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How would the Giants system fare in the proposed MiLB realignment?

MLB’s proposed changes to Minor League Baseball would have some interesting effects on the those who would be Giants.

Fans take in a game at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer, Oregon, on August 17th, 2019.
Kevin J. Cunningham

On Friday, Baseball America dropped a bomb of a report about Minor League Baseball: A radical proposal by MLB would eliminate 42 minor league teams and drastically realign and change the way Minor League Baseball and affiliations work.

Now, this is all preliminary and could get changed or dropped, but the ideas behind it are fascinating. Let’s bullet point what MLB wants:

  • The point of the proposal is for Minor League Baseball to upgrade facilities. MLB thinks roughly a quarter of minor league parks and facilities are not up to their standards.
  • MLB also wants to rework the system so team affiliates are closer geographically, and extend the length of the standard PDC — Player Development Contracts (which link major league teams to minor league affiliates). The current setup involves 2-year renewals between MiLB teams and MLB.

To do this, this proposal will:

  • Reduce the number of affiliated teams from 160 to 120, and do this by eliminating non-complex rookie and short-season leagues. (The Arizona League and Gulf Coast League would remain.)
  • Reorganize the full-season leagues, making the leagues more geographically compact. For instance, the Triple-A Pacific Coast League would shrink from 16 teams to 10, while the International League would grow to 20. The current short-season Northwest League would become a full-season league to fill a west coast gap (probably Low-A), according to BA, although that’s been disputed by other reports.
  • Teams may move levels to make this happen, and would have to pay to move up a level, or receive compensation to drop.
  • The 42 teams that will lose their status would become a quasi-independent “Dream League” for undrafted free agents.
  • Major League teams would be limited to 4 full-season affiliates and one complex team, at least domestically.

This is… wow. There’s a few vague details about paying minor leaguers more by passing that cost to the minor league teams (!!!!), but that’s a topic deserving of it’s own article (if not a series of articles). In the proposal, the draft would be later and shortened to 20-25 rounds.

There’s a lot to unpack, but the bottom line is that a lot of current minor leaguers and seasonal employees of the to-be-eliminated teams would lose their jobs, and the leagues and affiliates we’ve come to know and love would change drastically.

I’ll leave the overall thoughts to smarter, more well-paid and more well-respected writers (like our own Roger), but let’s look at how this plan would affect the Giants, if it goes through in this form.

No more AZL Black and AZL Orange

The Giants expanded their AZL presence in 2018, getting room for twice as many young players. In 2019, we saw a benefit of that, with aggressive promotions for players like Marco Luciano. We also saw a mid-season promotion from the Dominican Summer League to the AZL with Luis Matos and Victor Bericoto, which I can not remember seeing before in covering the Giants. All of this was likely allowed because the Giants had more roster space in the AZL, and the recent draftees weren’t taking up all the space.

Getting rid of the second team would likely mean less of that, though a reduction in the draft would help reduce the number of drafted players taking up AZL space. But the AZL remains important for players rehabbing injuries as well, so it likely means less room for foreign players to get aggressive pushes.

It should be noted that proposal as it was published did not have any limits on teams internationally, and many organizations have two squads in the Dominican Summer League (The Giants, currently, do not).

Three Giants affiliates may be those with “inadequate facilities”

MLB’s main goal, they say, is about upgrading facilities. To that end, three Giants affiliates may be on that list that MLB may target… but they maybe not true contraction candidates.

The Salem-Keizer Volcanoes play in Volcanoes Stadium, built in 1997. Now the Northwest League, currently a short-season league, is not a place for a lot of big stadiums, and Volcanoes Stadium isn’t all that old, but visitors to Volcanoes stadium may not be impressed. It’s a small stadium, and to be honest, it feels a lot like a nice high school field. The concrete concourse is low slung, and only holds a few rows of seats, while a majority of outfield seating are on metal-style bleacher seats.

As far as player resources, even with recent upgrades to training facilities, the facilities are smaller than what teams have at a lot of parks. It’s not as bad as some places I’ve seen (like Augusta’s old home at Lake Olmstead), but it definitely lags behind other parks with larger and more enhanced facilities. All this would be what puts it in MLB’s black list.

Another stadium that is woefully out of date is The Muni, Excite Stadium aka Municipal Stadium in San Jose. Built in 1942, it is one of the oldest parks in minor league baseball. It’s small and cramped, both for fans and the team. It has an old ballpark charm, but clearly it was not made with the amenities in mind for the current baseball profession, or for the fans (like legroom).

There’s also The Diamond in Richmond, built in 1985. For those who don’t know. Richmond was a Triple-A city, but the Braves moved their team out after many attempts to get a new stadium were rebuffed. The Giants Double-A affiliate moved there from Norwich immediately. It’s a huge stadium, but the old concrete facade looks dated, and again, there are issues with training facilities.

Now, two of these are teams who are actively looking at new stadiums. The Flying Squirrels have been working with Richmond’s Virginia Commonwealth University for building a new stadium for years. They had been looking for a downtown site but more recently have been focused on a site adjacent to the current ballpark. Meanwhile, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to support a plan for the County Fairground that would eventually (like 7-10 years away) lead to a new stadium for the San Jose Giants.

The one thing about all three of these cities is that they are markets that baseball wouldn’t want to lose. San Jose is bigger than many MLB markets. Richmond is a major east coast city. And while Keizer isn’t big, it’s really about the Salem, Oregon, market, which is the second largest in the state and among the biggest in the Northwest League. That alone may keep teams in those cities, but all three cities may get pressure to build a new stadium.

