Major League Baseball will move into the 2021 season with a new minor league structure that affords it greater control over its affiliates. In decisions that have been announced over the course of the off-season, MLB continues to implement that new structure and how the minors will be set up for the course of the 2021 season and beyond. There have been a lot of questions and confusion during this current upheaval and in all honesty, not all of the details are official yet. For instance, MLB has not presented league schedules for 2021. Still, some things have become clearer. Below we try to answer five important questions about minor league baseball moving forward. Here are the short and long answers.
Question: In the most basic sense, what happened to the relationship between Major and Minor League Baseball?
Short Answer: While minor league baseball is still a thing, Minor League Baseball isn’t.
Long Answer: The organization of Minor League Baseball as well as the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, as we know them are no longer a thing. MLB has wanted to move to a system where the league itself negotiated affiliations with singular minor league teams directly rather than having individual MLB teams work with individual minor league teams coupled with their larger organization (the NAPBL). In short, the balance of negotiating power shifted. Any strength in numbers that the minor leagues teams had was taken away from them in the fact that MLB’s agreement with MiLB and the NAPBL had ended and MLB refused to negotiate outside of with individual teams one by one. This would have likely proven to be an effective power move for MLB in a regular year, but in a 2020 where there was no minor league baseball, the minor league teams were essentially at the mercy of their Major counterparts.
Question: What has MLB decided to do to the structure of the minors considering that they have all of this leverage? Why are they doing so?
Short Answer: There were about 160 minor league teams affiliated with Major League Baseball in 2018. In 2020, there will be 120. Affiliated minor league baseball will now consist of the AAA, AA, high A, and low A levels.
Long Answer: We are seeing the effective elimination of 40 MLB affiliated teams coming into this year in an effort by MLB to streamline its structure. Short Season A and Rookie Leagues are going to be no more. That doesn’t mean that organizations from those leagues are being categorically removed from baseball though. In an effort to also provide better geographic and financial viability, MLB also shifted teams among levels. For instance, Colorado Rockies’ former Short A affiliate Spokane Indians will be moved from their former Short A distinction to High A for the 2021 season while their former High A affiliate Lancaster JetHawks unfortunately are likely to be eliminated. MLB also pulled three independent league teams: the Saint Paul Saints, Sugar Land Skeeters and Somerset Patriots into the new structure of the minors.
According to MLB, all of this movement is also in the name of being able to provide better facilities for the minor league teams, something that they are now mandating. Rather than have to spread resources over 6 minor league teams, it is simple math that MLB organizations are better off trying to spread them over four and part of MLB’s complaint during negotiations was the quality of facilities among some affiliates. Improvements in this regard obviously became less of an option in the wake of the pandemic that eliminated operations for 2020, but MLB expressed a hope that in order to keep all affiliates then the minor league teams would need to chip in on facility costs. Still, minor league baseball has been a marketing benefit for the game over the years as an inexpensive but professional product brought to a small town near you. How the limiting of this product will affect the health of the game in the years to come is yet to be seen.
Question: Short A and Rookie leagues were where most newly drafted players would go. How else is the structure changing for these newly drafted players?
Long Answer: A six team league consisting of four teams from the New York-Penn League (including the now former Phillies affiliate Williamsport Crosscutters) that would otherwise have been eliminated plus the Fredrick Keys (former high A Baltimore) and Trenton Thunder (former AA Yankees) will be home to a brief league put together for MLB Draft hopefuls. Think of this like the Cape Cod League but with actual ties and invitations coming straight from MLB. The theory here is that getting all of MLB’s Draft hopefuls on one stage will provide more interest in young prospects and create conversation about them, much like occurs organically through college football and basketball. Whether or not this plan will be effective and how it will exactly jive with the end of the NCAA season and College World Series is also yet to be seen.
These changes are coupled with additional changes to the MLB Draft, which will be moved from its usual June 5th to the All-Star break, typically the 2nd Monday thru Thursday of July. This move to a more marquee time in the MLB schedule will also hopefully provide more shine for the young players about to be picked as well as the entirety of the draft itself. Of course, with fewer minor league teams there is also less need for as many draftees to fill out all affiliated rosters. Admittedly, the number of players drafted in the later rounds of the previous MLB Draft that turned into more than be minor league roster fodder was few, so the draft has been shortened to 20 rounds, still 15 more than the COVID-hampered 2020 version.
Question: Are there any more changes on the periphery of minor league baseball?
Long Answer: Among all the other changes, MLB has announced the Atlantic League, American Association, and the Frontier League as new MLB Partner Leagues along with the Pioneer League. These do not appear to be part of the greater part of the minor league structure (although the aforementioned Somerset Patriots and St. Paul Saints are former members of these independent leagues that are now under affiliated distinctions) but will get initial funding for operating expenses provided by MLB as well as receive scouting tech and regulations on how independent league players could be transferred to MLB teams. These leagues will likely operate in much of the manner that previous independent league have, being a haven for undrafted hopefuls and those that may be trying to play their way back into the interest of MLB organizations.
Question: What about the Phillies affiliates? Are there any changes there?
Short Answer: There are changes for the Phillies in the short term, but nothing of a drastic nature.
Long Answer: The Lakewood BlueClaws are changing both name and designation for the 2021 season as they will now be known as the Jersey Shore BlueClaws and will move up to a High A. In doing this, they are merely flip-flopping spots with the formerly High A Clearwater Threshers. Doing this helps two-fold, in that the Phillies will also keep a team of rookies at their Spring Training complex that is also in Clearwater, Florida. In what seems like a no-brainer of a move, the first promotion for those rookies as the complex would now be to the Low A affiliate within the same city. Additionally, the now High A Jersey Shore team is significantly closer to its parent organization. The Phillies will also keep the longest running AA association in the league as they hold ties with the Reading Fightin Phils, and the LeHigh Valley Iron Pigs will still be home to those closest to making it to the show. The only removal happening for the Phillies organization is the previously mentioned Crosscutters, who will be molded into the MLB Draft League.