One topic of conversation across Major League Baseball over the years has been expansion. Expansion is a big topic for any sport, but it's potentially even bigger in baseball. If MLB were to expand, we might see a total reorganization of teams in a way that would completely eliminate the overlapping American and National Leagues. At very least, division races would be completely altered as they are realigned to four divisions in each league with four teams each.
Adding two teams would mean adding 52 players to the Major League ranks at any given time -- this in addition to the 30 players that will be added by expanding major league rosters to 26 players in 2020. Now, I have no doubt that the new organizations would plunk money into their shiny new teams -- markets like Charlotte, Las Vegas, and Nashville would certainly bring enough revenue to support that. But, I also have no doubt that two other teams would be pushed into rebuilds at any given time. The 52 players who are MLB players in the 32-team league but not in the 30-team league will mostly be veterans trying to extend their careers and former prospects who are still trying to click. Watching the Tigers and Orioles this season makes me question whether or not that's a good thing.
As a purely academic exercise, I'd encourage you to argue against reducing the league to 28 teams. The two teams that are removed would either be rebuilding teams or competing teams that are standing in the way of another team going for it any given year. (Which organizations get eliminated? That's what makes this purely academic.)
I want an alternative to expansion.
Instead of adding two new Major League organizations, let's add a whole new rung in the minor league structure that would serve secondary cities that can't quite draw a major league franchise. Unlike the existing minor league structure where player development is king, this league would focus on marketing the game and it's players to a new group of paying customers. Home markets are chosen because they bring butts to the seats and eyeballs to the televisions.
I imagine an additional Triple-A level that would mirror the existing AAA teams. Instead of being a mix of prospects and MLB veterans, this one should be limited to MLB veterans. The poster children for this league are those so called "quad-A" players who failed to stick in the majors but have eye-popping stats in AAA. This season's Tigers roster has plenty of good examples: think about Mikie Mahtook, Bobby Wilson, and Pete Kozma. In our recent past, I'd point to any number of fan favorites who have signed minor league contracts out there. Jim Adduci, Austin Romine, Brayan Holiday. There's also this guy.
I am highly, inconsolably incensed that Austin Jackson has not been signed. @Tigers, you have a chance to right this wrong. Bring Ajax back to where he belongs.— Jennifer Cosey (@VivaTigres) July 16, 2019
Watching them flail against the best players in the world can get arduous, but imagine watching them play against other players just like them. It's the equivalent to watching the Tigers play the Orioles, White Sox. or Royals. Those games would be more entertaining than watching a rebuilding team take on the Astros or Dodgers.
@tigermike1975 knows what he's talking about:
Who says the battle of the basement can’t be fun? Setting up for a good finish here in the bottom of the 12th. Bases loaded down 1, 1 out.— tigermike1975 (@tigermike1975) September 15, 2019
It wasn't just Mike, too. SI had an opinion piece about the same series.
Now, it might be too much to expect these minor league teams to warrant meaningful television contracts of their own. But, it's not crazy to see an organization packaging a subset of these games along with their full slate of MLB games. Fox Sports Detroit could air a Kalamazoo team on a Tigers off-day or at another time on Saturdays and Sundays. Here in Maryland, I could see MASN finding time to air Veterans League games whenever the Nat's and O's aren't both playing (MASN has two channels). That's also a nice way for those sports channels to be meaningful to viewers in secondary markets like Kalamazoo.
We want more stability in these teams than we typically get in AAA, so we only allow players who don't have option years remaining. We do this because we want mature experienced players who can engage with fans and the local media. Ideally, we want players who have had a chance to build their own small fan base while they played in the Majors. Greater stability allows organizations to invest in marketing based on individual players. These are also players that can represent their teams in their local communities. They can create and support their own local charitable efforts.
An important piece of this is that we don't change current MLB rules. MLB veterans can still be assigned to other minor league teams in the organization if they desire. Players can't be outrighted to this league without going through waivers.
Organizationally, these teams would provide major league depth to help the major league team get through the year. Because these players don't have options left, they don't bounce back and forth constantly but they are available. In a way, this is long-term storage for the major league club. The important thing for the players is that they can stay fresh and continue to work on their game in the hopes that they get can get back to The Show. For players, this would be similar to veterans that sign one-year contracts with rebuilding clubs. We've watched as Mike Fiers and Leonys Martin used a short stay in Detroit as a way of showing the league that they can still contribute.
