For those of you that have kept up with the latest storylines regarding Major League Baseball’s proposal to restructure Minor League Baseball, you’ve probably noticed the stir it has created. The most striking report came back on October 18th, when Baseball America published the highly controversial plan laid out by Major League Baseball — one which will eliminate 42 minor league teams and effectively recreate the minors as we know it. This “restructuring” is meant to go into motion in 2021, as the current Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) between MLB and MiLB is set to expire after the 2020 season.
Now, I’m not going to outline or delve too much into the specifics regarding that proposal, but you are welcome to read up on the exact ramifications headed Minor League Baseball’s way, here.
Today, I’m interested in diving into something that has come to light much more recently; a bit of news and analysis shared by Ben Clemens and Meg Rowley a few days ago at FanGraphs — a piece titled Take Me Out to the Ballgame? Mapping the New MiLB Landscape. It’s an extremely informative write-up on the effects these upcoming changes to MiLB will undoubtedly have, so feel free to read it for yourself.
Although, the writing that follows will be a more specific look at our team, the Atlanta Braves, and how this proposal will impact the organization as well as Braves Country and the fanbase that follows it. Unfortunately (well, depending on your stance), the Braves aren’t excused from this drastic revision.
Florida Fire Frogs & Danville Braves
Under this forthcoming proposal, more than 25% of the minors will be eliminated, and the remaining leagues will be reconfigured, leaving some levels of the minors smaller and others larger (including reclassification, restructured divisions, etc…). To achieve this, all non-complex (not wholly MLB-owned) affiliates will be subject to closure, shutting out minor league baseball to an estimated 4 million fans.
Fortunately for the Braves, the organization owns all of its full-season affiliates except for the High-A Florida Fire Frogs, a team that was already slated to go through some changes.
Back in May, team owner David Freeman and Osceola County (where the team plays its home games, in Kissimmee, FL) agreed on a buyout to make way for the community to convert the existing Fire Frogs stadium (Osceola County Stadium) into an MLS training complex. This comes just three years after the Brevard County Manatees came from Viera, FL to Kissimmee after the 2016 season to rebrand into what’s now the Braves’ High-A affiliate, the Florida Fire Frogs.
Originally, Osceola County and the Fire Frogs agreed on a 3-year lease that included 23 one-year options that could be exercised by the team annually, but it didn’t take long before the county was ready for a change — at one point even threatening to evict the team. As a result, the Fire Frogs just completed their final season in Kissimmee, and the assumption was that Freeman would take his $500,000 buyout check and move the team to North Port, where the Braves’ new Spring Training facility is located; however, it’s likely the Fire Frogs will soon cease to exist.
According to Clemens’ and Rowley’s analysis done on Monday — which served primarily as a recap of reporting done by The New York Times earlier this month — the Florida Fire Frogs are on the list of 42 minor league teams that will receive the axe, ranking as the second-worst team on the list in terms of 2019 attendance (19,615).
Then there’s the Danville Braves, the organization’s short-season rookie club. Danville is owned by Liberty Media (or more accurately, Braves Holdings LLC.), thus originally believed to be exempt from such closures, but it has been discovered that’s not exactly the case.
The latest updates regarding the coming restructure have reported that MLB could save $100 million by completely discarding the Appalachian League — the rookie league that Danville resides in.
Granted, none of this is official yet. Both sides (MLB and MiLB) are still in the middle of negotiations. But it’s rather clear that both parties want the same thing, but have very different opinions on how to get there. MLB hopes to improve the quality of minor league baseball, as MiLB also does, though the former believes that’s only possible by shrinking the current product. The key will be finding a solution that pleases both sides. Senior Director of Communications for Minor League Baseball, Jeff Lantz, assures fans they’re still in the early stages of talks. His comments regarding league closures:
“It would be unfortunate. Because obviously they would have to cut some players and figure out what to do with their employees from the team. But again, it’s really early in the process and I would caution against rushing judgement at this point, having everyone worried and concerned. There’s still a long way to go.”
While it would be wise to remain open-minded about possible outcomes for Minor League Baseball in 2021, the initial outline appears alarming.
The possible aftermath
Since last month’s BA report, folks have speculated and argued over the true scope of Major League Baseball’s proposal. There’s no doubt that changes are coming, but no one has been able to project the impact these changes will cause accurately. This is where the recent FanGraphs piece comes into play.
Clemens’ and Rowley’s article looked more specifically at how fans of Minor League Baseball will be affected, providing analysis on each impacted region once their local minor league team is gone. Additionally, the two took the geographical center of each ZIP code and calculated the distance-to-travel for those affected regions, finding the next-closest location for pro baseball.
For example — using one of the more fortunate cities in their article — residents of Rothville, Missouri would be in luck, as the changes above would mean their nearest minor league team would move just over 5 miles. Although people of the Lowell, Vermont area, who enjoy Vermont Lake Monster games, would lose baseball entirely, as the projected changes would leave the town more than 125 miles from the nearest MiLB team.
I won’t go into too much of the details, but as you can see the aftermath will vary quite a bit. In terms of Braves Country, fans of the organization that live in the Appalachians will be impacted the most. For a region already deprived of very much baseball, not only will the Danville Braves be gone, but so will 11 other minor league teams (according to the FanGraphs’ post).
However, MLB does lay out a plan to shift several of the 42 teams on the closure list, creating what we know as an independent league. This league will be called the Dream League and will serve as a destination for not only the large mass of jobless minor league players but also amateur talent that goes undrafted in the shortened MLB Draft. That’s the next big topic — the Draft.
Since there will be fewer affiliates and fewer places for big-league organizations to place players, the MLB Draft will have to be trimmed as well. This isn’t unheard of, being that the draft has gone through its share of revisions since its birth in 1965 (there once were three different drafts per year). Of all the proposed changes, a shorter draft may perhaps be the one that we should welcome. The current MLB Draft is painfully long, and when looking at the data, it seems to be quite a waste. Consider the numbers after the 5th round:
* 2012 report from Bleacher Report
% of players that make it to the majors
Rounds 3-5: 32%
Rounds 6-10: 20%
Rounds 11-20: 11%
Rounds 21-40: 7%
Granted, the Braves have done rather well finding excellent talent in the later rounds. Outfielder Trey Harris — who I covered in my latest 2019 Prospect Rewind — was the Braves’ MiLB Batter of the Year this past season. He was taken in the 32nd round in 2018. But the overwhelming majority of selections like that don’t usually work out.
At least for the Braves’ sake, much of its full-season minor league system will remain as it was, and the players within it will mostly go unaffected. Several organizations will lose teams as high as Double-A (Mets, Tigers, Reds, D’Backs), meaning total reconfiguration will be required.
In the end, hopefully, all of these changes to Minor League Baseball will lead to solutions. Let’s hope this restructuring is more for the good of the minor league players and not just the MLB, for the entire point of a new MiLB was to create a better MiLB.