As speculation swirls around where Toronto will play the 2021 season (and beyond), MLB takeover of minor league operations may leave Blue Jays prospects wondering where they will be playing going forward
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The danger of being a baseball anorak is you are never satisfied leaving any issue alone. You are always trying to figure out the next signing or trade acquisition; forever looking to the past to help clear up the present problems and focus on future successes and failures. So naturally the news that Rogers Communications, financial overlords of the Blue Jays, were looking to build a new privately financed stadium to replace Rogers Centre sent my synapses into overload.
Fans are already unsure of where they will need to buy tickets for 2021 home games (Rogers, Buffalo, Dunedin) Now the vision of a new stadium somewhere in Toronto Metro has us wondering the best way to get ourselves to the games (and how many layers we will need to keep warm if the team returns to an open-air lakefront stadium). But all of these announcements must be considered as an afterthought to what Major League Baseball will be announcing in early December, presumably virtually at the Winter Meetings. Since annexing Minor League Baseball operations as if it were the Sudetenland, all 30 MLB franchises and baseball fans in scores of minor league cities have been placed into a heightened state of alert-wondering where the Commissioner’s Office will strike next.
How does this pertain to the Blue Jays? On paper, the four primary minor league affiliates (AAA Buffalo, AA New Hampshire, A Lansing and Dunedin) appear to be familiar tenants eager to renew their baseball leases. Short season leagues have been eliminated by MLB, and the Vancouver Canadians have been scooped up by the Oakland Athletics while the Appalachian League and Bluefield Blue Jays will be transformed into a summer wooden bat league for college players. So with the league mandated reduction of affiliates standing at 4, everything should be the same as it was in 2019. But let’s not count our Blue Jays affiliations before they are hatched in New York.
The first alarm bells went off in my head when I stumbled across an article on the MASN Network website, regarding the Nationals 10-year player development agreement signed earlier this month. Nats General Manager had this to say when asked about the team’s desire to make Richmond, VA its AAA affiliate:
” It was a play for the future… But the reorganization of minor league baseball involves facility stuff and it would’ve been really hypocritical for Major League Baseball to allow Richmond to go Triple-A, given the condition of the ballpark. So the Nats were lobbying for it, which is within their right. But it would’ve involved the Blue Jays coming to Rochester in Double-A, which would’ve meant them leaving Manchester.”
Just yesterday I was reading an article from Baseball Digest that outlined current minor league affiliations, both announced and speculated. When the article came to A level affiliations, the author placed a question mark ? next to long-time Blue Jays affiliate Lansing Lugnuts. Now my curiosity was really piqued-either Baseball Digest has inside information it is not willing to go on record with or they really do not like Blue Jays fans.
In fairness, these are two random articles from two distinct sources that do not add up to empirical certainties. But the quote from the Washington front office clearly shows that MLB will not be sentimental about assigning affiliates to its member clubs. Factor in an industry-respected publication like Ballpark Digest shedding doubt upon the return of a trusted affiliate into Toronto’s orbit does create a source for concern.
Two affiliations are assured- the AAA Buffalo Bisons, which cemented its connection to the Blue Jays by serving as hosts for the 2020 season. Despite initial complaints by Blue Jays players and concerns about existing lighting from MLB offices and the Players Association, Sahlen Field proved to be worthy of its initial construction intentions of hosting major league baseball games. The proximity to Toronto makes it a natural affiliation and 2020 may have cemented the long-term partnership between Toronto and Buffalo baseball clubs.
The other guaranteed minor league affiliation is with the Dunedin Blue Jays, which is the only franchise-owned team and just happens to be the Spring Training Home of the Blue Jays. Not to mention the $81 million dollar renovations just completed to TD Ballpark and adjacent training complex facilities. Renovations that may just come in handy come April, since the stadium was built to major league specifications and may need to play home to the big league club in 2021.
But are there legitimate questions about the team’s AA and High A franchises in 2021 and beyond? The Blue Jays have been affiliated with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats since 2004, and by all accounts both teams are thrilled with the partnership. The Fisher Cats have ranked in the upper echelon of minor league attendance most years and geographically align with MLB wishes to contain travel expenditures by minor league organizations. It’s proximity to Atlantic Canada also makes it a practical vacation destination for Blue Jays fans from the eastern regions of Canada, including Quebec and Ontario.
