Sorting through the Nationals’ new Triple-A affiliation

By now, you’ve probably heard about the Nationals’ new Triple-A affiliate: the Fresno Grizzlies. And yes, that’s Fresno, Calif., not Fresno, Ohio.

Fresno was not the Nats’ first choice for a new Triple-A affiliate, mostly because of its inconvenient location. It’s not only the 2,800 miles that separate it from Washington, but the fact the closest nonstop flight you can get from Fresno to Washington is Chicago. Which, as you know, isn’t particularly close to Washington.

How did this happen? Couldn’t the Nationals have done something differently to prevent this from happening? What happens now?

You’ve got plenty of questions. Let’s try to answer them as best we can. ...

Why are the Nats leaving Syracuse after 10 years?
The Nationals have had three different Triple-A affiliates since the franchise arrived from Montreal. They were aligned with New Orleans in 2005-06, then Columbus in 2007-08, then Syracuse since 2009. They were fairly happy with that arrangement and would have continued it, except last year the Mets announced they were purchasing the Chiefs from the Community Baseball Club of Central New York. Which meant the Mets would take over the affiliation after the 2018 season, leaving the Nationals looking for a new Triple-A home.

Rizzo-Martinez-Chat-Sidebar.jpgThe Mets’ Triple-A club was in Las Vegas. Why didn’t the Nats just take over there?
Because there were several other Triple-A affiliation agreements that expired at the end of this season, creating something of a musical chairs game between the Nationals, Athletics, Rangers, Astros and Brewers, and the five Triple-A clubs that were available: Las Vegas, Fresno, San Antonio, Round Rock and Nashville. Nashville was the Nats’ preferred choice from that group, but they weren’t the only Major League Baseball club interested in affiliating with the Sounds. Turns out the Rangers were, as well, and they struck a four-year deal with Nashville this week (two years longer than most affiliation deals). Meanwhile, the Astros (who had been in Fresno the last two seasons) unsurprisingly went with Round Rock. The A’s (who had been in Nashville) went with Las Vegas, which made perfect sense. And the Brewers surprisingly stuck with their Colorado Springs Triple-A team that is relocating to San Antonio. Most assumed the Rangers would want to keep things in Texas, but turns out they didn’t. When the music stopped, the only chair left available to the Nats was Fresno.

Do any other East division teams have affiliates on the West Coast?
Not their Triple-A affiliates, no. Though several East clubs have affiliates in the Pacific Coast League, that league now stretches across three time zones, so the Marlins’ affiliate in New Orleans isn’t that far away. And no West division teams have a Triple-A affiliate in the eastern-based International League. So this leaves the Nationals in a legitimately unique situation.

So the Nats have a Triple-A team in California. What’s the big deal?
It’s probably not as big a deal as many are making it out to be. The Grizzlies play in 12,500-seat Chukchansi Park, which was built in 2002. Their average crowd this season was 6,051, which ranked ninth out of 16 PCL clubs. They have a pretty impressive recent history of success, having served as the Triple-A affiliate for four of the last eight World Series champions (the Giants in 2010, 2012 and 2014, and the Astros in 2017).

The biggest issue, of course, is the distance and the inability to get players up to the big leagues as quickly as other Triple-A sites could. When the Nationals have needed to call someone up last-minute for the last decade, they were able to get a player on a flight from Syracuse (or wherever the Chiefs were playing on the East Coast) to D.C. in a matter of a few hours. Worst case, they could even drive (as Andrew Stevenson and Adrian Sanchez did earlier this summer). It won’t be nearly that easy anymore. If the Nats have a 7:05 p.m. game on the East Coast and need to call a player up from Fresno, they’d need to get that guy on a plane no later than 9 a.m. Pacific to have any chance of making it in time.

Could this mean the Nats will make a point to keep top prospects at Double-A Harrisburg instead?
This definitely could happen. They won’t want to stunt a prospects’ natural development, but they’re probably going to have to keep at least a couple of “Quadruple-A” type players at Double-A instead of Triple-A. Like a couple of relievers, a backup catcher, a middle infielder, an emergency starting pitcher. The kind of players who get called up on short notice because of doubleheaders or injuries or trades. You may see more players from the 40-man roster kept at Harrisburg than in the past.

What about injured players going on rehab assignments?
The Nationals already use Harrisburg and Single-A Potomac as their preferred spots for most rehab assignments. Sometimes they would send a player to Syracuse if he needed to face more advanced competition or if the lower-level teams were on the road. Now, though, you’ll probably see almost all rehab assignments stay on the East Coast. Maybe if Fresno is on a road trip to Nashville, New Orleans or Memphis, major leaguers could go to Triple-A for rehab. But those might be the only scenarios where it happens.

What happens to Syracuse’s players and coaches? Will they stay and become affiliated with the Mets now?
No, all minor league players, coaches and trainers are employees of the major league clubs. The Nationals set their Triple-A roster at the end of spring training and then that group of players heads out for the season wherever the franchise’s Triple-A team is located at that time. So, at least some guys who played in Syracuse this year will play in Fresno next year, while the Mets’ prospects who were in Las Vegas this year will be in Syracuse in 2019.

Why can’t the Nats just move the Grizzlies to another city somewhere closer to the East Coast?
Because they don’t own the Grizzlies. The owner is Fresno Sports and Events, a group led by Ray and Michael Baker (part-owners of the Rockies) and Jim Coufos. Only they could decide to relocate the franchise to another city, though even then they don’t have free reign to do so. Relocations are subject to the approval of Minor League Baseball, which has very strict guidelines about different markets. You can’t just move one minor league team into a market already occupied by another minor league team. It also has to be within the footprint of that particular league. (So, for example, the Grizzlies can’t just move from Fresno to, say, Albany, because that’s the International League’s territory, not the PCL.)

OK, then why can’t the Nats purchase a Triple-A franchise (like other MLB teams have done) and just relocate it to Richmond?
Ah, the Richmond question, everyone’s favorite solution to what ails the Nationals. Alas, it doesn’t work like that. There used to be a Triple-A team in Richmond (owned by the Braves). That franchise relocated to Gwinnett County, Ga., in 2009, leaving Richmond without a team. One year later, the Double-A Connecticut Defenders relocated to Richmond and changed their name to the Flying Squirrels. They continue to exist as the Giants’ Double-A affiliate.

So, yes, in 2019 the Nationals will have a Triple-A team in Fresno (a short drive from San Francisco) while the Giants will have a Double-A team in Richmond (a short drive from Washington). It sounds ridiculous, and it is ridiculous, but it can’t be rectified with a simple swapping of franchises. You can’t trade a Triple-A franchise for a Double-A franchise.

Even if the Nationals purchased a Triple-A team (let’s just say the Rochester Red Wings, for the sake of this exercise), they couldn’t relocate it to Richmond unless the Flying Squirrels relocated to another city and the city built a new ballpark. The Diamond in Richmond, built in 1985, does not meet current Triple-A standards. And even then, Minor League Baseball would have to approve Richmond as a Triple-A market again.

Perhaps there’s some possibility of all this happening someday down the road, but it’s not happening anytime soon.

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