There's nothing to understand about MLB's minor league power grab

February 17, 2021

On February 12, Major League Baseball announced its final minor league realignment plans, tweeting out a news release and chart showing the new arrangements of Low-A, High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A clubs in newly-formed minor leagues with generic names (i.e.: available for naming sponsorships). It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the stated logic for the realignment doesn’t make much sense, even when taken on its own terms.

Lots of people have already weighed in on the worst parts of this shuffling, which include, in no particular order, discarding of more than a century’s worth of baseball tradition created by the Pacific Coast League, International League, Sally League, and other circuits; abandonment of towns that not only celebrated their minor league teams but put huge amounts of public resources into supporting them; generally making it harder for people to watch professional baseball; and how a corresponding pay raise for minor league ballplayers is still a shameful pittance, especially in light of how MLB teams long refused to invest the relatively small sums it would take to, like, feed minor league players nutritious food.

But I’d like to focus on the part of MLB’s announcement that says, “On average, Major League Clubs will now be over 200 miles closer to their Triple-A affiliates. By creating better geographical synergy between a Major League Club and its affiliates, more fans will be able to watch an organization’s players progress in their careers from the Minor Leagues to the big leagues in their home region.”

First, this is a deeply weird position to take on its face because it betrays either unfamiliarity with the cultural place of minor league baseball in towns far from big cities or a cynicism that baseball fans will accept any pablum we’re offered and we’ll like it.

I’ve been to a couple dozen games in Kannapolis, a handful in San Jose, a handful in Charlotte, and individual games in Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Hagerstown, Staten Island, Greenville, Brooklyn, Lake Elsinore, Charleston, Augusta, and perhaps a couple more I’m forgetting. All of which is to say I’ve been to minor league games in densely populated metro areas and in far-flung small towns, at multiple levels. If there’s one thing that ties all these places together, it’s this simple principle: people watch the baseball that's nearby and that they can afford. If it’s not nearby, or they can’t afford it, they don’t go.

One beauty of minor league baseball is that it’s high-level sports at an affordable price and located in a variety of places across the country. It was fitting that Manhattan didn’t have a pro baseball team, but the Yankees were in the Bronx, the Mets in Queens, the Cyclones in Brooklyn, and Staten Island had the NY-Penn League Yankees. It was also cool that if you happened to be driving from, say, Charlotte to Cooperstown in the summertime, the most direct path took you through Salem, VA (Salem Red Sox), Hagerstown, MD (Hagerstown Suns), Harrisburg, PA (Harrisburg Senators), Scranton, PA (Scranton/Wilkes Barre RailRiders), and Binghamton, NY (Binghamton Rumble Ponies), affording you multiple opportunities to stop for the night and catch a game.

Which is why MLB’s insistence on telling fans this contraction and realignment is for them makes little sense. In my experience, minor league baseball spectators, by and large, don’t go to those games in order to build a relationship with players they’ll eventually watch in the big leagues, because we know the deal. Occasionally, a surefire future major leaguer like Bryce Harper comes to town, but the vast majority of the time, rosters are filled with hopefuls who face incredibly long odds, and we choose to buy a ticket for the total experience of going to a baseball game. It’s buying nachos for four bucks, a soda for two bucks, and betting quarters on which kid will win the bat-spinning race. It’s being close enough to get the gist of what infielders are talking about. It’s not feeling bad about leaving after the sixth inning because an hour and a half is enough and the stakes are incredibly low, but enjoying that hour and a half immensely because the baseball is pretty good.

Second, even if we accept MLB’s premise on its face, that people's love of baseball radiates from MLB on a fundamental level and fans essentially want to scout future major leaguers themselves, contraction and this realignment still make no sense. You know what would give fans who want to watch more baseball the opportunity to watch more baseball? More baseball would, not less. If anything, this statement implies MLB should be supporting minor league expansion to try and saturate the country with baseball.

Okay okay, so perhaps the final MLB product will be better for all this (which I refuse to concede), and there’s data somewhere showing that interest in MLB teams (which the MLB owners care most about) spikes when a franchise’s minor league affiliates are nearby, and we heavily discount the notion that spreading pro baseball as many places as feasible is best for the sport. Even then, the actual realignment MLB has foisted on the minor leagues makes no sense.

