What Happens After Minor League Contraction?
One of the biggest discussions coming out of last week’s MLB Draft was the reduction of the number of rounds. Just last year the MLB Draft had forty rounds, this year just five.
This decision to drastically cut the draft is said to save the teams about $30 million. Rumors of cutting Minor League Baseball franchises also likely played a factor in this decision. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, MLB put forward a plan to reduce the number of MiLB franchises by more than 40 teams. This move would effectively wipe out most teams at the lowest levels of the game and many others as well. The pandemic struck an even larger blow to the game with so many minor league franchises sitting on the verge of bankruptcy. Even Sports Illustrated featured a cover story on the MiLB crisis.
While the drastic reduction in the draft and the inevitable reduction of MiLB does pose serious threats to the game of baseball, it also presents many interesting opportunities. Let’s assume that the economic impact of the lost season causes a major contraction and reorganization of the minors. What if MLB franchises only only maintain two or three MiLB affiliates? Such a change would eliminate most of the lower levels affiliates. On the upside, it might allow MLB to invest more heavily on their limited number of teams and players. In this case, the concern over better pay for minor league players may be addressed. There are also rumor MLB may create a new Dream League. It would include some of the franchises rumored for contraction.
But, what to make of what might be lost?
There are several proven independent leagues that could prove to be the models of future alternatives to the current system. The Frontier League has teams spread from the Midwest to the Northeast (including Canada). The American Association of Professional Baseball is primarily stationed in the upper Midwest (including Canada). The Atlantic League is highly concentrated in the Northeast. There are also recent start-up leagues like the United Shore Professional Baseball League that features several teams playing all games in one stadium in the northern suburbs of Detroit. Some of these leagues provide opportunities for older players who have spent time in MLB to continue their playing careers. Others are more focused on bringing in young players out of high school or college looking to land a spot in an MLB farm system.
The elimination of many franchises from MLB affiliation may allow for new independent leagues to form. These leagues could be regionally based and fill the void left in many MiLB towns. For example, the Chattanooga Lookouts (Tennessee), Daytona Tortugas (Florida), Florida Fire Frogs and Lexington Legends (Kentucky) are considered to be on the chopping block. These franchises could ban together to form a new, independent Southeastern Baseball League (SEBL) including mid-sized cities in states across the Southeast. In fact, such a league could emerge as something similar to what the Pacific Coast League was in the first half of the 20th Century. More regional leagues could follow suit.
The College Game
College Baseball would be a potentially beneficiary of a smaller minor league system. Many of the best players in the college game would be less likely to leave after three seasons. Similarly, many high school players may be more likely to take scholarship offers rather than attempt to go pro. This trend would potentially place a much stronger emphasis on College Baseball as a developmental league for MLB.
Each year, college players continue to make an even larger impact in the MLB Draft. For example, 19 of the 30 picks in the first round of the 2020 MLB Draft were college players; while 11 were from high school. The first seven picks were out of college. As I have written previously, I believe that the College World Series is the most underrated spectacle in sports. Much of the same appeal that applies to College Football and College Basketball may also apply to College Baseball in the years to come. The College World Series may be elevated to a College Football Playoff or March Madness status.
Another factor could entice players to pursue College Baseball over MiLB. New laws in Florida allow college athletes to be paid for their name, image and likeness beginning July 1, 2021. A similar bill is being introduced in the US Senate. This would be a major incentive for athletes to choose college or stay an extra year. Arguably, it’s a game changer for College Baseball.
The Coming Years
The contraction of 40 or more MiLB teams would certainly be a loss for baseball. However, it may just result in a reorganization of the game as we know it. Fewer teams subsidized by MLB may result in higher pay for players who remain with MLB affiliate teams. The possibility of new, independent leagues forming is also an exciting prospect. The potential elevation of College Baseball to major sport status is also appealing to those of us who follow the college game. Yes, baseball may indeed see some drastic changes in the years to come. We should brace for the changes and will have to accept that some things will be lost. But, we should also think about things that can be gained.