A way to keep baseball in Colorado Springs has presented itself, but it would represent a fundamental change of direction and won’t likely carry the familiar “minor league” label.
Wednesday marked the end of a 10-year agreement between Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball. While negotiations for a new pact are ongoing, MLB has made it clear it intends to reduce the number of teams by about 25% to 120 and any leverage minor league baseball had on its side to prevent those cuts was ruined by COVID-19 and its financial devastation in a canceled season.
The Pioneer League, home to the Colorado Springs-based Rocky Mountain Vibes as well as the Grand Junction Rockies, has been among those expected to face contraction as it operates at the lowest rung of a developmental ladder that MLB wants to shorten.
The potential loss of MiLB affiliation could mean a transition to a newly conceived format that would see the Pioneer League host college players in a collaboration between MLB and USA Baseball.
At its core, it would be a cost-cutting move for baseball. MLB would shorten the draft, thereby removing a large percentage of players from the payroll in minor leagues’ lower levels and instead encouraging them to play collegiately. The plan would also include moving the draft toward the end of the summer, eliminating a need for short-season leagues like the Pioneer League that are often populated by players taken in the June draft.
Each MLB team would be left with four minor league affiliates, likely all full season — Low-A, High-A, Double-A and Triple-A. Summer leagues for college players like the Cape Cod League already exist, but the demand for similar leagues would likely increase with more players in college instead of going in the draft as high school players and populating the lower minor leagues. MLB and USA Baseball would provide the coaches, developmental technology and a venue for players to be seen by scouts. The players, in turn, would likely play for free in what amounts to a baseball internship. The teams like the Vibes would provide the facilities and crews to market the game and provide in-stadium entertainment.
Since MLB’s current contribution in the agreement with its MiLB affiliates primarily covers the cost of coaches and player salaries, the move would be a wash for teams like the Vibes as this new format still would not require they pay players or coaches.
The Appalachian League, which had also been at the Rookie League level, already made the transition from an MiLB-affiliated circuit to the newly coined Prospect Development Pipeline . All 10 Appalachian League teams are own by their MLB parent clubs, so the move didn’t require approval of MiLB.
The new format for the Appalachian League was announced Tuesday, complete with a video from MLB Network Studios and an explanation from the network’s Harold Reynolds.
“This is going to be exciting,” Reynolds said of the Appalachian League format in the video. “It’s going to be great for your community, it’s going to be great for your league. And more important, it’s going to be great for baseball.”
MiLB continues to negotiate, but for a team like the Vibes the PDP seems the only viable option unless the coronavirus leads to multiple teams folding. Since most leagues are bus-only for travel, geography all but eliminates options below Triple-A for the Vibes. But considering the franchise spent three decades at Triple-A before dropping to Rookie League in 2019, it is always a possibility.
MiLB still hopes all of this can be avoided through negotiations.
“For more than a century, Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball have worked together to grow the game of baseball into America’s Pastime,” Vibes owner D.G. Elmore said in a statement released by MiLB on Wednesday. Elmore chairs MiLB’s Professional Baseball Agreement negotiating committee.
“Minor League Baseball’s negotiators have been meeting with MLB to reach a new agreement— one that would continue the relationship with MLB and preserve affordable, family-friendly entertainment in each of our 150 communities across the nation. Minor League Baseball will continue to work in good faith over the coming weeks to reach a well-designed and fair agreement that meets MLB’s player development needs and continues the relationship between the two for generations to come.”