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MLB’s proposed minor league realignment could affect some Cubs affiliates

It’s complicated.

Four Winds Field, home of the South Bend Cubs
Al Yellon

Major League Baseball is coming close to finalizing a plan that would completely revamp the structure of Minor League Baseball as we have known it.

It’s detailed in this Baseball America article, and here’s the gist of how it would work. Previously, minor-league organizations would sign two- or four-year affiliation agreements with MLB teams. Now, there will be 120 teams across four levels, and:

MLB will be presenting a contract—the Professional Development License—to individual owners. If an owner opts to not sign the PDL, MLB would likely move on to a team left out of the 120 to fill the open slot.

Theoretically, there could be further negotiations between individual teams and MLB once the teams receive the licenses, or a group of MiLB teams could band together to try to get changes to language in the license, but there is not going to be an agreed-upon contract that the two sides have worked out together.

These “licenses” are likely to be for 10 years, but some minor-league teams have been lobbying for them to be as long as 15-year licenses. The BA article isn’t clear on the length of the license.

Here is the proposed league structure, first for Double-A and Triple-A:

MLB has also laid out that it plans to have two Triple-A Leagues, one in the Eastern United States and one in the Western U.S., which is similar to the current format of the Pacific Coast League and International League. There will be three Double-A leagues, one in the Central U.S., another in the South and another in the Northeast. That hews very closely to the structure of the current Texas, Southern and Eastern Leagues.

Right now, the Cubs’ Triple-A affiliate, the Iowa Cubs, are in the Pacific Coast League. I’m sure you’re aware Iowa isn’t anywhere near the Pacific Coast. Iowa’s inclusion in PCL was necessitated when the old American Association (no relation to the current independent league with the same name) folded; a number of its teams went into the PCL, including Memphis and Nashville, even farther from the Pacific. It’s possible that Iowa (and the others far from the West Coast) could wind up in this “Eastern” league. As I wrote here last week, the Cubs’ affiliation with Iowa is likely to continue. It’s the third-longest current affiliation between a MLB team and a Triple-A club (only the Royals in Omaha and the Braves with Gwinnett have had longer runs that are still active).

The Cubs’ Double-A affiliate in Kodak, Tennessee (outside of Knoxville) will wind up in the Double-A league in the South, whatever it winds up being called; it’s likely to have a similar composition to the current Southern League.

At the lower levels, though, things get more complicated:

There will be three high Class A leagues, one in the Mid-Atlantic, one in the Midwest and one in the Northwest. That is a significant change from the current system. Many of the teams that comprise the low Class A Midwest League are expected to move to high Class A. Teams from the short-season Northwest League are expected to be used as Northwest high Class A teams. And the Mid-Atlantic League is expected to be filled with teams from both the Northeast (Brooklyn and Hudson Valley have already been announced by their MLB clubs) as well as teams from the Carolinas that played in theSouth Atlantic and Carolina Leagues in the past.

At low Class A, there will be a league in California (taken from teams that largely played in the high Class A California League), one in Florida (filled with teams that had played in the high Class A Florida State League) and one in the Southeast (populated largely by teams that played in the low Class A South Atlantic and high Class A Carolina Leagues).

If I am reading this correctly, the current Low-A South Bend Cubs, a member of the Midwest League, would wind up moving up a level, to High Class A (that level is currently known as “Advanced-A”). Meanwhile, the Carolina League’s Myrtle Beach Pelicans could wind up in a Low-A league that’s in the Southeast. The practical effect for Cubs prospects simply would mean that more advanced prospects would wind up in South Bend, and players with less experience in Myrtle Beach, which would now be typically the first full-season stop for anyone in the Cubs organization.

Teams would also continue to operate short-season Rookie leagues, primarily out of their spring-training complexes, and the other previous short-season Rookie leagues would cease to exist. At least one other league at that level, the Appalachian League, has already been switched over to a collegiate wood-bat summer league, and another, the Pioneer League, and some other teams at that level would become “Draft Scouting Leagues,” per the BA article, and:

MLB’s memo to MiLB teams reiterated that it “fulfills MLB’s commitment to maintaining baseball in every community in which it is currently played.”

While that might be technically true, the way in which some communities’ teams are being given new roles changes baseball’s relationship with those communities. Previously, fans of all affiliated teams could say that they were watching potential future major leaguers, and could state with pride that they saw a MLB superstar play when he was just starting out. For some towns, the switch in the level of play of the local team means that might no longer be the case. Will that affect local attendance? Only time will tell.

The BA article also notes that some leagues will become MLB “Partner Leagues.” The Atlantic League, Frontier League and American Association, independent leagues up to now, have already signed on to that status and:

MLB is also planning to announce that the Pioneer League (one of the Rookie-level MiLB leagues left out of the 120) will continue to play professional baseball as a Partner League. MLB is also having discussions with the Mexican League on becoming a Partner League.

What this status ultimately means is still to be determined. The BA article says this process is likely to begin around the first week of December and so, as always, we await developments.