The Nationals announced their minor league affiliate invitations for 2021 on Wednesday, and the list did not include the Hagerstown Suns, signaling the end of a 13-year relationship. Kevin Reichard, the editor and publisher of Ballpark Digest, believes Suns owner Bruce Quinn might consider becoming an independent-league team going forward.
"I don't know what Bruce is going to do, quite honestly," Reichard said. "He's got various business interests. I haven't heard much out of his camp as to what he is planning. Right now with the announcements, the independent leagues are sort of swooping in to see what they can get. I have no knowledge of this, but It wouldn't surprise me if the Frontier League was in his future."
A lot of teams in different leagues that did receive invitations are waiting for the ink to dry on the fine print of Major League Baseball's professional development licenses.
"Everything is still conditional," Reichard said. "MLB has still not provided a PDL (Professional Development License) and teams obviously can't make a commitment to being a licensee if they don't see the license."
At the Triple-A level, Reichard said the Nats definitely have eyed Richmond as a landing spot for a team, but The Diamond baseball stadium was just not up to Triple-A standards. The Richmond Flying Squirrels recently renewed their deal to be the Double-A home of the San Francisco Giants.
"The Nationals wanted Richmond," Reichard said. "They were lobbying Richmond as Triple-A. I think if (Flying Squirrels president) Lou DiBella could have shown solid progress toward a new ballpark in terms of a plan they might have gotten their way. But right now (Virginia Commonwealth University) is in control of everything in terms of the funding, the land, in terms of everything."
If everything went the right way for Richmond, it has been proposed a new stadium could be up and running in three years. Is there a possibility the Nats could get out of their 10-year agreement with the Rochester Red Wings if Richmond builds that brand new stadium?
"I don't think they have decided that yet," Reichard said. "I think that is one of those issues in the licensing where no one quite knows what the specific language might be."
Reichard believes that the language in the license could indeed include an out for MLB whenever they want, but that remains to be seen.
But looking at how the minor league setup played out for the Nats, most notably moving their Triple-A affiliate from Fresno, Calif., to Rochester, N.Y., and having all four of their affiliates on or near the Eastern seaboard, Reichard said the Nats came out of the new alignment pretty well. And he says the Nats players and personnel will love the way they are handled by the Red Wings staff and families in Rochester.
"They will treat the players very well," Reichard said. "Every major league team has a different experience with affiliates. There are some minor league affiliates that go through the motions. There are some that will go the extra 20 percent of amenities in terms of just little things. The Twins never really had a huge problem with the Red Wings. They were there for many years, and going to St. Paul was just an opportunity that presented itself."
The Nationals announced that Fredericksburg, Va., will host their low Single-A team and Wilmington, Del., will be the home of the organization's high Single-A affiliate. Some fans were caught off guard because the Fredericksburg Nationals were originally the high Single-A Potomac Nationals in the Carolina League before moving south to their new city and a new stadium. Reichard does not believe the downgrade will make that much of a difference, because a lot of the prospects from low Single-A transfer to high Single-A anyway, are interchangeable as they progress upward.
"I think a lot of the classification stuff is based mostly on geography," Reichard said. "There were flips that were due to ballpark conditions, like Texas switching from Down East to Hickory. If I were Fredericksburg, I'd be happy to be in, and no fan really cares if they are high-A or low-A."
Wilmington will be an excellent location for the Nats' high Single-A entry. The city along the banks of the Delaware River has a population of over 70,000 and is close to D.C. and Philadelphia along the I-95 corridor, not to mention that Frawley Stadium is just a 20-minute walk from the Amtrak station. Reichard said it was an excellent host for the Kansas City Royals farm system for many years.
"I don't think the Royals sought to leave, to be totally honest," Reichard said. "But they are switching to Quad Cities (Davenport, Iowa) and Dave Heller owns both teams. So it's not as big a transition as you think.
"The Royals leaving Wilmington is matter of geography. Wilmington has a nice ballpark, nice location and a lot of potential for more. It's regarded as an extremely well run ballpark and operation. They treat players pretty well. If I'm the Nationals, I'm actually fairly happy to end up in Wilmington."
Frawley Stadium seats more than 6,400, and Reichard says it is a "decent size" venue for high Single-A baseball.
"I know they have done some renovations in recent years, such as new lighting," he said. "So they probably meet most of the major league specs already, and if not, it's just a matter of changing out an office for the female clubhouse area."
Reichard said Major League Baseball has budgeted a limit of 180 players for each team to distribute to their minor league teams. The short-season players will likely go to the Rookie-level Gulf Coast Nationals and/or to Fredericksburg. Each team has fewer players this upcoming season because there were only five rounds in the most recent draft, and the Nats signed just nine undrafted free agents.