As the office of the Commissioner has seemingly used the extenuating circumstances of the coronavirus to implement changes to the game that are wildly unpopular with fans, MLB’s takeover of minor league baseball has been a long-running saga underpinning the whole story. The most attention-grabbing story of these changes has obviously been the effort to pare down the minor leagues to 120 teams, leaving each major league team with only four minor league affiliates.
However, accomplishing that task isn’t as simple as just axing a few affiliates and calling it a day. It will also take a bit of shuffling to optimize the attendance and revenues for each team. One of the measures being taken is promoting the Midwest League to the High-A while demoting the Florida State League to play Single-A, per a report from JJ Cooper of Baseball America.
While this may seem like a trivial adjustment at first glance, it will change the fan experience for West Michigan Whitecaps enthusiasts.
The Whitecaps, who play in Grand Rapids, have been affiliated with Detroit longer than any of their other minor league teams. Positioned in one of the most tourist-friendly towns in Michigan, the ‘Caps are easily accessible to a large chunk of the fanbase who are too far away from Detroit to make regularly attending games a reasonable option. They’ve curated their brand as a fun, family-friendly destination and a number of future big leaguers have worn the iconic blue and white uniforms.
West Michigan becoming the Tigers’ new High-A affiliate is largely good news for fans of Detroit’s fun-loving face of the minor leagues. One of the main appeals of going to minor league games is the ability to watch big-name prospects play and dream of a future in which they wear the Olde English D. However, with a Low-A affiliate, meaningful prospects drafted out of college generally only spend a handful of weeks with the ‘Caps before being advanced to Lakeland.
Now that the Whitecaps will be playing at a higher competitive level, fans will get more of a chance to see the best players who pass through, as non-elite prospects generally spend a full year in High-A. That will likely include a bulk of the Tigers’ most recent draft class, players such as Dillon Dingler, Daniel Cabrera, Gage Workman, and Trei Cruz. There’s also a decent chance that first overall pick Spencer Torkelson will make his professional debut in West Michigan before being bumped up the food chain to Double-A.
This move will also change the way prospect junkies look at minor league performances. Well known is the fact that the Florida State League is a pitchers’ league, with offensive performances being suppressed by the heavy, humid air of the gulf. It’s a quirk that has metamorphosed into a rule of thumb — many players slump when they reach High-A. However, as Lakeland is no longer a High-A affiliate, fans and evaluators will need to be careful not to fall into the old way of thinking.
Additionally, allowing minor leaguers kick off their stateside careers in the Florida State League could be helpful developmentally. The facilities in Lakeland are essentially the Tigers’ home away from home, a relationship they reaffirmed with a $48 million renovation of TigerTown in 2017.
“Player development was always our focus,” said Ron Myers, the Tigers’ director of Lakeland operations during the project. “We wanted to offer customers the best possible hospitality, and also use the best technology.”
As a result of the renovation, which is now three years old, the facilities at Lakeland have medical and player development accommodations to rival those anywhere in the organization. It was a sensible choice on the Tigers’ part — it could be argued that nowhere are those provisions more important than their home for spring training, where pitchers and batters alike tinker with their mechanics and shake loose offseason rust.
By placing the lowest rung of the ladder at such a resource-rich facility is a boon to the prospects who start their professional career there. It will provide the Tigers with the ability to lay the foundation for solid fundamentals as early as possible. Additionally, the relatively compact spacing between Florida State League teams allows players to adjust to the rigors of a professional schedule without the additional strain of lengthy bus rides, which are commonplace in the Midwest League.
All in all, this move will serve to improve the fan experience in West Michigan, which is one of the franchise’s most outward-facing teams and will afford the organization an opportunity to better ease draftees into pro ball. That’s a net positive for everyone involved, even if the circumstances that provided this outcome were less than ideal.