Baseball America reports that MiLB has agreed to MLB’s demand, submitted last fall as part of negotiations over a new player development contract between the various affiliated leagues and the MLB owners who pay player and staff salaries. MiLB had initially strongly opposed the plan, but the financial pressures resulting from COVID-19 seem to have driven them to give in. Operating a minor league team seems to be a financially precarious proposition in good times, and the pandemic and loss of the 2020 season is a serious blow to teams that were barely scraping by.
The plan involves reducing the number of affiliated minor league clubs to 120 and the elimination of all short season leagues above the complex level. The advanced Rookie Appalachian and Pioneer leagues, as well as the Short Season A New York-Pennsylvania league will be eliminated completely. The other Short Season A league, the Northwest league, will be promoted to become a full season league. Additionally, there will be significant shuffling of existing leagues, including splitting a fourth A league, to be called the Mid-Atlantic League, off from the South Atlantic League and contracting the AAA Pacific Coast League to 10 teams while expanding the AAA International League to 20 teams. The goal of all this movement, beyond saving money for MLB owners, is to reduce travel by creating more geographically compact leagues.
For the Blue Jays, the implications aren’t completely clear. We know for sure that the Bluefield Blue Jays of the Appalachian League will be contracted. The High A Dunedin Blue Jays, AA New Hampshire Fisher Cats and AAA Buffalo Bisons all survive, and it seems likely that the Jays will want to keep their affiliations. That’s especially true for the Bisons (because of the geographic convenience of Buffalo to Toronto) and the Dunedin Blue Jays (who play in the Toronto Blue Jays’ spring training home and in the same town as their team complex). There’s no particular reason to expect that the Fisher Cats would change leagues or affiliations either, given that they’ve been a Jays affiliate for the past 17 years.
The situation with the A ball affiliates is more complicated. The Vancouver Canadians will be promoted to A ball with the other surviving members of the Northwest League (It appears that the league will be cut to six teams, with the Salem-Kizer Volcanoes and the Tri-City Dust Devils being contracted). The Lansing Lugnuts survive the reduction of the Midwest league from 13 teams to 16. This leaves the Jays with a choice between two A affiliates. The new plan allows each team only four American (or Canadian) affiliates, one each at A, High A, AA, and AAA, plus a complex level team and a Dominican Summer League team. Which A level team the Jays will choose to keep hasn’t been reported, but it seems likely they’d prioritize Vancover, a Canadian affiliate that draws better than all but one A ball team and almost all AA teams and whose games the Blue Jays’ parent company sometimes broadcasts.
Teams will be limited to 150-200 players on minor league contracts in the United States, which will significantly increase the pressure on players to move up or out of the system. It’s possible that with a quarter fewer roster spots to fill, the draft will be permanently shortened from the previous 40 rounds (MLB has already reached an agreement with the MLBPA to shorten it to between 5 and 10 rounds this year and has an option to shorten it to 20 rounds in 2021). MLB’s plan includes the establishment of a “Dream League” for undrafted free agents to try to catch the eye of a major league organization.
MiLB has now conceded to almost all of MLB’s public demands, and the Baseball America report indicates that there has been significant progress behind the scenes as well. Whether MLB will accept the deal, or whether they’ll try to use the current crisis to twist the screws even harder on their MiLB partners remains to be seen. Talks between the two sides are scheduled to resume tomorrow.