Without MLB kicking in any money, of course.

Tell Them Goodbye? The Flying Squirrels and GreenJackets

One of the goals here is making leagues more geographically compact, and a lot of east coast leagues have been noted here. And the Giants are in the heart of it.

Let’s start with Richmond. One of the stated goals of this plan is to reduce travel time. Well, in the Double-A Eastern League, Richmond, Virginia is a huge outlier.

Richmond is by far the southern-most team in the Eastern League. It’s also lonely, with only one other Eastern League team south of the Pennsylvania border (Bowie, Maryland). This makes a lot of logistical sense to move Richmond out of the Eastern League. As I noted, Richmond may not be in a real threat to be contracted because of the market size and at least a stadium plan being pursued, but realignment up to the International League is possible, where it fills a hole in the map between New England teams and southern teams.

Richmond is also smack dab in the middle of where the new Mid-Atlantic League would likely be, between teams likely to be taken from the South Atlantic and Carolina Leagues (see below), though it doesn’t feel like a Low-A city. Even the High-A Carolina League remains a possibility.

Either move would mean it wouldn’t fit the Giants’ system as a Double-A team anymore. Maybe it fits as a Low-A team, if they move there, but… not really. If Richmond gets realigned, they’re likely no longer a Giants affiliate.

Meanwhile, the South Atlantic League would get absolutely butchered. It would turn into a six-team league, and some of its ex-pats would be turned into a new Mid-Atlantic League. And this makes sense in some ways. The “South Atlantic” includes teams in Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey. It spans into geographic territories of the High-A Carolina League and the Double-A Eastern League.

Now, Augusta is is no danger of being contracted. It features a shiny brand new stadium with nice facilities. It’s also one of the two most southern teams in a “South Atlantic” League. It also now is officially part of South Carolina…and there is that High-A Carolina League. The Carolina League itself ranges far north of the Carolinas, all the way into Maryland, so it likely figures significantly in the realignment.

This is where it gets confusing, and not enough has come out about realignment plans. The Carolina League sits more in North Carolina (with one team in South Carolina), while the southern half of the South Atlantic League has nine teams that span across both Carolinas and has one Georgia team (Rome). While teams weren’t named, it’s been said that the SAL will go down to six teams, so some of those southern nine would not be there. Could Augusta, and it’s excellent facilities, earn a promotion to High-A to fill a southern part of the Carolina League? In which case, of course, there’s no way the Giants don’t keep with San Jose in High-A. This is less likely of a scenario, but it’s still a question.

And let’s mention that if the Northwest League becomes a Low-A level league, whether or not the Volcanoes stay in it, the Giants may want an affiliate on the west coast anyway.

Scouting diamonds In the rough would get a lot easier

The fantasy “Dream League”, a league of undrafted free agents playing on non-affiliated teams to get attention and hopefully signed, is an interesting notion.

One thing it would do, however, is make scouting a lot easier. Rather than scouts and cross-checkers traveling to a Division II college somewhere way out of the way to see one player, the scouts would get to see more aspiring players all together. It would cut down on travel time and allow scouts to look at multiple prospects at once.

That said, it will also up the competition for these rough diamonds, since every single MLB team (and perhaps scouts from Nippon Baseball and other pro leagues internationally) will be able to take advantage of the simplified scouting destination. These players wouldn’t be getting multi-million dollar deals, but the moment the talent was seen, it’s pretty sure several teams would seek them out.

(That said, if cities all across the country are losing teams, that’s a pretty widespread “Dream League”. Would teams from a lost Pioneer League in Montana and Wyoming really be traveling to lost teams in the Appalachian League? This doesn’t add up well.)

These changes would not necessarily be for the better or the worse, as far as the Giants go. What it would be is a definite change in process. New affiliates would be found. New stadiums might get built. But for the fans, the landscape of minor league baseball would absolutely be changed forever.

P. S. Here are my uneducated and unprofessional opinion(s) concerning this proposal.

What I hate about this plan is that they’re tying the idea of paying players more to contraction and providing fewer opportunities overall. MLB managed to get MiLB on board with their lobbying of Congress to get the “Save America’s Pasttime Act” passed, which made minor leaguers exempt from minimum wage laws, and now they’re turning around and stabbing those same minor league teams/owners in the back. Baseball has always had enough money to pay all minor league players a decent salary, not enough to make them rich, but enough so they wouldn’t have to become Uber drivers in the offseason. Tying this to that is pure crap.

That ugliness aside, there are some decent arguments about reducing teams. If the purpose of Minor League Baseball is to produce major league players (and make no mistake, being entertainment for small town America is probably barely in their Top 5 reasons for being, from MLB’s perspective), there many, many career minor league players for every one player who scrapes the Majors. The current system is not at all efficient, and in a new age of player development rethinking from systems like Driveline to including sciences like sleep science and enhanced nutrition, I’m not opposed to new ways of thinking. And I have to admit, doing things to reduce travel times for young players in the bus leagues is not the worst idea in the world beyond just the money issue.

Other things make a lot of sense. Moving the draft back in the year is good for college players getting drafted. Shortening it saves me a lot of work, for sure. And the Dream League would be a new thing for watching and following baseball for a lot of prospect hounds.

But, man, tying this to the lawsuit about player’s salaries is just trash, and is only there to lay blame for the cities losing their minor league teams at the players, and not MLB. And that’s a crummy thing to do.