Uncertainty abounds in minor league reorganization

There is so much uncertainty surrounding the 2021 season, even as the calendar creeps forward and pitchers and catchers are due to report for spring training in three months. And the uncertainty extends well beyond the major league season. If anything, there’s even more uncertainty at this moment about the state of Minor League Baseball in 2021.

As you probably know by now, Major League Baseball has taken over control of the minors, which for a century operated as its own entity that merely worked out affiliate agreements with each big league club. MLB is now calling the shots, and the first order of business is to cut approximately 40 minor league franchises, bringing the total down to 120.

That means four full-season affiliates per MLB club: Triple-A, Double-A, high-Single-A and low-Single-A. No more short-season Single-A. Each major league club would have one short-season Rookie-league squad, based out of a team complex.

We don’t know yet which 120 franchises are making the cut, and in fact this has been an awfully secretive process by MLB, with only a few tidbits leaking out in recent days. But what has been reported and interpreted so far is that some longstanding minor league clubs aren’t going to exist in the same form next year and beyond. Some will be eliminated altogether. Others will be relocated. And still others could jump up or down a level.

This should have a significant impact on the Nationals farm system, most notably at the Triple-A level.

Prior to the 2019 season, the Nats signed a two-year affiliate agreement with the Fresno Grizzlies of the Pacific Coast League. It wasn’t their preference to have a Triple-A club on the other side of the country in a town with no non-stop flights to Washington. But in a high-stakes game of affiliate musical chairs, they were the last ones standing with nowhere to sit, so they went to Fresno.

That deal has now expired, so the Nationals are seeking a new, closer Triple-A affiliate. But unlike in previous years where major league teams and minor league teams negotiated with each other and struck deals on their own, MLB now has a significant say on matters.

What does that mean for the Nats’ Triple-A affiliate? Well, it’s not going to be in Fresno again. It could be in one of a few longstanding Triple-A cities that are up for grabs (Nashville or Rochester, to name a couple of possibilities). There’s also a chance it could be in an even-closer city that has long loomed as an ideal spot for a D.C. affiliate: Richmond.

In recent days, the San Francisco Chronicle reported the Giants might be leaving the Flying Squirrels (who served as their Double-A affiliate for the last decade) and the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported there’s a chance the club could be bumped up to Triple-A in an attempt to affiliate with the Nats.

Before anyone out there gets too excited, some important caveats:

* The Giants could still stick with Richmond as their Double-A affiliate.

* The Diamond, which was built in 1985, does not meet current Triple-A stadium standards. MLB would have to approve it on a short-term basis while a proposed new ballpark to be shared by the Flying Squirrels and the VCU baseball team is built.

* The International League can’t just add a new Triple-A franchise without dropping another.

Suffice it to say, there are significant obstacles in the way.

Thumbnail image for Crowe-Pitching-Harrisburg-sidebar.jpgThe situation does appear to be more stable for two of the Nationals’ other affiliates. The Harrisburg Senators are expected to remain their Double-A affiliate, a partnership that has remained intact since 1991. And the Fredericksburg Nationals are expected to remain their high-Single-A affiliate, playing in the new ballpark that just opened this year for the Nats’ alternate training camp but has yet to host real minor-league games.

The situation is more tenuous with the Nationals’ lower-level affiliates. The low-Single-A Hagerstown Suns, who play in a ballpark built in 1930, are a prime candidate to be dropped. The Nats could end up with a different South Atlantic League affiliate or could end up creating a new Florida State League affiliate that plays at their spring training complex in West Palm Beach.

The short-season Single-A New York-Penn League is almost certainly going to disappear, with the Nationals losing their affiliation with the Auburn Doubledays.

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