Thinking (and nearly weeping) about what is next for minor league baseball – Terry Plutohttps://www.cleveland.com/tribe/2020/07/...erry-pluto.html
By Terry Pluto, The Plain Dealer
CLEVELAND, Ohio – Baseball is in trouble.
Most fans know that, at least at the major-league level. But in the minors, the situation is grim. Even before COVID-19 shut down the minors for the entire season, MLB proposed plans to cut 42 minor-league franchises.
That’s right, 42 teams! According to Baseball America, Class AA cities on the tentative list are Binghamton, N.Y., Chattanooga, Tenn., Erie, Pa., and Jackson, Ms. Some Class A teams would move up to Class AA. Two independent franchises – St. Paul, Minn. and Sugarland, Texas – would become affiliated with MLB franchises.
There would be 120 farm teams remaining.
Close to home, the Indians would lose their Niles-based Class A Mahoning Valley Scrappers. I called Mike Savit, who is part of the HWS group that owns the Scrappers. Their other minor-league franchises are the Dayton Dragons and the Modesto Nuts.
“Mahoning Valley is among the top 120 franchises in minor league baseball,” he said. “We’ve been with the Indians for 20 years, a hour away from Cleveland. I don’t care if you’re talking facilities or geography or anything like that – cutting us doesn’t make sense.”
Savit said “nothing is final ... and we’ll fight to keep the franchise with the Indians.”
But this isn’t a Tribe decision. MLB has decided to cut short-season summer leagues such as Mahoning’s New York-Penn League along with the Appalachian and Pioneer leagues.
“The Indians prize player development,” said Ken Babby of the Tribe’s Class AA Akron franchise. “It’s a big part of their organization. They put a lot of resources into it.”
The MLB plan is for each franchise to have six minor-league teams. Here’s how it would break down for the Tribe: Class AAA (Columbus), Class AA (Akron), High Class A (Lynchburg), Low Class A (Lake County) and two rookie teams at their Goodyear complex in Arizona.
WHY DO THIS?
Some of the minor -league franchises need to be eliminated. Some of the leagues need to be revised because of travel problems. So changes are necessary.
Before the virus hit, I heard some of the teams on the cut list could be saved. Those franchises needed to upgrade their facilities and make some other changes.
But now, who knows? A couple of minor-league executives told me some franchises would be heading into bankruptcy. Unlike MLB which will pocket TV money when its product is on the field, not so in the minors.
“It’s been catastrophic,” said Akron’s Babby, who also owns the Class AA Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp. “At least that’s how it is in the short term. We can weather it, but it could be very hard for some franchises.”
Babby bought Akron in 2013. He has put about $8 million into improvements at Canal Park and another $4 million into the stadium in Jacksonville. Minor-league operators make money from tickets, advertising sponsors and concession sales. In fact, they will have to refund some of their advance season ticket and advertising revenue if fans don’t want it applied to the 2021 season.
They are small-businessmen who do business with each other in medium and small towns. Everyone is in major financial pain.
Because of no fans in the stands, MLB will lose money this season – even if they do find a way to keep the game going through the World Series.
ANOTHER MLB NEGOTIATION
Many fans know MLB and the Major League Players Association will be talking about a new deal as their current labor agreement ends after the 2021 season. The hostility in the last talks to finally get the game going in 2020 is a sign a more turmoil to come.
Meanwhile, MLB and the minor leagues need to reach an agreement before the 2021 season starts. That’s why eliminating 42 teams is on the negotiating table. Given the economic collapse, the minors will probably agree to those cuts to get some type of deal in place.
“That’s 42 cities that won’t have baseball at a time when baseball is already losing fans,” said Miles Wolff. “I think about the cities who recently put millions of dollars into building or upgrading their ballparks. Now their teams are taken away.”
Wolff’s baseball career began as a general manager of the Class AA Savannah Braves in 1972. I met him in Savannah in 1978 when I was a minor-league baseball writer for the Savannah Morning News. Wolff started the current version of the Durham Bulls franchise in 1980.
“Bought it for $2,400, which was all the money I had,” he said. In 1987, the movie Bull Durham was filmed at his ballpark. He sold the franchise for an estimated $4 million in 1990.
Wolff also owned Baseball America for 20 years. He started the independent Northern League and has owned other franchises. At 76, Wolff recently sold his last franchise before the pandemic hit – the Class A Burlington Royals. They are on MLB’s list to disappear in 2021.
He looks at how MLB cut the draft from 40 rounds to five in 2020. Word is it will be in the 20 rounds or fewer in 2021. He can’t believe MLB is limiting its pool of talent with these changes.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he said.
WHAT WILL BE LOST?
I heard the Houston Astros have been behind the movement to shorten the draft and whack 25 percent of the minor-league teams. The Astros and some other teams believe the odds are overwhelming against low picks making the majors, which is true. They are convinced strong analytics will target the right prospects and eliminate the need for so many minor-league players.
But low round picks do make it. Tribe starting catcher Roberto Perez was pick No. 1,011 in the 2008 draft. There are many other examples.
Cutting the draft. Cutting farm teams. All to save comparably a few bucks?
“How much does it really costs to run these short-season Class A franchises?” asked Wolff. “Big leagues teams pay for the salaries of the players, coaches and a few other things. Baseball needs more exposure around the country, not less.”
Some of the cities losing teams can become franchises in independent leagues, not affiliated with any MLB franchise. One nearby is the Lake Erie Crushers of the Frontier League.
But suppose you bought the Missoula, Mt., franchise for several million dollars as a group did in the fall of 2018. They had no idea Missoula was headed for the cut list. Even if an independent team moves in, the value of the franchise drops sharply compared to being an MLB affiliate.
“Overall, minor-league baseball was in very good shape before the virus,” said Wolff. “Now, a lot of people will be hurt, and what the big leagues want to do is make it worse.”
Babby talked about how 70 days a year, people come to downtown Akron to watch his RubberDucks. The franchise creates jobs not only in baseball, but the businesses around the park.
“Minor-league baseball is a big deal in a lot smaller cities,” said Babby. “If those teams go away, they will really be missed.”