When news of Major League Baseball’s plan to reduce the number of minor league affiliated teams by 42 teams from it’s current 160 team structure became public in October of 2019, minor league teams in Michigan were somewhat assured that none of them were on the list of teams to be cut loose. At the same time, the Detroit Tigers’ affiliates in Norwich, Connecticut and in Erie, Pennsylvania were marked for disaffiliation, as were three other teams in the Midwest League.
Now, it appears at least possible that Michigan’s four Midwest League teams could see a promotion from Low-A to High-A as part of MLB’s new structure in 2021. A recent article in ballpark digest reports that the Midwest League, or at least what is left of it after contraction, could be promoted to high-A. That would mean that the Detroit Tigers’ affiliate in Grand Rapids, the West Michigan Whitecaps, would advance.
According to the report, the Florida State League, including the Lakeland Flying Tigers would be reduced from 12 teams to 10 and the league would go from High-A ball to Low-A in 2021.
As we reported here earlier this week, there is a plan circulating to restructure the Single-A leagues as follows:
Low A: California League, Florida State League, South Atlantic “Sally” League
High A: Midwest League, Northwest League, Carolina League, new Mid Atlantic League
Both the California and Florida State Leagues are currently High-A level. The Midwest League is a Low-A league, and the Northwest League is a short season rookie league. Both of those leagues have attendance figures that easily out pace other Single-A and even some Double-A teams.
From an attendance perspective, the swap makes a lot of sense. The average Florida State League team drew just 1,237 fans per game in 2019, while the average Midwest game pulled in 3,557 spectators. Removing the three Midwest League teams slated to be unaffiliated, that average jumps to 4,260 per game.
The Lakeland Flying Tigers drew just 853 fans per game in 2019, ranking 154th out of 160 affiliated teams, while the Whitecaps drew over 5,300 fans per game, ranking 32nd in all of minor league baseball.
MLB’s plan calls for eliminating short season and rookie leagues, such as the NY- Penn league, and having most recently drafted players report to club owned facilities, like the Tigers have in Lakeland where they participate in the Gulf Coast League. MLB would also cut ties with Double-A teams in Erie and Binghamton, New York, along with Chattanooga and Jackson, Tennessee.
MiLB countered MLB’s proposal with a plan that would have converted the Florida State League to a short season rookie league, allowing another 10- 12 teams in the NY- Penn league to remain affiliated as a complimentary short season league. That proposal never gained traction with MLB.
A list of the 42 teams with the lowest attendance among the 160 current MiLB affiliates includes the entire Florida State and Appalachian leagues along with many of the teams already listed on MLB’s hit list of 42 teams targeted to be cut loose. Erie ranked 80th on the list in attendance, drawing 3,315 fans per game. The cutoff for the top 120 in attendance is about 2,000 fans per game.
Of course, attendance is not the only factor in MiLB restructuring. MLB expressed concerns about the quality of facilities and geographical considerations. Geographically, the International league is very close to the Midwest League teams, but there are no nearby double-A affiliates. A recently released list of specifications for facilities appears to be easily met by current club owners.
The Detroit Tigers’ player development agreement with the Erie Seawolves expired at the end of the 2020 season, and with Erie slated to be cut loose from the Eastern League, Detroit would be looking for a new Double-A affiliate if those plans remain unchanged. UPMC stadium, which has been the Seawolves’ home, has undergone renovations over the past year funded in part by a $12 million grant from the State, which may help to save their MLB affiliation.
A case could be made for West Michigan and a few other Midwest League teams to jump all the way to Double-A based on attendance. The Dayton Dragons ranked 10th in MiLB, Fort Wayne ranked 29th, the Whitecaps 32nd, with South Bend and Lansing in the top 60.
While Dayton would fit geographically in the International league, a number of other Midwest teams would need to make the jump together in order to make geographic sense of a promotion to Double-A, either as a division in the Eastern League or as a new Double-A League. Erie and Akron of the Eastern League are actually the closest Double-A affiliates to Detroit and the Midwest League region.
There will be changes to MLB’s initial list of 42 teams to be cut from the list of affiliates, but it is not known what teams comprise the preferred list of 120 survivors. All of the 30 triple-A teams will remain affiliated, although some may be dropped to the double-A Texas league or the Single-A California League. Four Double-A teams, including Erie, were on the hit list for disaffiliation, along with ten Single-A teams. Ten of those 14 teams were among the 42 lowest ranking in attendance in 2019. Midwest teams in Clinton and Burlington, Iowa and Benoit, Wisconsin are also slated for disaffiliation.
MLB is restructuring the business relationship between MLB and MiLB teams, switching from a franchise model to a licensing model. MLB will choose which minor league teams play in which league, and where their major league affiliates are. The number of fans that turn out for games matters little to MLB, by comparison with geographical convenience and control over league schedules.