Major League Baseball, Minor League Consolidation, and the Yankees
By Andy Singer
Changes across baseball’s landscape have come fast and furious in 2020. First, baseball fans were treated to a bitter stalemate over what the Major League season would look like in the middle of a global pandemic. In-game rules were changed in the interest of shortening the length of games, rosters were expanded, the season was shortened drastically, and even scouts had trouble getting into ballparks across the country.
Following a season in which owners predictably cried poverty after the loss of in-game revenue from ticket sales and concessions, it was expected that MLB would find every way that it could to reduce costs. We expect the Free Agent market to suffer mightily due to this fact, but a more disconcerting reality has emerged since August. Since 1921, when Branch Rickey, then the General Manager for the St. Louis Cardinals, signed the first agreement between a Major League team and Minor League (then the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, or NAPBL) teams to develop a farm system designed solely to develop players for a Major League club, Major League Baseball has worked with MiLB as a political and corporate organization to broker contracts for affiliated minor league baseball. The pandemic has changed the calculus, and MLB has utilized their political and monetary might to finally crush MiLB as an organization, taking control of the affiliated minor leagues.
Though this monumental change is in its infancy, the impact of the reorganization is already coming into focus. Today, I will factually break down a variety of components of minor league consolidation and analyze what it means for the Yankees, players, fans, and the world of baseball in the US.
Contraction of Leagues
No longer will teams be able to send young players to a variety of professional baseball leagues below A-ball. The affiliated minor league system will consist of 4 levels: Low-A, High-A, AA, and AAA. Each Major League team will “partner” (or engage in a form of shadow ownership) with a single minor league affiliate at each of those levels.
What does that mean for the Yankees? No more Pulaski affiliate for rookie ball; no more short-season affiliated baseball on Staten Island; no ability to stack 18 and 19 year old lottery ticket prospects in leagues with less experienced professional players while they get their sea legs; and less flexibility to allow young prospects to develop while playing real baseball games.
What’s happening with all of the teams that are losing affiliated status? That remains largely up in the air. Some of the teams that will lose affiliated status will join expanded Independent Leagues. Full leagues, like the Appalachian League, will likely become highly competitive wood bat summer league teams for Freshman and Sophomore collegiate players. That may sound like a great compromise, but think about how these leagues may dilute the talent pools of old, prestigious collegiate summer leagues like the Cape Cod Baseball League or the Alaska Baseball League (more on that in a minute). Sudden realignment on this scale, particularly following a year in which most minor league baseball and collegiate summer league baseball was cancelled, will likely have a huge impact on baseball’s ecosystem at the amateur and young professional level.
Lastly, some teams that are currently Independent will become affiliated minor league teams, while many currently affiliated minor league teams will be searching for a new league and new players.
The benefits MLB claims we will see from realignment and consolidation include:
Increased player salaries at all levels.
Better minimum condition standards at all affiliated minor league ballparks and clubhouses.
Geographical realignment, allowing minor league affiliates to be closer to the Major League club.
More efficient and centralized marketing of minor league teams, lowering operating costs for minor league teams.
Impact for the Yankees
Our own Patrick Gunn did an excellent job of covering this news Friday night, but I’ll summarize here. Already, we’ve seen significant realignment for the Yankees. The AA Trenton Thunder, a Yankee affiliate for the last 18 seasons, the Low-A Charleston River Dogs, the Short Season Staten Island Yankees, and Rookie Ball Pulaski are now Free Agents looking for leagues and players. And no, owners of those clubs are not happy in the slightest. NJ.com’s Brendan Kuty caught up with Trenton’s owner on Saturday. His words can best be described as scathing:
Wow. Trenton Thunder owner rips Yankees. pic.twitter.com/VEp2kSchNH — Brendan Kuty (@BrendanKutyNJ) November 7, 2020
I’ll get to the analysis in a minute. For now, the Yankees have added two former Independent League teams, the Somerset Patriots and the Hudson Valley Renegades, to their affiliated farm system. The layout is as follows:
Low-A: Tampa Tarpons
High-A: Hudson Valley Renegades
AA: Somerset Patriots
AAA: Scranton-Wilkes Barre RailRiders
There is a ton to unpack here. I’ve scattered some of my analysis within the comments section in the last few weeks, but I think now that the landscape is coming into focus, it makes sense to consolidate them into one place. My thoughts jump around, so I’m going to list them:
MLB’s assertion that taking control of the affiliated minor leagues will allow them to make visible improvements in a way that they couldn’t previously is disingenuous at best. Geographical realignment? Somehow I don’t think that would have been an insurmountable negotiation point with MiLB or the individual owners of various teams. Centralized marketing? Who knows small, local communities outside of MLB’s purview better than the inhabitants of those communities themselves?!? You’re telling me that the Yankees’ marketing team is better suited to market baseball to the Scranton community than anyone the RailRiders’ team could hire locally? Ensuring better conditions at minor league ballparks? If MLB teams actually cared, they could have either negotiated those facility and staffing upgrades directly with the owners of those affiliates or sought new affiliation individually. But the worst lie: increased player salaries across the minor leagues. I’d laugh if it didn’t make me so angry. This is the same league that has hid behind its anti-trust exemption for the better part of a century and fought tooth and nail against increasing player salaries in the minors to even comport with national minimum wage standards at the highest level of the courts and government. Now players are supposed to think that MLB is doing them a service? Talk about eye wash at its most sinister. I know we’ve heard about how much MLB owners were hurt by the loss of in-person revenue this year, but let’s say you wanted to add $15,000 to every minor league player’s salary across 6 leagues. That comes out to $2.25 million. The Yankees couldn’t get a decent reliever for that price. It’s a rounding error on the bottom line at the end of the year. Let’s call a spade a spade: MLB isn’t actually helping anyone other than owners with their unilateral action.
