In September of every even-numbered year, the minor leagues undergo what is unofficially called the “Affiliation Shuffle.” Major league teams, for the most part, do not own their minor league affiliates. Instead, major and minor league teams agree to a “Player Development Contract” for a two- or four-year deal to host their minor league team. Those contracts run out in September.
The Cubs had two minor league affiliations that expired in 2018. In the first, the short-season A Eugene Emeralds, agreed to sign a new four-year deal with the Cubs on August 17. (Teams can agree to re-sign with their current minor league affiliates before September, but they aren’t allowed to negotiate with other affiliates before then.)
The other Cubs affiliate whose PDC expired this year is the Double-A Tennessee Smokies. All season long, there have been reports that the Cubs and Smokies were expected to renew their agreement. It made sense. The Smokies have been a Cubs affiliate since 2007, which is second only to Iowa in seniority in the Cubs minor league system. Smokies Park is considered to be among the best stadiums in Double-A. The Smokies play closer to Chicago than most other Double-A teams and there are daily, non-stop flights from Knoxville to Chicago.
But since the Emeralds renewed their agreement, there has been nothing from the Cubs or the Smokies about a new agreement. We’re now three weeks into September and still no announcement. These things are usually treated as top secret for some reason, but the fact that there wasn’t an immediate announcement of a new PDC is odd.
There are four other Double-A affiliates looking for a team and four other MLB teams looking for an affiliate. The other four affiliates are the Pensacola Blue Wahoos and the Chattanooga Lookouts in the Southern League and the Midland RockHounds and the as-yet-unnamed new team in Amarillo in the Texas League. The other teams looking for an affiliate are the Twins, Reds, Athletics and Padres.
The Cubs would likely be loath to move to the Texas League with its huge geographic footprint and long bus rides. The park in Chattanooga is aging and the owners are lobbying for a new one. The Smokies also average almost 1,500 more fans per game than the Lookouts. There is no way that Chattanooga would be more attractive than Tennessee.
That leaves Pensacola, which has a nice new stadium, built in 2012, although they do share it with the University of West Florida football team. They draw about as well as the Smokies do. It’s probably not quite as easy to get Chicago from Pensacola than it is from Knoxville, but it wouldn’t be a big problem. The Blue Wahoos are considered to have a first-class organization, but then again, so are the Smokies. Pensacola also has a lot more weather issues than Sevierville and the constant rainouts were one reason the Cubs left High-A Daytona for Myrtle Beach a few years ago.
Still, it looked like it would be big news when the Blue Wahoos announced that they were terminating their affiliation deal with the Reds. However, when the Blue Wahoos owner was asked about the decision, he didn’t even mention the Cubs. In fact, he said that there were only four teams looking for a new Double-A affiliate, leaving the Cubs out altogether. He said the Blue Wahoos would choose between the Twins, Padres or going back to the Reds.
If the Cubs were available, you’d think the owner of the Blue Wahoos would know. You’d also think they would be his first choice over those three teams or the A’s, whom he said he’s not even considering. So this indicates to me that the Cubs staying in Tennessee is a done deal.
So why no announcement? I have no idea. The two sides could still be negotiating something, although I’m not sure what. Teams and affiliates are strictly forbidden to offer any monetary incentives for an affiliation. They can negotiate whether it’s a two- or four-year deal and whether or not the team owner or general manager shows up at the press conference announcing the deal, but that’s about it.
And maybe that’s the reason there has been no announcement. Maybe they’re waiting for a time for a big announcement that would involve the Cubs front office going to Sevierville. I have no idea if that’s the case. I have a few other ideas that I’d rather not speculate on because that’s all they’d be: wild speculation from me. But it seems like the Cubs and the Smokies are dragging out what should have been an easy announcement and there is probably a reason why.
I’ve reached out to the Smokies and asked for a comment. If I hear back from them, I’ll update this story.
The deal has to be announced by the end of the month and time is running out. We’ll know soon.