The world of Minor League Baseball was completely turned on its head last week when Major League Baseball announced a total restructering of the entire system.
What was previously fourteen leagues spread out over five levels is now eleven leagues over four levels, massive re-alignments were implemented to accomodate this and sadly dozens of teams were kicked out of affiliated professional baseball. The new system allows the Major League teams and their Minor League affiliates to be significantly closer to each other than before, in most instances, as well as an increase in salaries to Minor League ballplayers. Though, again, this at the cost of many teams.
“We are excited to unveil this new model, which not only provides a pipeline to the Majors, but continues the Minor Leagues’ tradition of entertaining millions of families in hundreds of communities”, said Major League Commissioner Rob Manfred in the official release. “In modernizing our Minor League system, we prioritized the qualities that make the Minor Leagues such an integral part of our game while strengthening how we develop professional athletes on and off the field.”
The four levels will be known as Triple-A, Double-A, High-A, and Low-A with the lower three of those levels split into three regional leagues, the Triple-A level remains at just two leagues. Several teams were either bumped up a level or dropped down and three previously independent-league clubs have been invited and are now affiliated with Major League clubs.
We’ll start with Triple-A, which was previously split up into the International League and the Pacific Coast League. The official release did not indicate these names would be used going forward, instead listing them as (I’m told, “temporary placeholder names” of) Triple-A East, and Triple-A West.
Overall, Triple-A East is essentially the International League and Triple-A West is the old PCL but there has been some shifting around here. The Iowa Cubs, Memphis Redbirds, Nashville Sounds, and Omaha Storm Chasers have all been moved from the PCL to the “East”, the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp got a nice promotion from the Double-A Southern League to the Triple-A East. There are also two former independent clubs here, the St. Paul Saints of the American Association joins Triple A East, and the Sugar Land Skeeters of the Atlantic League now in Triple-A West.
Some teams no longer at the Triple-A level include the Fresno Grizzlies who are getting the boot all the way down to Low-A, the San Antonio Missions will be sent to Double-A, and the New Orleans Baby Cakes, who relocated to Wichita for the 2020 season that never happened, will now play in Double-A as the Wichita Wind Surge. One other Triple-A relocation for 2021 is the former Pawtucket Red Sox who will remain at the Triple-A level as the Worcester Red Sox.
Relatively speaking, the Double-A level didn’t see as much movement as the other three. The Texas League, Eastern League, and Southern League all remained mostly in tact — though a couple of teams still did get the boot.
Starting with the Double-A Central, which is the old Texas League. No teams were eliminated but two were added from Triple-A, the San Antonio Missions and the Wichita Wind Surge (previously the New Orleans Baby Cakes) both join the league as former members of the Pacific Coast League.
In the Double-A Northeast one new team was added to what is essentially the old Eastern League. The Somerset Patriots, a former member of the Independent Atlantic League joins the fun while the Trenton Thunder is left out, they’ll be joining the new MLB Draft League.
Finally, the Double-A South, which is made up of Southern League teams, didn’t add any teams but did lose the Jackson Generals who are still unsure what they’ll be doing in 2021. The Mobile BayBears have relocated to Madison, Alabama and will remain in the league playing as the Rocket City Trash Pandas.
The newly named “High-A” class, which was known previously as A+, has seen a lot of shifting around as they have crammed five leagues together into three.
High-A West is the Northwest League minus two teams, the Boise Hawks (Pioneer League) and the Salem-Kaiser Volcanoes (Maverickes League) are both joining independent leagues. High-A Central is the Midwest League with four teams removed — the Burlington Bees and Clinton Lumberkings are going to the Prospect League while the Kane County Cougars shift to the American Associaiton filling the void left by the St. Paul Saints. The Bowling Green Hot Rods get shifted over to High-A East.
Speaking of the High-A East, this is where things get really muddy as teams from four different leagues are all mashed together. Remember the New York-Penn League? Say goodbye to it, out of the fourteen teams that played in the NYPL in 2019, only three will continue on in affiliated baseball, those three are all here in the High-A East — the Aberdeen Ironbirds, Brooklyn Cyclones, and Hudson Valley Renegades. We’ll get into detail about who left the NYPL and where they went later in the post, but most of them were herded into the new MLB Draft League.
From the Carolina League we have the Wilmington Blue Rocks and Winston-Salem Dash. The South Atlantic League gives us the Asheville Tourists, Greensboro Grasshoppers, Greenville Drive, Hickory Crawdads, Rome Braves, and the renamed Lakewood Blueclaws who will now be the Jersey Shore Blueclaws.
Things calm down a bit in the Low-A level, in terms of realignment anyways… because two entire leagues were removed – the Pioneer League and the Appalachian League. Both leagues will carry on but will no longer be a part of the official Minor League Baseball system nor will they have any affiliation with Major League clubs.
In the Low-A West, we have the California League plus the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies and minus the Lancaster Jethawks who are still figuring out what they’ll do in 2021. The Low-A East is a mix of the Carolina League and South Atlantic League teams that didn’t get promoted to High-A, three teams got the boot from affiliated baseball — the Frederick Keys (MLB Draft League) and two still looking for a home, the Lexington Legends and West Virginia Power.
Finally, the Low-A Southeast is your Florida State League with two teams removed, the Charlotte Stone Crabs and Florida Fire Frogs. The Stone Crabs folded up shop entirely, the Fire Frogs are still looking for a place to play.
That leaves us with the teams who sadly didn’t make the cut, 43 teams who were affiliated with a Major League Baseball franchise in 2020 no longer be in 2021. That includes the entire Pioneer and Appalachian Leagues and most of the New York-Penn League.
The graphic above shows 33 of those teams (the ten teams of Appalachian League are not included in the graphic, every club is getting an entirely new name and identity as they had previously all used MLB names). Many of the clubs will be part of the new MLB Draft League, a Collegiate Summer League (CSL), a showcase league for the top prospects in MLB’s annual draft to take part in. Others found new homes in various independent leagues throughout the country, some still aren’t sure what they’ll be doing, and a few even called it quits and threw in the towel.
It’s a shame to see so many communities lose out on Minor League Baseball though I’m glad that many were able to find new leagues to partner up with to keep baseball alive in those small towns and cities.