I am really worried about what is going to happen to some of the prestigious summer collegiate leagues across the country. MLB has signaled its intention to convert some rookie and short season leagues into elite collegiate summer leagues, and I worry that this will dilute the talent pools available for leagues like the Cape Cod League. Why do I care, beyond my own personal attachment? Local economies in these places depend on revenue associated with these leagues (and unlike the corporate behemoth that is MLB, these leagues don’t have billion dollar TV deals, and they’re really working to support local restaurants and apparel vendors), even as MLB has tried to step on those leagues in recent decades. Want an example? Check out what MLB did to the Cape Cod Baseball League back in 2009. Sure, of course MLB’s national apparel vendors need the couple of bucks more than local vendors. MLB is consistently a bully picking on smaller kids in a China shop, waiting to see how much collateral damage it can cause for its own benefit.
Beyond my aforementioned gripes, MLB is effectively depriving underserved communities from seeing good professional baseball. Don’t believe me? How many people went to Trenton Thunder games to get a glimpse at Aaron Judge, Deivi Garcia, or Gleyber Torres? I know people who still talk about going to see Ken Griffey Jr. play for the Burlington Lake Monsters in Vermont as an 18 year old. If MLB really wants to grow the game, cutting off affiliated baseball in communities that MLB doesn’t reach with the highest levels of the game seems like an odd way to go about it.
On another note, I am not surprised at all that Somerset is now an affiliated team. I remember going to that stadium for the first time when it was new close to a decade ago, and I thought then that a stadium that nice was not built for an Independent League. Once Somerset joined the Atlantic League, with whom MLB has had an agreement for a couple of years, it was only a matter of time before the Mets or Yankees picked them up.
I’ll miss videos of watching the Thunder’s bat dogs pick up the bats of future Yankees. Generally, I’m not one for gimmicks and promotions, but that was fun.
With minor league contraction, the Yankees could lose one of best ways they were able to flex their financial might to their advantage. The Yankees often sign busloads of college lottery tickets from the late rounds of the draft and international Free Agents below the international cap to stack the low minors. With the loss of multiple leagues below Low-A, the Yankees have fewer opportunities to get guys like that playing time in real game scenarios, hindering development. It’s a problem for developing really young prospects period, but the Yankees will necessarily have fewer guys like that around.
How does contraction hurt the development of a guy like Jasson Dominguez? Sure, the Yankees can keep him in the Dominican Summer League or playing inter-squad games in Tampa, but his first real professional baseball will be in Low-A, a much bigger jump than most prospects are faced with. Dominguez may be an exception, but I worry how the development path may be altered for even good prospects like Dominguez.
Selfishly, as upset as I am about the way it seems as though the Yankees handled negotiations, both new affiliates in Somerset and Hudson Valley are easy for me to get to. Once it’s safe to do so, I expect to see a few games each summer in both locations.
Overall, everything MLB is doing with minor league contraction and realignment is penny smart, pound foolish. Even if I’m wrong to some extent about MLB hiding revenue in just about as opaque a financial statement you can make, MLB really isn’t saving enough money to rescue the bottom line with any of these plans to have them make any sense other than in the context of a corporate entity flexing its might to gain power, control, and a little extra cash to pad the pockets of a few. As angry as I am at MLB (again), I’m mostly sad for the sport of baseball.