Minor League Reorganization
There were two main periods of minor league reorganization during the Affiliated Era. During these times major changes were put into place which affected the way Major League Baseball teams choose their affiliates and the way the minor leagues were structured.
Another radical shake-up plan, revealed following the 2019 season and implemented in 2021, ended the Affiliate Era. The Professional Development League replaced Minor League Baseball, which literally went out of business. While MiLB was an umbrella organization representing minor league baseball franchise operators, the PBL is essentially a division of MLB which offers licenses rather than affiliations to them. This wholesale rework is covered in the section labeled "2021" below.
Minor League Baseball, originally the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, was founded in 1902 to create a peaceful working relationship among the top-tier teams that were becoming Major League Baseball and the host of smaller teams they had until then been raiding for players.
Leagues came and went over those years, but the agreement and its basic structure remained essentially intact through the end of the last Professional Baseball Agreement in 2020. Relatively minor changes along the way included the addition of a Triple-A level in 1946, the Open classification experiment of the 1950s, and - while not technically part of the agreement - Branch Rickey's development of the occasional "working agreement" between Major and Minor clubs into the farm system.
The first major reorganization was before the 1963 season. It was at this time the classifications were renamed. Classes B, C, D, and E were dropped in favor of the currently used A based rankings: AAA, AA, A and A (short-season) as well as the Rookie-Advanced class. This caused many leagues to be reclassified. The Eastern League moved up to AA as did the Southern League. The Carolina League moved from B to A. The Northern League and California League went from C to A. The Florida State League, Midwest League, Western Carolinas League (later renamed the South Atlantic League) and the Georgia-Florida League all moved to A from D.
The New York-Penn League became a A (short-season) league, having previously been a D League. The other short season A league, the Northwest League, had been a B league. The new Rookie-Advanced class was filled by the formerly C Pioneer League and D Appalachian League.
The American Association was also dissolved in the reformation. The six-team league saw three of its teams cease operations (Dallas-Ft. Worth, Louisville and Omaha) while the remaining three joined the two remaining AAA leagues. The Indianapolis Indians joined the International League for a season before moving on to join the Denver Bears and Oklahoma City 89ers in the Pacific Coast League. An expansion team, the Arkansas Travelers, joined Indianapolis in the International League for their one-year run. The American Association was re-formed in 1969, as a result of the expansion of 1969.
Major League Baseball’s expansion from 28 to 30 teams in 1998 brought major changes to the minor league system over the next four seasons. Some of the moves were necessary to make way for the new minor league affiliates of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and others were made for their own sake.
In 1998 the AAA affiliates were added for the two new major league teams. The Durham Bulls were promoted from single A to AAA and joined the International League. The other AAA expansion team was the Memphis Redbirds. Memphis had previously hosted mostly AA teams. The Redbirds joined the St. Louis Cardinals organization and the Pacific Coast League. With the Diamondbacks bringing major league baseball to Phoenix, the AAA Phoenix Firebirds had to move. They were able to find a new home in Fresno, CA, as they became the Fresno Grizzlies.
The biggest move that off-season was the dissolution of the American Association once again. The Pacific Coast League absorbed five of the American Association teams (Iowa Cubs, Omaha Royals, Oklahoma Redhawks, Nashville Sounds and New Orleans Zephyrs) in addition to the expansion Memphis squad to go from a 10-team league to a 16-team league. The International League took Durham and the remaining three teams from the American Association: Buffalo Bisons, Louisville Redbirds and Indianapolis Indians. The league hosted the remaining 14 AAA Affiliates.
Things went smoother in 1999 as the Eastern League added two teams. This allowed for all 30 Major League teams to have their own AA affiliate. This was the last step in creating complete farm systems for the two 1998 expansion clubs. The Erie SeaWolves and Altoona Curve joined the league, though neither team would be affiliated with the Diamondbacks or Devil Rays.
While there were no changes in 2000, 2001 brought major changes to the A level. After years of it being unspoken that certain A leagues were stronger than others, it finally became official. The decision was made that every major league team would have one A-Advanced team in one of three leagues: Florida State League, Carolina League and California League. They would also have one A team in either the Midwest League or the South Atlantic League. 28 teams were able to immediately follow this new doctrine while two other had to wait until the player development contracts expired. This caused the Oakland A’s to have two A-Advanced teams and the Houston Astros to have two regular A teams. These changes made it necessary for two clubs to leave the higher-ranking leagues and join the lower-ranked leagues. The St. Petersburg Devil Rays and Kissimmee Cobras were dropped from the Florida State League. They were replaced by the Wilmington Waves and Lexington Legends in the South Atlantic League. The South Atlantic League also saw two of their franchises move that off-season. The Cape Fear Crocs became the Lakewood Blue Claws and the Piedmont Boll Weevils became the Kannapolis Intimidators. Eleven single A teams changed affiliates including seven of the ten California League teams.
Following the 2019 season, Major League Baseball proposed an update of the Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) to eliminate 42 minor league franchises and two minor league classifications. The proposal allowed MLB teams to pay higher salaries to minor leaguers by having fewer of them. The net loss was to be 40 teams, as two of the 42 were to be replaced by importing the St. Paul Saints and Sugar Land Skeeters from independent circuits. This was at least partly in response to attempts by various former and current minor leaguers to raise a legal challenge to the minor leagues' salary structure, arguing that it violated federal minimum salary rules. While MLB managed to obtain protection from Congress which passed a law in 2019 shielding it from such claims, the issue caused significant backlash, and one team, the Toronto Blue Jays, decided unilaterally to raise its minor leaguers' salaries in response.
