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The minor leagues are edging closer to a deal with MLB about contraction

As many as 40 teams could be eliminated.

Principal Park in Des Moines, home of the Iowa Cubs
Principal Park in Des Moines, home of the Iowa Cubs
Dylan Heuer

Earlier this week, there was a report that Minor League Baseball was about to reach a deal with Major League Baseball about eliminating nearly a quarter of MiLB teams.

That report was quickly rebuffed by Minor League Baseball officials:

As noted in the tweet, however, negotiations between the parties were ongoing, and this article by Dave Sheinin in the Washington Post appears to indicate that a deal for contracting the minor leagues is getting close:

In negotiating sessions this week, Minor League Baseball dropped its earlier, stringent opposition to MLB’s contraction plan, a pivot that was caused in large part by the economic devastation being wrought by the novel coronavirus pandemic. The sides have been working since November to reach a deal on a new Professional Baseball Agreement to replace the one set to expire at the end of this year.

“We are working towards creative solutions wherein there will be 120 full season teams,” Minor League Baseball officials wrote in a letter sent to affiliates Friday, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post.

The current number of minor-league teams is 160, and having the number drop to 120 would be very close to the original MLB proposal from last fall that would have eliminated 42 minor-league teams at various levels. Sheinin’s article further quotes the letter sent to affiliates:

“Most [full-season] teams will continue in their same level of play and with long-term affiliations with their current MLB partners,” the letter said. “A few [minor league] teams will be required to move to different levels of play to accommodate the geographical needs of some MLB clubs and to recognize that the most advanced players should be playing in high-quality facilities.”

There might also be some independent league teams that could be brought into the affiliated system of Minor League Baseball under such an agreement.

120 teams would allow for each of the 30 MLB clubs to have four affiliates. Currently, every team has four full-season affiliates (Triple-A, Double-A, Advanced-A, Low-A) plus a short-season team that begins play in June. Most teams also have a rookie league affiliate; the Cubs have had two Arizona Rookie League clubs for the last two seasons. The short-season leagues would be eliminated under one of the proposals currently on the table and the rookie leagues would undergo changes. It seems likely that rookie-league level players wouldn’t have official “leagues” anymore, but would instead be given instruction and have intrasquad games at team spring-training complexes.

According to Sheinin:

The new deal also would feature “meaningful changes in the relationship” and a “much tighter overall alignment” between MLB and Minor League Baseball, the letter said. But the net result would be “lower costs and higher revenues” for minor league clubs.

Translation: MLB would wind up with much more control over its minor-league affiliates. Whether this is a good thing or not remains to be seen. It will definitely mean that fewer players would be in each MLB system. This might mean that minor-league pay could be increased — but at the cost of some players currently in pro ball who wouldn’t be.

The Cubs system would be one of the least-affected by this, except for no longer having a team in the short-season Northwest League. The league would cease to exist, though some of its franchises could be moved to other levels. The Cubs’ affiliation at Iowa, for example, certainly wouldn’t change. The Cubs have been affiliated with Iowa since 1981. At the Triple-A level, only Omaha (Royals, 1969) and Pawtucket (Red Sox, 1970) have had longer affiliations. (The Pawtucket franchise is scheduled to move to Worcester, Massachusetts in 2021, though it will remain a Red Sox affiliate.)

Sheinin’s article concludes:

In its letter Friday, Minor League Baseball’s negotiators told the affiliates they are “more optimistic about the prospects for an agreement in the near term” but that there remains work to be done “and there is no certainty on outcomes.”

As always, we await developments.