Professional baseball will continue in Colorado Springs and maintain ties with Major League Baseball, but under a new format.
“It’s a massive change,” Rocky Mountain Vibes president and general manager Chris Phillips said.
Starting with the 2021 season, the Vibes and the rest of the Pioneer League — which includes teams in Grand Junction, Utah, Montana and Idaho — will complete as a “Partner League” of MLB, where they will accept players on loan from MLB franchises but fill the rest of their rosters with their own players in the mold of an independent league.
While the specifics of which MLB clubs will loan players to which "Partner League" are being ironed out, there’s a possibility this could open the path to players in the Colorado Rockies system again being farmed out for development in Colorado Springs.
The role of the Vibes manager was previously to serve as caretaker for the roster he was given by a parent club, most recently the Milwaukee Brewers. Now the role will be expanded to find and develop players who will be paid by the Vibes while also taking on some players on loan and part of the payroll of MLB teams in a manner that resembles the old format.
“It’s the biggest change, for sure,” Phillips said of adding a scouting network to the team’s operations. “But I don’t think it’s going to be difficult. I think it’s going to be a matter of finding the right people with the right connections.
“There certainly won’t be a shortage of talented players to choose from.”
Some of those players will become available through MLB’s restructuring of the minor league system. The draft will likely be trimmed in half to around 20 rounds, and the number of affiliated teams will drop from 160 to 120.
The new partnership ends months of uncertainty surrounding the future of baseball in the city. The Vibes, formerly known as the Colorado Springs Sky Sox, dropped from Triple-A (the highest step on the minor league development ladder) to Rookie League (the lowest) prior to the 2019 season. When MLB and MiLB began negotiating a new agreement it became clear that the lower levels were not included in MLB’s future plans. This agreement allows a connection with MLB to continue in a way that prevents a full leap to independent status but grants teams autonomy in areas like licensing and apparel deals that were previously controlled and came with heavy fees. For example, the Vibes had to use New Era to produce team hats and Wilson for the jerseys under financial terms agreed upon by MiLB. Now it will have leeway to negotiate deals for its popular Toasty (a flaming s’more) logo that has been among the top-selling hats in minor league baseball since its introduction in late 2018.
The 92-game season will run roughly from Memorial Day through Labor Day, providing teams with 46 home dates. Phillips said the Vibes plan to continue all the normal promotions that have been featured for years at UCHealth Park.
“The Friday night fireworks, $2 Tuesdays and Bark at the Park, those aren’t going away,” Phillips said.
MLB will help with initial funding of the league, install scouting technology and provide access to scouting information.
“I was so excited to hear of the partnership between the Pioneer League and Major League Baseball,” Colorado Springs mayor John Suthers said in a press release. “The Rocky Mountain Vibes are an integral part of our community and we can’t wait to see the team back out at the ballpark next summer.”