MiLB Realignment: Independent MLB Partner Leagues Edition
One of the most interesting results of MiLB contraction is looking at what happened to the forty three franchises in exile. Many of these franchises have already found a home. The Appalachian League has reinvented itself as a college (wood bat) summer league. I will write about these summer leagues later this month. The Appalachian League includes ten franchises located in Tennessee, North Carolina, West Virginia and Virginia. MLB created the MLB Draft League, also a college summer league, which includes six franchises from Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
There have been major changes to Triple-A, Double-A and Single-A levels. Rookie leagues and Short Season Single-A were eliminated. A number of former affiliate franchises moved on to join one of the four independent leagues who have a partnership with MLB. These include the Atlantic League, the American Association of Professional Baseball, Frontier League and Pioneer League.
MLB Partner Leagues
Atlantic League of Professional Baseball (formed in 1998) is currently an eight team independent league with franchises located in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region. Their franchises do not have affiliations with MLB clubs, but the league does have a partnership with MLB. In recent years, the Atlantic League has experimented with rule changes, including computers calling balls and strikes (rather than umpires), limiting defensive shifts and modifying the distance between home plate and pitchers mound, among other changes. Their franchises include:
- Lancaster Barnstormers
- Long Island Ducks
- Southern Maryland Blue Crabs
- York Revolution
- Gastonia Honey Hunters
- High Point Rockers
- Lexington Legends (formerly of the South Atlantic League)
- West Virginia Power (formerly of the South Atlantic League)
Opening Day for the Atlantic League is May 28th.
American Association of Professional Baseball (founded in 2005) is a twelve team independent league with franchises primarily in the Midwest and Farm Belt region. Like the Atlantic League, their franchises do not have direct affiliation with MLB clubs, but the league does have a partnership with MLB. The players of the league consist of a mixture of former MLB, MiLB and college players. AAPB’s franchises include:
- Chicago Dogs
- Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks
- Gary SouthShore Railcats
- Kane County Cougars (formerly of the Midwest League)
- Milwaukee Milkmen
- Winnipeg Goldeyes
- Cleburne Railroaders
- Houston Appolos
- Kansas City Monarchs
- Lincoln Saltdogs
- Sioux City Explorers
- Sioux Falls Canaries
Opening Day for the AAPB is May 18th.
Frontier League (formed in 1993) is a 14 team independent league with franchises throughout the Northeast and Midwest. It is currently the longest standing independent league in operation. The Frontier League franchises include:
- New York Builders
- Tri-City Valleycats (from New York-Penn League)
- New Jersey Jackels
- Sussex County Miners
- Washington Wild Things
- Joilet Slammers
- Lake Erie Crushers
- Schaumberg Boomers
- Windy City Thunderbolts
- Evansville Otters
- Florence Y’alls
- Gateway Grizzlies
- Southern Illinois Miners
- Equipe Quebec (will play as road team in 2021, due to Canadian border shutdown)
Opening Day in the Frontier League is May 27th.
Pioneer League is an eight team independent league with franchises scattered throughout the Rocky Mountain region. It has been an MLB affiliated league since 1939 and served as a Rookie level league since 1964, before going independent to begin the 2021 season. All eight franchises that played in the affiliated Pioneer League made the switch.
- Billings Mustangs
- Great Falls Voyagers
- Idaho Falls Chukars
- Missoula PaddleHeads
- Grand Junction Rockies
- Ogden Raptors
- Rocky Mountain Vibes
- Boise Hawks (from Northwest League)
Opening Day in the Pioneer League is May 22nd.
Are the Partner Leagues Independent?
The partnership between these four independent leagues and Major League Baseball should be interesting to watch. While the Atlantic League, AAPB, Frontier League and Pioneer League remain independent in the sense that they have their own governing structure, they have given up some of their autonomy with their MLB partnership. It is my understand that MLB can impose rule changes on these leagues, in order to experiment with ideas before it gets to affiliated baseball. This is happening in the Atlantic League, under MLB’s direction. A post at Words Above Replacement describes the partnership this way:
For MLB, Partner Leagues mean nothing. It’s just one more way for them to say this is their brand of baseball while spending less money to front their attempt at creating a baseball hegemony.
In other words, these leagues may be independent in name only. Perhaps the only true independent leagues left are the United Shore Professional Baseball League, Empire Professional Baseball League, Pacific Association and Pecos League. They will be the subject of my next article. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see what role the MLB partnership leagues will play in professional baseball’s developmental process.