The Player Side
By construction, members of this league should be making more than your typical AAA player. For one, they have some level of MLB seniority -- they don't have any minor league options, after all. Minimum salaries should reflect that and be a bit higher than current AAA levels. On the other hand, you absolutely can't allow free spending organizations to load up their minor league team with the kinds of players who should be holding down jobs on lesser major league teams. So, we need a maximum salary that is still well below the major league minimum.
A new dynamic starts to appear for players who are on the fringe of contributing in the majors. Even if they don't seem to have much of a long-term future with their major league team, they benefit from getting enough major league service time to qualify to play in the Veterans League. The money wouldn't compare to the major league minimum that they'd see at first, but the Veteran's League salary would help a player save up for their post-baseball life.
Because this league wouldn't focus on player development in the same way the rest of the minor league system does, there's no reason to play daily games if the fans aren't going to be there to watch. So, instead of playing six to seven games per week, why not limit it to four to five games with nice comfortable travel days in-between. That's just one four-game weekend series or a three-game weekend series with a two-game set during the week. If a game gets rained out? Well, you play it if you can. If you can't get the game in when fans would come, it's not the end of the world.
Minor League Opening Day for full season levels is a week after MLB Opening Day. Because these players are probably trying to find homes after not quite making major league teams, I see no reason for it to start right away -- maybe another week after that. If MLB Opening Day is March 28 and MiLB Opening Day is April 4, that puts the Veterans League Opening Day on April 11. If anything, there probably isn't pressure to even start it that early with schools still in session for another month and weather still a bit questionable in some markets.
There's really no reason to play these games beyond September call-ups, so this league finishes up over Labor Day weekend along with the rest of the minor leagues. I don't even see a reason to have a playoff. (Granted, I question playoffs in any environment where the best players really should be getting promotions.) By my count, that's a 20-week season. So, figure 90 games with 45 in their home venue.
So, where would these teams fit best? First of all, let's remember that these guys aren't the majors. This isn't The Show. Just about any market that is dominated by a Major League team probably wouldn't make sense. But, it still is A Show.
- Our first targets are the biggest media markets that don't have a Major League franchise. At first glance, that list includes cities like Orlando, Sacramento, Portland (OR), Charlotte, Raleigh, Nashville, and Indianapolis. All seven of these markets are bigger than four existing major league markets (San Diego, Kansas City, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee). Not all of them are slam dunks, obviously, with any Florida market deserving caution. Still, that list is a starting point.
- Any market with an existing minor league team that draws well above teams at higher levels should get a look. I'm particularly impressed by Dayton (Single-A squad with attendance in the top ten among MILB), Vancouver (short season team drawing nearly 7k per game), West Michigan, Brooklyn, and Spokane.
- While most MLB cities are out, it still makes sense to consider huge markets with only one MLB team. Philadelphia, Dallas, Washington DC, and Houston are all bigger than the Bay Area (San Francisco and Oakland). Maybe a few of those can support a secondary baseball team. Heck, maybe the Bay Area shouldn't have two competing big league teams. Maybe it makes more sense to have the Giants in San Francisco and their AAA Veterans League team across the bay in Oakland.
- The fact that these games are only played over the summer months would make it easier for cold-weather markets. Any Canadian city fits this profile with Montreal topping the list. American cities like Buffalo might be intriguing too.
- Organizations could use Veterans League teams as a way to engage with fans that are too far to attend a lot of games in person. The obvious example here would be Blue Jays fans way out in Vancouver or other Canadian cities. There are others that come to mind, though. The Texas-based teams could expand into Austin and El Paso, for example. Some of these markets are too far from major league teams to be a convenient AAA site, but can certainly support a meaningful team. In Michigan, think about having a team in Kalamazoo. The Whitecaps already attract well and having #OldFriends like Jim Aducci and Austin Jackson would only make it better.
- Popular summer vacation spots might make sense, too. There are plenty of good beach towns where the population explodes in the summer. Starting in Maryland near me and moving south: Ocean City (MD), Virginia Beach/Norfolk, Wilmington (NC), Myrtle Beach, Charleston, and Savanah jump out. Each of these towns are way too far from major markets but would probably succeed at attracting travelers. Making baseball an obvious piece of summer travel would probably be a good thing for the game over time. I've reached a point where every summer trip includes a visit for the local baseball game.
