The Detroit Tigers have extended invitations to the Toledo Mud Hens, the Erie Seawolves, the West Michigan Whitecaps, and the Lakeland Flying Tigers to remain as affiliated minor league clubs for the 2021 season. The Norwich Sea Unicorns, formerly the Connecticut Tigers, did not receive an invitation.
Major League Baseball teams have sent out invitations to 119 minor league clubs to be affiliates for the 2021 season. MLB plans to have 120 affiliates, four per club and one each at the Triple-A, Double-A, High-A and Low-A levels, plus rookie league teams that are owned by the MLB clubs themselves. The 120th invitation is expected to be sent to the Fresno Grizzlies, who will be asked to change from a Triple-A affiliate club to a Low-A team in the California League.
The invitations do not contain the terms of affiliation, but MLB plans to take over the league offices of each of the minor leagues, in place of offices formerly run by Minor League Baseball, which has now been forced out of business by the takeover.
Each of the four clubs will remain in the leagues that they have played in for the past several seasons, although the Midwest League has been promoted to a High-A ball league while the Florida State League will now become a Low-A league.
The announcement is good news for the Erie baseball community and the Seawolves, as the club had been on a list of teams targeted to become disaffiliated. An investment of somewhere between $12 million to $16 million (reports vary), including substantial public funding to upgrade the facilities, has apparently paid off. While Erie is near the bottom of the Eastern league in attendance, they still drew over 215,000 fans to the park for the 2019 season, ranking 80th of the 160 affiliates with 3,315 fans per game.
The West Michigan Whitecaps are rewarded with a well deserved promotion to the High-A level. The Grand Rapids club ranked 32nd among all MiLB affiliates, drawing over 360,000 fans in 2019, or 5,378 per game. The facilities are first rate and the fan experience is top notch. Three other Midwest league clubs — one in Kane County, Illinois, along with Clinton and Burlington, Iowa — were not so fortunate, as they’ve learned through social media that they will not be invited.
The conversion of the Florida State league to a Low-A league club means that players joining the Detroit Tigers’ organization will remain in Lakeland for a longer period when they first turn pro. The Tigers will continue to operate two rookie league teams at Lakeland in the Gulf Coast League and two in the Dominican League.
For the Norwich Sea Unicorns, who were formerly the Connecticut Tigers, the announcement comes as a big disappointment, although not unexpected. While a few of the teams from the New York-Penn League — a short season rookie league — will remain affiliated at the A-league level, most of the teams in that league will be invited to become a “partner league”, as have other formerly “independent” leagues.
A statement released by the Norwich Club read as follows:
“We are extremely disappointed that we will no longer be affiliated with the Detroit Tigers. Dodd Stadium is a first class facility energized by first class fans, both young and old that deserve the ability to fall in love with the game, either for the first time or all over again. We are in the process of evaluating our options in hopes to provide quality, affordable baseball for our great fans for years to come. As soon as there is an update, we will share it with you immediately”.
Eleven full season minor league clubs that were affiliated at the A-ball level or higher have not received invitations. They include:
Jackson Generals of the Double-A Southern League,
Trenton Thunder of the Double-A Eastern League
Charlotte Stone Crabs and Florida Fire Frogs of the High-A Florida State League
Burlington, Clinton, and Kane County of the Low-A Midwest League
Lexington, Hagerstown and the West Virginia Power of the Low-A South Atlantic “Sally” League
The invitations do not contain critical details of how much control MLB will have over individual clubs. MLB has provided significantly higher standards for facilities as well as a new health and wellness standards. While minor league clubs could request some adjustments in the terms, if the invited clubs do not accept the licenses, MLB could drop them and offer the license to another club.