Who Benefits from MiLB Contraction?
The 2021 season will bring major changes to Minor League Baseball. In recent weeks, MLB franchises have released their new list of affiliated teams. The lists include a reduction in number of affiliates. The number of franchises affiliated with MLB teams has reduced by 43.
A big shakeup has taken place. The New York-Penn League has been eliminated, the Pioneer League has gone independent and the Appalachian League is now a college summer league. The newly created MLB Draft League will feature top prospects entering the draft. Florida State League has moved to Low-A and the Midwest League to High-A.
College Baseball Rising
The elimination of the lowest level affiliated baseball seems to have one major beneficiary; College Baseball. College Baseball has long been in competition with low level Minor League Baseball, whether they knew it or not. Top high school players have to make the decision to take a college scholarship or enter the MLB Draft.
In 2020, the MLB Draft only included five rounds, due to complications surrounding the pandemic. The Draft will not return to it’s traditional 40 rounds in 2021. It is scheduled during the All-Star Break in Atlanta and will consist of a minimum of 20 rounds. According to several sources, it will not go more than 30 rounds. This changes things in a number of ways. It means hundreds of prospects will go undrafted and will look for other alternatives.
The expansion of independent leagues can help fill some of that gap. Fewer opportunities to be drafted out of high school will likely result in more high school players opting for college. This may result in a major talent boost for College Baseball. More top players are being drafted from college and this trend is poised to continue.
College vs MiLB
There are a few simple realities that should enhance the quality of the college game.
Playing (high profile) College Baseball is much more glamorous than playing at lower level of MiLB. The facilities are better and the fans are more invested.
Playing in front of 10,000 fans at LSU or 8,000 at Ole Miss or Mississippi State are larger average crowds than most Triple-A ballparks. Many lower level MiLB franchises only average hundreds of fans per game.
Big time college baseball programs in the SEC, Big 12, ACC, Pac-12 and Big Ten continue to upgrade their facilities and enhance the benefits of their programs. Many mid-major programs are also highly competitive (see 2016 National Champions Coastal Carolina). Top high school prospects who are offered full-ride scholarships will be more likely to take them.
An influx of talent into the college ranks would also bring greater attention to the college game. I have long argued that the College World Series is the most underrated spectacle in sports. Each year the CWS gains fans.
The tournament format, rivalries and exciting games bring a March Madness atmosphere to the event. The in-person experience in Omaha is akin to college football Saturday at a large school with tailgates and festivities. Increasing the competitiveness and quality of College Baseball will only broaden it’s appeal and strengthen it’s reputation for player development.
The Future of Player Development
If college becomes a more attractive option for top prospects, the natural result would be more money into the college game. Increased revenue would pave the way for expanding the number of allotted full-ride scholarships (currently capped at 11.7). Increased revenue will help pay more assistant coaches.
All of these trends would make NCAA Baseball a larger factor in player development. It will also add to the importance of growing number of college summer leagues. Losing some of the lower levels of MiLB may simply result in a shift of talent, rather than a net loss.
Keep your eye on College Baseball in the years to come.