Baseball Shortens Minor League Player Pipeline
The pace of change in baseball has not been slowed by the pandemic and a new whirlwind of activity is expected early this winter as realignment of Minor League Baseball is finalized between major league teams and partners. Because of necessary steps taken to help the 2020 season progress as safely as possible, we saw the future of minor league affiliates for a few teams. In 2020, avoiding travel was a major factor in the final setup. The alternate training sites set up during 2020 were as close as possible to the major league home stadiums in order to reduce players’ risks of exposure to COVID.
Anticipating that the minor leagues can play next spring, let’s look at the two ends of the travel spectrum based on the 2019 affiliations and expected 2021 arrangements. The five teams most distant from their top farm clubs have been the Dodgers, Brewers, Marlins, and Nationals — all from the National League and each more than 1000 miles from their AAA teams — and the American League Twins, 788 miles from the AAA Red Wings in Rochester, NY. These long distances, though posing a source of travel delay when a replacement player was needed, did not prevent success. Four of these five teams were among the ten participating in the 2019 post-season!
On the other hand, four teams in each League were fewer than 95 miles from their AAA teams. These were Seattle, Detroit, Toronto and Boston from the American League and San Francisco, Cincinnati, Atlanta, and Philadelphia from the National League.
Curiously, only one of these eight were playoff teams in 2019! Recent news coming from the Astros and Twins shows that they will now join the ranks of teams whose AAA teams are within 30 miles of their major league stadiums. The Astros Round Rock team was 150 miles from Houston and is being supplanted by Sugarland.
Some fans will be shut out of the opportunity to attend MLB games with limits on attendance likely in 2021. At the same time, realignment of the minor leagues may open opportunities for creative baseball fans taking road trips to see games in which the stars of tomorrow will be participating. Not only will many Twins fans savor the presence of a AAA team in the same market as the parent club, there may be some fans in the southern end of Twins territory for whom a road trip to see Wichita (new AA affiliate) in action might be an easier ticket than that of the reduced capacity at Target field. Wichita is closer than the Pensacola club (Twins’ AA team for past two years) which didn’t play any of its Southern League games farther north than Jackson, TN.
Players do travel when moving to new teams and from one level to another, but most of their travel involves going from city to city and series to series with one team. Since 1997, the AAA Pacific Coast league footprint has sprawled across three time zones with teams in ten different states. The PCL is likely to be broken up, with the western teams comprising a true “PCL” and a new AAA league being formed consisting of current PCL teams from the central time zone. All of this will shorten travel and could allow more favorable scheduling. There will be some interesting weather and climate angles to these scheduling changes and I’ll be writing more about these in the coming weeks after the final plans are released in early December. For now, I see these advantages to the realignment:
- Minor league players will be more likely to experience similar weather while staying in the same time zone. This will help many organizations as they prioritize better balance and sufficient sleep for players.
- With the adjusted schedule in 2021, fewer players and teams will be subject to the type of early spring cold spells that have engulfed the Northeast in recent years. See my previous article that dealt with this issue! By the start of May, the temperature contrast between Florida and states like Ohio or New York is usually less stark. The farther into spring we go, rain events that do occur tend to be shorter, making it easier to work in games around passing showers rather than the all-day downpours more common in April.