MLB 'has a plan' for teams facing elimination, future of Appy League still in doubt

Jonathan Roberts • Feb 16, 2020 at 7:09 PM

While Major League Baseball says it “has developed a plan” to keep Appalachian League baseball alive, the league’s future is still in doubt — and there’s little Minor League Baseball can do about it. 

Unlike many of the teams on the chopping block under a MLB proposal to “modernize” the minor leagues, Appy League teams are owned by the clubs they’re affiliated with, which puts them in a precarious position. In an unsigned letter from MiLB to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem and multiple media outlets, MiLB expressed concern about the future of the league. 

“MiLB acknowledges that MLB owns the 10 Appalachian League (“AL”) teams and that MLB regrettably has the authority to unilaterally decide the future of the AL,” said the letter, which was published by Baseball America. “MiLB strongly encourages MLB to work with MiLB, as it has in the past, to allow for the continued operation of the AL as a league with affiliated teams playing professional baseball.” 

In a four-page response, Halem questioned why the league is part of the National Association of Minor League Clubs, but said MLB has a plan to keep baseball in the impacted communities of the Appy League and the Florida State League. MLB clubs own 18 of the 22 teams that play in both leagues.  

“... (W)ith respect to the Appalachian League, we have developed a plan to retain baseball in all of the communities under the umbrella of MLB, and those communities will not be asked to invest additional funds to upgrade stadiums in order to retain baseball,” Halem wrote. 

When asked for specifics on how the proposal would affect the Appy League, an MLB spokesman said the league “doesn’t have anything further to share on the Appalachian League besides what’s already been shared” in the letter to MiLB President Pat O’Conner. The spokesman also provided the Press with a general statement, which was sent to multiple media outlets, reiterating MLB’s position that “every club” would continue with “some level of support.” 

“Negotiations are at an early stage, but MLB is confident that we can modernize our minor league system, improve playing conditions for our players and protect baseball in the communities where it is currently being played,” the statement read. “It is not Major League Baseball’s goal to eliminate any club in these negotiations, and MLB currently has a plan for every club to continue operations with some level of support.” 

In an interview with the Press, MiLB’s communications director, Jeff Lantz, said they feel there’s been some “good progress” made, but there’s “still a long way to go.” 

“Obviously, we want to keep all 160 teams operating under the same agreement,” Lantz said. “Obviously, Major League Baseball feels there’s some changes that need to be made.” 

When asked directly about the future of the Johnson City Cardinals as an affiliate, St. Louis Cardinals’ President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak, declined to comment, citing the ongoing negotiations.

“We do anticipate playing there in 2020,” Mozeliak said. 

The MLB’s “Dream League” scenario

One way to keep baseball in the towns poised to lose their affiliated teams is through a “Dream League” proposal from Major League Baseball, something they alluded to in their statement to the Press.

Theoretically, the proposal would see the league keep baseball in the affected communities, but the teams would lose their affiliation with the major league clubs, while also losing almost — if not all — financial support from MLB. As proposed, all Appy League teams (except the Pulaski Yankees) would lose their MLB affiliation. And while an independent league may temporarily keep baseball in the 42 towns on the contraction list, there’s no guarantee it would be there long-term. 

According to a study commissioned by MiLB, the average lifespan of an independent baseball team is 6.49 years, a number that drops dramatically when those teams play in a city with a population of around 60,000 or fewer. In those cities, the average team lasts fewer than five years. Since 1993, 88 independent baseball teams have played in such cities — but only 11 are still active. 60% of those folded after two years or less. Johnson City’s population is around 66,000. 

“We don’t want to agree to something where there’s going to be baseball in these towns, and all of the sudden three years from now the teams go under because they can’t afford to pay salaries,” Lantz said. “That ends up being bad for everybody.”

MLB hasn’t specified what kind of “support” the teams would receive, and haven’t specified how such a league — which would, in theory, span from New York to California to Florida — would operate.  

Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock, who’s joined a task force of more than 100 mayors calling for an end to the proposal, said the Cardinals losing their affiliation would be disastrous for the team and the community.  

“That would be a loss,” Brock said. “It really would be.”  

Across the country, hundreds of elected officials have voiced opposition to the plan, with bipartisan support in Congress as well. After several members of Congress formed the “Save Minor League Baseball” task force in December, Lantz called the support “tremendous” and said it was “a really big thing for Minor League Baseball.”  

“It’s always been kind of a shared responsibility between the community and the major leagues to make it work, and we feel like we’ve done our part,” Brock said. 

A new wrinkle

On Friday, the Associated Press reported that Major League Baseball would be raising salaries for minor league players in 2021 — which was one of the goals they hoped to achieve by reducing the number of minor league teams. 

At the winter meetings Manfred told the AP that “obviously there is a way to pay people more without reducing the number of franchises,” but that the question “becomes who should bear all of the costs associated with the player-related improvements that we think need to be made in the minor league system.” 

Under the reported salary improvements, players in the Appalachian League will see raises of $110, pushing their weekly salary from $290 to $400. With roughly 30 players on the roster during the season, the player salaries for an entire season would come in at under $200,000 — less than half of the minimum salary for one major league player. 

It’s unclear what impact the salary enhancements will have on negotiations. 

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