Major League Baseball has a proposal on the table that would eliminate 42 minor league teams - including the Nationals’ short-season Single-A affiliate in Auburn, N.Y., and their low Single-A farm team in Hagerstown - in a reorganization plan first reported by Baseball America and the New York Times.
In the statement to the New York Times, MLB said:
“We are in discussions with the owners of the minor league teams to reorganize elements of the system with the goal of improving the working conditions of minor league players, including upgrading the facilities to major league standards, increasing player compensation, reducing travel time between affiliates for road games, improving transportation and hotel accommodations, increasing the number of off days, and providing better geographical affiliations between the MLB clubs and affiliates.”
The sweeping changes in the proposal would do away with short-season Single-A ball altogether and shutter teams from Rookie-level clubs all the way up to Double-A.
Jeff Lantz, the senior director of communications for Minor League Baseball, said the current Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) expires Sept. 15, 2020. If the proposal goes through, the changes would commence for the 2021 campaign.
“As we go to negotiate a new PBA, Major League Baseball proposed some pretty drastic changes to us,” Lantz said. “The list was leaked out, which is very unfortunate. That’s putting 42 teams in a pretty bad spot when it comes to doing business.”
Lantz said communities like Auburn and Hagerstown rely on minor league baseball as a significant part of their economy and fabric of their summer livelihoods. The two sides are set to meet soon to continue to negotiate the new proposal.
“It’s unfortunate, but the major league and minor league negotiating teams are going to get together in the next couple weeks a couple of times probably and try an exchange some ideas, maybe establish some priorities and hopefully start working towards a deal,” Lantz said. “Obviously, Minor League Baseball’s goal is to save as many of its 160 teams as possible and we will go from there.”
Nothing will change for the 2020 season, and Lantz said this gives the two sides some time to talk to get a “good deal done that’s beneficial for both sides, hopefully.”
A lot of reasons the 42 teams were chosen has to do with facility standards and geography. Some of the teams are a long way away from their major league affiliates. MLB’s goal is to try to get those teams a little bit closer. The South Atlantic League now has teams in Lakewood, N.J., all the way down to Augusta, S.C., a footprint that spans 752 miles.
“We are going to look at realignment options and see if something else makes sense,” Lantz said. “Whether it’s realigning Class A and Class A Advanced leagues and do what’s in the best interest of Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball and obviously the baseball fans in all of our markets.”
Plus, the call to sever ties with these affiliates is not an equal distribution for all MLB organizations. The Nats are one organization that gets hit significantly if the changes go through, having two teams out of the 42 on the list set for termination in September 2020. On Monday morning, the Nationals declined to comment on the proposal.
“A lot of that had to do with reassigning of affiliates,” Lantz noted. “It’s just a matter of who would fit where. Like I said, they are trying to get all the affiliates as close as possible to a lot of the major league teams. Hagerstown is very close to D.C. It’s hard to say going city by city. It could be facilities in one spot and geographic location in another.”
Lantz believes if Auburn and Hagerstown discontinue operations, the Nats would have to find a new city for their low Single-A affiliate and move those short-season players to that new affiliate, high Single-A Fredericksburg, back to the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League or Dominican Summer League teams, or to their West Palm Beach, Fla., facility for extended spring training.
“My guess is (those teams) would be assigned to different cities,” Lantz said. “Hagerstown, I guess, would be moved to another market. Hopefully, something close to D.C. for the Nationals. It’s really early to say how it’s all going to shake out.”
The impact on Hagerstown would be pretty significant. The Suns have played there since 1981. Municipal Stadium was opened in 1930 and seats 4,600. Professional baseball has been played in Hagerstown for over 120 years, dating back to 1896 when the Hagerstown Lions played one season there in the independent Cumberland Valley League. The Nats have been affiliated with Hagerstown since 2007.
Auburn made its debut in the New York-Penn League in 1958 as a Yankees affiliate, featuring famous players like Jim Bouton, Joe Pepitone and Mel Stottlemyre. The Nationals have been affiliated with Auburn since 2011.
“It would hurt all 42 of these towns,” Lantz said. “Minor league ballparks in the summertime are kind of the front porch of all these towns. It’s where people gather and meet and go out and have a hot dog and a beer and have some dinner and meet up with your friends and take the kids out and let them run around at the ballpark and have a good time with the mascots and the kids play lands. It’s entertainment for everybody, it’s not just for hardcore baseball fans.
“That’s not even mentioning the community impact that these teams make, whether it’s through donations or allowing nonprofits to do fundraising at the ballpark and giving tickets to military organizations, stuff like that. These teams do so much for their towns.”
Lantz said the charitable giving of the 42 teams that are on this list was well over $6.5 million in 2018.
“That shouldn’t go unnoticed either,” he said. “These teams do a lot in these communities. Whether it’s Auburn, Hagerstown or Lexington, Ky., all these teams do a lot for their communities, they are not just bringing in money, they are turning around and being good community partners as well.”
The two negotiating teams are expected to meet in the next week to 10 days. The Winter Meetings, which begin Dec. 9 in San Diego, present another opportunity for the sides to get together.
“Hopefully, the two sides can start chipping away at what the main goals are and see what can be done to make both sides happy with the deal,” Lantz said.
Opening day for the Hagerstown Suns in their 40th season is set for April 9 in Rome, Ga., and their first home game is April 16 versus Delmarva. The Auburn Doubledays open their season June 18 at Batavia and play their first home game June 21 against State College.