Two lists of teams to be eliminated - one published by Baseball America and the other by The New York Times - circulated in the media in November 2019. Whether either list was official was not clear, nor were the criteria determining which teams were to disappear. MLB did say the lists were not current. The only difference between those two lists involved two Midwest League clubs: the Quad Cities River Bandits appeared on one and the Beloit Snappers on the other. A reasonable deduction is that Beloit saved itself by, in that very time frame, getting a deal to build a new ballpark.
However, it was clear that one objective was to eliminate the Rookie Class level, except for the two complex-based leagues (the Arizona League and Gulf Coast League, now renamed as the Arizona Complex League and the Florida Complex League), thoroughly reform the two short-season A leagues, and possibly eliminate the low Class A full season level. A number of teams in the Class A-Advanced level and in Double-A would also be eliminated, either for geographic reasons (a number of teams in the northeast seemed to have been targeted because of weather concerns) or because they played in ballparks that were considered outdated. But even taking these criteria into account there were contradictions. In many cases, local and state governments had invested heavily in renovating or upgrading ballparks for teams that were now suddenly slated for elimination, and politicians were starting to ask questions of MLB. With no one willing to explain exactly what the plan was as negotiations continued, everything was in flux as the 2019 winter meetings started.
What should have been the last season under the old system, 2020, was cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and the following January a final list of teams was made public, confirming most of the rumors that had circulated for over a year. Minor League Baseball now became the Professional Development League, there were now five levels of play (Triple-A, Double-A, High-A, Low-A and complex-based leagues) and the existing names of minor leagues were abandoned in favor of generic geographic monikers (e.g. "Double-A Central"). However, MLB restored the traditional names before the 2022 campaign with the ex-post-facto explanation that the initial change involved brand rights that needed to be secured, hence the use pf placeholder names for one year. In addition to the teams and leagues being eliminated and the three independent teams integrated into Organized Baseball (e.g. the St. Paul Saints), three independent leagues were also integrated as "Partner Leagues" while two lower-level leagues, the Pioneer League and Appalachian League were reorganized as an independent league and a summer collegiate league, respectively.
The reorganization's goals also included stability, with the term of the agreement that bound MLB teams and their farm clubs together - formerly called a Player Development Contract, now a Player Development License (PDL) - lengthened from either two or four years to a flat ten years. Both documents have been characterized as form contracts not subject to negotiation or change, but while a signed PDC was a bilateral agreement between partners MLB describes the PDL as something its teams issue and which are accepted or declined by the invitee. Demonstrating the value of such a MLB parent to non-MLB professional teams, the 30 MLB teams each issued four PDL invitations and all 120 invitations were accepted.
Clearly, there was some evolution along the way. Both Quad Cities and Beloit survived, at the expense of their league-mate the Kane County Cougars. The Double-A Eastern League's Erie SeaWolves and Binghamton Rumble Ponies also survived, as did the Chattanooga Lookouts of the Double-A Southern League. The level-shuffling seemed to come out of left field, with the California and Florida State leagues dropping from High-A to Low-A and the Midwest and Northwest leagues rising to High-A - changes that made sense given the relative attendance in those circuits. Several other teams changed levels on an individual basis, including the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp moving from Double-A to Triple-A. There was near-wholesale jumping between two geographically overlapping circuits, the High-A Carolina League and the Low-A South Atlantic League - so much so that it wasn't clear which became "High-A East" and which became "Low-A East" until the original names were restored. In effect, the entire High-A Class was demoted to Low-A and the new High-A was cobbled together from previously Low-A, High-A, and Short Season-A teams. MLB clearly chose geography over balance in changing Triple-A from two leagues of 16 and 14 teams to two leagues of 20 and 10. The number of teams imported from independent ball rose to three when the New York Yankees dropped the Eastern League's Trenton Thunder in favor of the Atlantic League's Somerset Patriots. Thus, the final number of teams that lost franchises was 43 but the net change was still 40, from 160 (not counting the complex-based leagues) to 120.
Of the teams that survived, the Fresno Grizzlies and Wichita Wind Surge seemed to be the most injured. The Grizzlies, who were in the Pacific Coast League, found themselves not only in the California League but - because of that circuit's shift - falling from Triple-A to Low-A. Meanwhile, Wichita built a Triple-A quality stadium to lure the New Orleans Baby Cakes to Kansas, only to get dropped from Triple-A to Double-A. However, Baseball America - which broke and developed most of the news surrounding the reorganization - reported in October 2019 that there would be substantial compensation for downgraded teams.
A change whose effect was not immediately apparent was another set of facility standards, much stricter than those MLB negotiated into the 1990 PBA. Baseball America has reported a scoring system assigning varying point penalties for violations and a threshold of points that will trigger cancellation of the PDL. Initial reports indicated the deadline to meet those standards would be five years, but the scoring starts in 2023 and teams in danger are saying they could be bounced by the start of that season.
The reorganization, which is often called a take-over, generated at least three lawsuits - solo ones from the New York-Pennsylvania League's Staten Island Yankees and Tri-City ValleyCats and a joint one from those two along with the NYPL's Connecticut Tigers (now Norwich Sea Unicorns) and the Northwest League's Salem-Keizer Volcanoes. None has yet been fully adjudicated. The single-team suits are pending, possibly awaiting the outcome of the joint one. That has been dismissed, but in a way that seems to guarantee further action. The judge concluded MLB did violate antitrust laws but then dismissed the case because of MLB's antitrust exemption - an outcome the teams' attorney says is exactly what they want so their "focus on appeal will simply be on overthrowing the baseball exemption."
- Gabe Lacques: "'Ripping a community apart': Minor-league franchises on the chopping block ready to fight MLB's proposal", USA Today, December 10, 2019.