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Minor League Baseball will reportedly agree to cut 40 teams

A significant reported concession could lead to a new deal between MLB, MiLB

Tampa Bay Rays v Houston Astros Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Major League Baseball’s working agreement with Minor League Baseball expires after the 2020 season, and the very landscape of the affiliated minors could change as we know it. A reported 42 teams would be cut in a major concession from MiLB, per J.J. Cooper at Baseball America.

Cooper reports that MLB and MiLB have reached “common ground” on various issues over the past few months, and that agreeing to lop off a quarter of minor league teams is a concession that could lead to a new agreement.

While the exact details of timetables and funding mechanisms need to be worked out, both sides agree on the need to adopt improved facility standards. MiLB has signaled its understanding that the current player development contracts by which MiLB teams and MLB teams reach affiliation agreements will be modified to give MLB teams greater control over choosing their affiliates. MiLB has indicated a willingness to work with MLB on shortening travel and improving the geographical cohesiveness of leagues.

It’s not yet clear which teams will be affected, but if it’s the same list the New York Times reported in November, it would mostly include rookie league and short-season teams. There are a total of 40 teams in the rookie level Pioneer and Appalachian Leagues and the short-season low-A level Northwest and New York-Penn Leagues combined.

This was a point of strong contention during the winter, when MLB and MiLB each accused the other of negotiating in bad faith.

Back in November, Dave Heller, owner of four minor league teams on the reported cut list, told me, “It’s never going to go through. Minor League Baseball is never going to agree to have 42 teams contracted in the most arbitrary and capricious way. They can’t proceed without our acquiescence.”

It appears Minor League Baseball, with this reported concession, is now prepared to give that acquiescence.

The new plan would mean four full-season affiliates for each major league team, plus a rookie league team at the club’s spring training complex. For the Dodgers, that means the rookie-league Ogden Raptors go away, a minor league affiliate with the team since 2003.

Cooper also reports “MiLB and MLB are expected to discuss the parameters of a system where the two sides could work together to ensure that most of the cities that currently have affiliated baseball will have ties to MLB clubs, even if those cities’ teams will not be fielding draftees and signees of the MLB club.”

Keeping baseball in some form or another is key for several of these cities, such that Congress has gotten involved with several sternly-worded letters to Major League Baseball in the past few months. There’s always the option of removing baseball’s antitrust exemption, but Congress has thus far never wielded that hammer. Ties to the majors are key for several cities.

“The independent league model as you’ve seen in a lot of cities that have shut down ballparks, whether it’s Camden, Nashua or some of these bigger markets,” MiLB senior director of communications Jeff Lantz told me in November. “If the independent model doesn’t work there, it’s hard to imagine the independent model working in markets the size of the Appalachian League towns or the New York-Penn League towns. It works in Sugarland, Texas, and it works in St. Paul, Minnesota, but it’s really, really hard to have a sustainable business model with an independent team.”

Cooper notes that the independent St. Paul Saints and Sugarland Skeeters could be added to the affiliated minors as part of the deal between MLB and MiLB.

The writing on the wall for this was seen with the March 27 agreement between the players association and MLB. The key points of that deal were salary and service time for major leaguers, but as part of the deal MLB can reduce the draft to as few as five rounds in 2020 and as small as 20 rounds in 2021, instead of 40. So it’s not like teams will have the usual influx of players they would need to send to a short-season affiliate.

Minor League Baseball denied the report from Baseball America, though without specifics in a statement:

Recent articles on the negotiations between MiLB and Major League Baseball (MLB) are largely inaccurate. There have been no agreements on contraction or any other issues. MiLB looks forward to continuing the good faith negotiations with MLB tomorrow as we work toward an agreement that best ensures the future of professional baseball throughout the United States and Canada.

The next time we even have minor league baseball, it could be very different than we’re used to.