Note that MLB’s statement says, “On average, Major League Clubs will now be over 200 miles closer to their Triple-A affiliates.” What does that actually mean? Mostly, it means the Minnesota Twins switched their Triple-A team from Rochester, NY to St. Paul, MN, a difference of about 1,000 miles, while at the same time, for reasons escaping my understanding, the longtime Triple-A franchise in Fresno got booted down to Low-A even as the Oakland Athletics’ Triple-A squad will be in Las Vegas, the Los Angeles Angels’ team will be in Salt Lake City, the San Diego Padres’ team will be in El Paso, and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ team will be in Oklahoma City.

To get a better sense of the distances from parent club to affiliates, I put them all in this Google Sheet.

I’m not sure what’s ideal, but indulge me one big (unsupported) assumption, that it’s more important for an MLB team to have its Double-A and Triple-A affiliates as close to the MLB location as possible than the lower level farm clubs so that instructional/developmental operations can realize some synergies. Furthermore, let’s accept MLB’s suggestion that fans in an MLB team’s region would be appreciably happier seeing minor leaguers associated with the big league club. So, for example, with those premises, it’s good that Cleveland’s affiliates at its top three levels are in Eastlake, OH (17 miles from Progressive Field in Cleveland), Akron, OH (34 miles), and Columbus, OH (142 miles). Isn’t it, therefore, absurd that Oakland's affiliates at the same levels are 2,332 miles, 1,467 miles, and 557 miles away from the Coliseum, respectively?

From a competitive standpoint, the western teams got boned. Arizona didn’t have any minor league teams before, and the California League teams pretty much all got demoted to Low-A or eliminated entirely, which means there aren’t enough teams in western locations to make “geographic synergy” a reality at the two highest levels, let alone three. Moreover, the historic population spread across the country means that minor league baseball clubs, like major league clubs, are unevenly weighted toward the eastern United States, even though the mean center of the US population is currently in Missouri and moving southwest.

For MLB organizations, there are real competitive ramifications to having their higher level affiliates so far away, as it means logistical headaches when trying to juggle call-ups with playing time, or simply bringing in injury replacements in a timely manner. It also means staffers can’t just hop in a car and drive from one club to another to visit with players.

Put it all together, and we end up with a situation where the seven teams farthest from their Double-A affiliates are, in order, the San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners, Los Angeles Angels, Colorado Rockies, Oakland Athletics, Los Angeles Dodgers, and San Diego Padres. All of them are more than 1,200 driving miles away from their Double-A clubs, with the Milwaukee Brewers next in line, 1,074 miles away, and then a big drop to the Arizona Diamondbacks, which are “only” 702 miles distant from their Double-A club.

While the Giants and Mariners are very close to their Triple-A affiliates, the Rockies, Padres, Angels, Athletics, and Dodgers are all at least 450 miles from their top farm clubs, with the Dodgers actually the farthest of any MLB team from its Triple-A team, 1,330 miles from Oklahoma City.

Little of this makes sense. Maybe Lancaster has too much wind to be a good setting for Double-A or Triple-A baseball and that’s why the JetHawks were cast aside. Maybe none of the California MLB clubs wanted to invest in facilities upgrades at Lake Elsinore to turn it into a Triple-A-quality outpost, and Colorado didn’t want to invest in their Boise affiliate, or whatever (remember: they long wouldn’t pay a major league veteran’s minimum salary to properly feed an entire minor league player roster). If relationships matter a lot (which might be why the White Sox stayed with Charlotte?), then why didn’t Fresno revert to the Giants, Sacramento to the Athletics, and Las Vegas to the Dodgers? Oklahoma City would then be available to the Rockies as a Double-A team instead of Hartford, CT (676 miles instead of 1,876).

I’m going to drive myself (Modesto) nuts trying to understand the machinations behind all this when there’s nothing to understand but that it’s a power grab, an attempt by MLB to wrest even more control over the minor leagues. Why did MLB need more control? Because they saw the opportunity, most likely, and that was enough, never mind the consequences 10 years down the line.