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How MLB’s proposed MiLB overhaul could affect the Indians

Seven affiliates enter, six or fewer leave

Huntington Park

Earlier this week, Baseball America released a lengthy breakdown of a forthcoming proposal from Major League Baseball in conjunction with Minor League Baseball. It’s behind a paywall, but you might have a free story available if you don’t frequent Baseball America. And if you’re out of free stories, it’s worth a subscription anyway.

For those of you who can’t read it, it basically boils down to this: Major League Baseball is seeking to streamline Minor League Baseball. That includes trimming 42 teams from the league, upgrading facilities, reorganizing MiLB’s league structures, and even creating a “Dream League” for players who go undrafted and would otherwise be unlikely to make it to the majors any time soon.

This all comes as part of the upcoming negotiation of a new Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) — the current PBA expires in 2020. The mission statement of the proposal, if you want to call it that, sounds all-around pretty solid.

From MLB deputy commissioner Dan Halem:

From the perspective of MLB clubs, our principal goals are upgrading the minor league facilities that we believe have inadequate standards for potential MLB players, improving the working conditions for MiLB players, including their compensation, improving transportation and hotel accommodations, providing better geographic affiliations between major league clubs and their affiliates, as well as better geographic lineups of leagues to reduce player travel.

Better compensation for minor league ball players is something that everyone with an ounce of empathy wants, and if MLB truly wants that, it’s a step in the right direction. Whether or not it’s all just talk is another thing entirely, though.

I’m not here to break down all the legal ramifications or to see through the PR speak and find out how much of MLB’s heart is really into ensuring their players are treated and compensated fairly (nor am I knowledgeable enough to do that).

I just want to know one thing: How could this all affect the Indians?

Well, the biggest is the potential elimination or at least reorganization of short-season ball. The proposal does not affect the Dominican Summer Leagues, but it could eventually lead to, say, the Mahoning Valley Scrappers as one of the 42 teams without a Player Development Contract (PDC) that guarantees them an affiliation with a minor league team. Or, another team in the system could be eliminated and see the Scrappers shifted to a full-season league.

At the root of the disagreement is a preliminary proposal MLB has offered to reduce its number of Player Development Contracts (the affiliation agreement by which MLB teams provide players and staff to MiLB teams) from 160 to 120. That reduction would completely eliminate the four, non-complex Rookie-level and short-season classifications from the minor leagues.

The rest of the Indians’ minor league teams are in leagues that are supposedly not going to be touched, outside of some league shuffling. The Columbus Clippers in Triple-A, Akron RubberDucks in Double-A, Lake County Captains in High-A, and Lynchburg Hillcats in Low-A. Those leagues are expected to remain intact. As far as geography goes, only the Lynchburg Hillcats are outside of Ohio. Every other affiliate is within 150 miles of Cleveland; the furthest, the Columbus Clippers, are a quick trip down I-71.

If anything, the Clippers might be shifted around as part of a reorganization of Triple-A leagues. They currently reside in the International League, which mostly consists of fellow midwest teams and the Gwinnett Stripers hailing all the way from Lawrenceville, Georgia.

The real issue in Triple-A is the Pacific Coast League, which houses teams from the titular coast, but also Nebraska (Omaha Storm Chasers), Texas (Round Rock Express, San Antonio Missions), Tennessee (Memphis Redbirds, Nasvhille Sound). Essentially, it’s the dumping ground for whatever isn’t in the fairly well-organized International League. It’d require a complete reorganization — maybe even an extra league — to get everyone in fair geographical locations.

Further down the minors, the Akron RubberDucks sit in the Eastern League, which is pretty well-contained outside of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats up north. Most everyone else is the Ohio/PA/Virginia area. Similarly, the Lynchburg Hillcats are in the local Carolina League that has stragglers from Maryland and Virginia.

The Low-A Lake County Captains are in the Midwest League, which stretches from Iowa, up to Michigan, and then to the Captains all the way in eastern Ohio. Considering these Low-A players making less than minimum wage and ride buses everywhere, it might be in the works to condense the leagues more than they are.

Baseball America’s assessment also notes that there is the possibility of teams moving and/or down the minor league classes, such as a Single-A team switching with a Triple-A team for financial or geographical reasons. The Indians already have one of the best, most highly polished minor league teams in the Clippers, so I’d be shocked to see them anywhere but Triple-A.

Team-wise, it probably won’t mean much of a change for the Indians. The Scrappers or another team would likely be eliminated, the Clippers might be in a different Triple-A league, and the Captains might see some kind of a shift.

Ultimately, the benefit for teams comes from leverage and money — the same places that benefits for Major League Baseball team’s always come from. Ryan summed it up best in the comments of this morning’s news and notes post, and it would feel wrong to do anything but just copy and paste it here:

If accepted as proposed (granted, it’s early), this will lead to a clustering of minor-league teams close to the parent club (which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself), and also a scramble for local governments to keep their teams affiliated by promising new stadiums or stadium improvements. In the current system, there is no zero-sum game for the most part. Very rarely will a team completely lose its status as a minor-league affiliate, even if attendance is horrible or the stadium is not up to even the lowest of standards; at worst they may get knocked down into a lower classification. But if that many affiliated spots are eliminated, MLB clubs will have massive leverage over those teams/cities now, and the bidding wars would begin.

As usual in these matters, no matter who wins in the coming battles between the MLB teams and the minor-league teams (via the PBA), and the MLB teams and the minor-league players (via lawsuits) the taxpayers and fans end up losing, whether it be in the form in higher ticket prices or more subsidization of taxpayer funds to the local team.

Teams can come out with newfound massive leverage over their MiLB counterparts while paying minor leaguers a modicum more and come out looking like the good guys.

Everybody ... wins?