The Lansing Lugnuts will only benefit from the designation of the Midwest league as a High A designation and are also long-term franchise partners, partnering with the Blue Jays in 2005. While Player Development Agreements will come under the purview of Major League Baseball more than at the discretion of individual clubs, it should be noted that the PDAs with New Hampshire and Lansing expired after the 2020 season (which is the case for many minor league affiliates in advance of the MLB takeover). So technically both teams are free agents, though its freedom to negotiate for its immediate and long-term future are impeded by the monopolistic actions of the Commissioner’s Office.
As the aforementioned article regarding the Rochester Red Wings shows, there was a legitimate chance that a more geographically beneficial AA affiliation with the Western New York anchor minor league city was under serious consideration. Even with Rochester out of the running to be a Toronto affiliate, the lack of an existing PDA does muddy the waters a bit. Especially with the proposed elimination of the Detroit Tigers AA affiliate in Erie PA a strong possibility. The Tigers’ current Midwest League team in Grand Rapids West Michigan Whitecaps is an attendance giant, so a move of West Michigan to Double A is not a stretch of probability. Given the map-driven importance of league mandated affiliations, would it not make sense to assign Lansing to Detroit? Or perhaps reward Lansing for all of its successes by elevating the Lugnuts to the AA affiliate of the Blue Jays-leaving the Fisher Cats looking for a new partnership.
Allow me to propose three possible scenarios for minor league affiliations for Toronto in 2021 and beyond:
SCENARIO #1- Everything stays the same
Imagine a scenario that MLB chooses to reward the patience of 2020 with the certainty of maintaining successful business relationships between one of its larger markets and its long-standing affiliates. AAA-Buffalo Bisons AA-New Hampshire Fisher Cats High A- Lansing Lugnuts Low A-Dunedin Blue Jays. The eye test would project to give this an A+, since it makes perfect sense. Which no doubt will doom this scenario to be more reminiscence than reward.
SCENARIO #2- Detroit fans are happy, Blue Jays fans not so much
With this line-up shuffle, Rob Manfred cannot resist placing more value in Little Caesar’s money than Rogers Communications revenues and elevates West Michigan to Double A. To create a home state love nest for Michiganders, Lansing is assigned as the Midwest League affiliate of Detroit, giving them a Toledo (which used to be part of Michigan)/Grand Rapids/Lansing trifecta. To make up for the slight, Toronto is granted a long-term agreement with New Hampshire and placated by offering the fertile markets of the newly created High A Mid-Atlantic League (Trenton, Jersey Shore, Wilmington, Richmond) as a profitable alternative. Buffalo and Dunedin remain part of the family.
SCENARIO #3- An Erie Feeling
This is by far the most far-fetched scenario, and is dependent upon the Blue Jays being denied permission to start the season playing in Toronto. Despite the success of major league games being played in Buffalo, Bison ownership will not willingly forego its own season or compromise revenues by sharing Sahlen Field with its parent club. Afterall, there has never been a more fitting name for a family owned operation than Rich. So Buffalo is the AAA affiliate and New Hampshire is allowed to return to the Jays flock. Given the inconvenience of spending a second season as an ersatz road team, Lansing remains a Toronto affiliate (despite the temptation to keep all Detroit’s primary affiliates within 100 miles of Comerica Park). Denied access to their (temporary?) homefield at Rogers Centre, the team, the Commissioner, and MLBPA all agree that remaining at the familiar confines of Dunedin and TD Ballpark is the most logical solution to a lingering problem.
Naturally Toronto will be granted a temporary slice of the revenue sharing pie to help offset the pain and suffering of lost revenues. This would also offer the Erie Seawolves a chance to prove that it can be a viable minor league franchise going forward. Even if it would only be for one season, the City of Erie and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania could recoup at some of the $12 million dollars in development grant monies it spent on renovating UPMC Park to the standards announced by MLB. Crazy idea? Given all that 2020 has thrown at baseball fans, this scenario is a safety squeeze for Toronto should it find itself homeless again in 2021.
We know you really don’t need to be thinking about this stuff, given all the uncertainties already faced by the Blue Jays heading into next season. But rather than shrinking from the possibilities, think instead about the comfort of knowing these scenarios could prepare you for the beanball Rob Manfred may be contemplating with his next pitch.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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