If these markets are big enough -- and facilities are good enough -- I could see occasional major league series played in that home-away-from-home. Imagine the Blue Jays playing one series per year in Vancouver. Jays fans already swarm down to Seattle for their annual series there.
Limiting Roster Needs
Now, it might not be real obvious that there are enough players to fill 30 of these teams, so here are some ways to limit the number of players that a Veterans League team might need:
- No DH. That doesn't mean pitchers hit. Don't have either -- 8-man lineups. There's really no reason for an organization to be "storing" a guy who is only a DH. And if the really want that, keep them on their traditional AAA roster.
- Only 4-5 games per week instead of 6-7. Fans don't come to the mid-week day games as often and attend day games even less, so there's no reason to squeeze a day game into a travel day. That means one less starting pitcher. I argue it probably also means one less reliever, but...
- Only play seven-inning games instead of the full nine. I saw pieces of a double-header among short-season teams where both games were seven innings and I didn't feel like I missed out on a ton. I still had a fun evening out at the park including a soda and a hot dog (that's my thing, no ballpark beer for me). The families around us were more than ready to go home after 7 anyway. I have a hard time believing smaller stadiums make much money in those last two innings. And sales then are probably last-minute buys that would happen in the last two innings regardless. That probably saves two relievers right there.
Those few ideas remove the need for a DH, a starter, and two relievers. That reduces the size of the team from 25 players down to something like 21. Sure, you might need a few filler types here and there but not too many.
The Big Picture
I'm convinced that expanding MLB by two organizations would just push two more teams into rebuilds at any given time. So, expansion not only adds the Charlotte Knights and the Montreal Expos -- it also pushes the 2019 Rangers and Reds into deeper rebuilds. That's two more fan bases who have little reason to be invested in the current on-field product for most of a season. Instead, let's expand the game into *30* markets with a product that doesn't bring the best names in the sport but does bring a product that's entertaining and fun to watch.
2018 MLB Attendance: http://www.espn.com/mlb/attendance?year=2018
2018 MiLB Attendance: https://www.baseballamerica.com/stories/see-2018-minor-league-baseball-attendance-numbers-for-every-team/
MiLB changes before 2019: https://www.milb.com/milb/news/2018-minor-league-affiliation-changes/c-295094572
List of US Markets: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_television_markets
2019 MiLB Attendance: https://ballparkdigest.com/2019/09/09/2019-affiliated-attendance-by-average/
2018 Attendance Ranked by Average per Opening*
|Overall Rank||League Rank||Team||Level||Openings**||Total||Average|
|25||25||Chicago White Sox||MLB||80||1,608,817||20,110|
|31||1||2019 Las Vegas Aviators (4,746 in 2018) ***||AAA||70||332,224||9,550|
|44||13||Toledo Mud Hens||AAA||69||507,965||7,362|
|47||1||Frisco RoughRiders (Dallas/Fort Worth)||AA||68||468,259||6,886|
|48||16||Oklahoma City Dodgers||AAA||69||463,195||6,713|
|57||2||West Michigan Whitecaps||A||67||386,609||5,770|
|89||1||Winston-Salem Dash||Adv A||66||292,774||4,436|
|91||2||Frederick Keys||Adv A||64||275,001||4,297|
|111||5||Myrtle Beach Pelicans||Adv A||66||219,589||3,327|
|181||****||Lakeland Flying Tigers||Adv A||59||49,551||840|
* I looked in to updating this based on 2019 attendance numbers but it seemed more arduous that it is worth. There are some variations in rankings, but nothing eye-popping. MiLB attendance did increase across the board by a few percentage points.
** Since some games are played as single-admission double-headers, "Openings" is the metric used instead of number of games.
*** This is the one entry that deserved an update for 2019. This is the first year for Las Vegas to have a AAA team. The new team competes in a new ballpark that is better positioned compared to the old one.
**** I didn't take the time to figure out rankings this far down the list. Just know attendance isn't good, though Lakeland is just one of many Advanced-A clubs in Florida with low attendance.