Proposed changes to baseball’s minor league system could again put the future of the team in Colorado Springs in doubt.
According to a report from Baseball America and other outlets, Major League Baseball has opened negotiations for the soon-to-expire affiliation agreement by suggesting it scale back the number of minor league teams by 42, shorten the draft and make other changes in what would be a massive overhaul of the system and leave lower-level teams such as the Rocky Mountain Vibes potentially fighting for their existence.
Vibes general manager Chris Phillips was quick to point out that Friday’s report reflects only the beginning of what he anticipates will be drawn-out negotiations.
“I’m not concerned about the future of professional baseball in Colorado Springs,” Phillips said.
Phillips pointed to the team’s established ties to a “great market” and a “great ballpark,” and said there could be a chance the Vibes could end up moving to Class-A, Double-A or even back to Triple-A by the time the new deal between MLB and its minor league affiliates are in place.
The reports from Friday paint an extreme position for MLB in these early stages that could present a dire situation for many lower-level teams.
Baseball America reported teams in the Vibes’ Pioneer League might be encouraged to form summer wood bat amateur teams with only loose MLB ties.
The New York Times specifically identified teams in the Appalachian, Northwest and New York-Penn leagues as those most vulnerable to the proposed mass contraction that would take the number of minor league teams from about 160 to 120.
“If they don’t fold immediately, they would soon go out of business and we would lose baseball in those cities,” Pat O‘Conner, the president and chief executive of Minor League Baseball, told member teams in a letter obtained by the Times.
Baseball in Colorado Springs has seen a dizzying amount of change in recent years. The Rockies ended their longtime affiliation with the then-Triple-A Colorado Springs Sky Sox after the 2014 season. The Milwaukee Brewers then became the team’s parent club until the team’s owners, the Elmore Sports Group, moved the team to San Antonio before the 2019 season and replaced it with a short-season Rookie League team that was then renamed the Rocky Mountain Vibes.
Baseball America, like Phillips, stressed that the proposal made public Friday was only the first step in talks for the Professional Baseball Agreement that expires after the 2020 season.
The aim for Major League Baseball, the publication reported, was to remove teams and levels with substandard facilities and rearrange leagues and levels geographically to reduce travel. Some teams have also questioned the need for so many lower-level leagues in general, and the proposal would limit each club to 150 players in its system. Roughly 1,400 players would lose roster spots under this proposal.
A MLB spokesman said part of the objective would be to improve compensation for minor league players, which has been notoriously low.
Part of the plan calls for disbanded teams to form what is being called a Dream League, which would be a joint MLB-MiLB venture that would more closely resemble current independent leagues than lower-level affiliated leagues. It is estimated that a move from affiliated baseball to the Dream League would add $300,000 to $400,000 to costs for those teams. Baseball America notes that Pioneer League teams would unlikely generate the revenue to support such a team, though it did not mention if Colorado Springs might prove to be the exception because of its market size. The Vibes finished second in the eight-team league in attendance in its inaugural year in the league at 3,923 per game. The six teams below the Vibes averaged 2,013 in attendance.
Other aspects of the proposal include shifting leagues and affiliations. The Pacific Coast League, formerly home to the Triple-A club in Colorado Springs, would shrink from 16 to 10 and other reshuffling would see teams jump from Class-A to Triple-A while others go the other way with a drop in level.
Ultimately, the objective from MLB would seem to be wresting control of the stadiums and geography of its player development system back from minor league owners for the first time in 100 years.
Any such plan would require ratification by MLB and MiLB and would take effect for the 2021 season.
“We’re at the very initial stages of the negotiations where each side is presenting to the others the issues and concerns they have with the existing PBA,” MLB deputy commissioner Dan Halen told Baseball America.