spikes, the Trenton Thunder, the West Virginia Black Bears and the Williamsport Crosscutters, making Frederick a geographic fit. Much like they would as a minor league affiliate, the Keys will not be responsible for the salaries of players, who as amateurs are not eligible to be paid.
The MLB Draft League will feature a 68-game season from late May to mid-August, with an all-star break centered on the actual MLB draft, which with the elimination of short-season leagues has been pushed back to July. The format means the Keys will host about 34 games at Harry Grove Stadium, about the same number they had across six homestands between May 24 and Aug. 15 of 2019.
Still, their yearly number of games, total and at home, will be cut in half from years past. In his statement, Young also urged the city of Frederick to see if an independent league would have any interest in adding the Keys, who had been an Orioles affiliate since 1989. Some former leagues, such as the Appalachian and New York-Penn leagues, have been converted to summer wood bat leagues, while other new unaffiliated teams might join previously existing independent leagues with longer seasons and thus more home dates, such as the Atlantic League.