How Does Independent Pioneer League Affect American Association?
American Association Daily provides insights, features, and recaps of the action from around the American Association of Professional Baseball League, as well as player and coaching profiles and transactions. In today’s edition, Robert Pannier discusses the impact that the new Pioneer League might have on the American Association.
Pioneer Becomes New League in Town
We all knew it was coming. Major changes in the minor league baseball system instituted by Major League Baseball. In an effort to reduce the number of teams affiliated with each club, at least 42 cities will lose a team so that the minors can downsize to 120 teams divided across four levels.
But was there really a reduction? In the minor leagues there will be, but MLB has already softened the blow by turning some of these former leagues into wood bat leagues, a new prospect league, and even a new independent baseball league.
Kayla Thompson breaks this down perfectly, so there is no need for me to dive into the changes. Instead, the news that the former Pioneer League would move from rookie league ball to an independent league is an interesting one, especially for the American Association. This could have a dramatic impact on baseball’s best independent league.
The Pioneer League Move
All eight teams that were included in the Pioneer League will stay together as part of the new independent league. That includes the Billings Mustangs, Grand Junction Rockies, Great Falls Voyagers, Idaho Falls Chukars, Missoula Paddleheads, Ogden Raptors, Northern Colorado Owlz and Rocky Mountain Vibes.
There is something to be said for this news being a disappointing one for the American Association. These could have been markets that would easily slide into the league but considering that all eight are in a different time zone, it may not have been as seamless as you would think.
The bus travel time could have been an absolute nightmare. Right now, the longest distance in the league is between Cleburne and Winnipeg, 1,323 miles (about an 18-hour bus ride). For all the teams in the north, this is the longest such trip, taking between 12 and 15 hours to get to The Depot.
Right now, it is a nightmare for the league in that there is no other team in the state after the departure of the Texas AirHogs, but the league is looking to expand into other markets in the Lone Star State and so the travel time will be mitigated when teams can make a 10-day trip and cover three cities in the state.
In addition, should things not change, one or two long trips to Cleburne each year is not a huge deal. With additional off days added to the schedule, it will not be too taxing on the body.
However, consider additional trips to Billings, Idaho Falls, or Colorado Springs. For example, Milwaukee has a 15-hour bus ride to Cleburne. It is 15-hours to Billings, 15 to Colorado Springs and 21 to Idaho Falls. The hard part about that is that there is no “easy” 10-game road trip either. It is 21 hours to Idaho Falls, then nearly nine to Windsor, CO, and then two more to Colorado Springs. Then a 15-hour ride back to Milwaukee. That is literally two days spent on a bus for one trip.
Now the Bad News
That MLB did not opt to attempt to merge the Pioneer League with the American Association looks to be good news, but there is one piece of news to their press release that should be cause for concern.
As part of the announcement it was explained that MLB would pay all of the operating expenses for the league, at least initially. That leaves a lot of open questions to be asked, including:
- What level of players will be in league?
- How much will teams be able to spend on players?
- Will there be a salary cap?
- Will MLB cover all operating expenses, including coaching staff?
This is just to start.
It was also announced that a procedure would be implemented to make it easier to transfer players from the Pioneer League back to affiliate ball. That begs the question if that same procedure will be in place for the American Association? If not, and players of any talent level are playing in the Pioneer League, why would they come to the American Association when they had a better chance of getting back the Cubs or Yankees if they were in the new league?
Also, does that transfer go two-ways. Instead of releasing a player outright, can the Rockies or Marlins send a player to the league? These things are going to hurt the available player pool.
No matter how the structure of this league works out, it is going to hurt the American Association to some degree. If the Pioneer League will allow for the signing of AA or AAA level guys, that reduces the pool of available players for American Association managers. Since the new league will start at the same time as the American Association, they become direct competitors.
If it is mainly geared toward younger players, that could mean that there are fewer rookie level players that are available. The American Association has always prided itself on the five or six rookies on each team and how they have helped those players to get a shot at affiliate ball. Those gems may be harder to find.
Then there is the added uncertainty of the word “initially.” How long will MLB fund these teams? If they find that the team members is not doing well financially, they may feel compelled to continually fund the league, which puts all other independent leagues at a sizable disadvantage.
Could They Still Merge?
All of these questions cast a shadow over the American Association. However, consider this. Should MLB withdraw their funding, these eight ownership groups are going to learn a valuable lesson in baseball economics. My good buddy Kevin Luckow is fond of saying, “You can make a million dollars owning a minor league baseball team – it will just cost your four million to do it.”
Owning a minor league team is not a moneymaker for most. Take away money from the Majors and it may be difficult for a small league to say afloat. There are about 50 former independent team owners who can teach you about that.
Without MLB chipping in, these owners may be looking for a way to improve their chances for success and joining the nearest independent league may be the way to go. Should Texas expand, the league could eventually move to a 24-team, three-division league, with West, South, and North divisions. To accommodate travel, they could do very much like the NFL does, where a team plays six games (3 home and 3 away) against one of the other divisions and 56 in their own division, bypassing the third division for a year. That makes for a workable 104 game schedule.
What is important to understand is that whatever happens to the minor league system this offseason is likely not the end of changes. We will still see more happen in the upcoming years. In fact, I would not be surprised if Josh Schaub and Josh Buchholz are addressing these issues right now.
By Robert Pannier