The Northwest League Is Moving Upward
The new 2021 Northwest League is not official… yet. It could change before next season starts. Consider it written in pencil- not stone. But here is what it looks like– for now. The Northwest League is changing. Here’s what it could look like.
It’s been known for a while now that Major League Baseball (MLB) will be contracting the Minor League (MiLB) system. Facing ever rising costs and wanting control over it’s minor league players, MLB is taking control. More on that in a second but first, what can we expect for 2021 for our Short Season A League?
Northwest League Is Movin’ On Up
For starters, we are hearing that the Northwest League will be moving on up to the High A League. We can consider that a promotion. But, it is not without costs. Here is what the structure will look like for MiLB and what it was last year:
(2020 was canceled due to Covid-19)
A Advanced High A
A Low A
A (short season) contracted
Pioneer (R) contracted
Arizona (R) Arizona (R)
Dominican (R) contracted
As you can see, AAA and AA will stay the same. What changed is below that. The two full season A leagues will be renamed High and Low. Short Season A is contracted. Missoula is no longer affiliated with the D-Backs. Instead, the Pioneer League will become a partner for MLB. The Dominican team is still up in the air but is thought to be contracted. The AZL D-Backs will be replaced by a new “Complex” team representing the three former Rookie league teams. Instead of the eight teams of 2019, there will only be the four minor league teams along with a fifth “Complex” team for the drafted rookies out of college, high school and Latin America.
Down On The Farm
But what does this mean for the teams of the farm system? It means quite a bit. Using the Arizona Diamondbacks farm system as an example, this is what it used to be compared to what it will be:
A Advanced-Visalia High A-Hillsboro
A- Kane County Low A-Visalia
A-short season- Hillsboro contracted
Rookie League-Missoula Independent-Missoula (MLB Partner)
AAA-Reno will again stay the same. But, everyone else changes. Jackson Generals become contracted with no word yet on where the team will end up. A Advanced Visalia will move down to Low A ball. Kane County may become contracted as we wait word on where they might end up. Short Season A Hillsboro, so far, is the only Diamondback farm team to get a promotion. This time to High A, formerly occupied by Visalia.
The most unusual case so far is the Missoula Osprey. Not only is their status changed, but also their name. They are now branded as the Missoula Paddleheads. Before I get into the future of Missoula baseball, I had to look up to see what a paddlehead was. It is a Moose. The antlers of a moose, which are unique compared to those of a deer or elk, are called “paddles”. Therefore, a moose is a “paddlehead”. Mystery solved.
Back To Baseball
Reno Aces – PCL
Reno is the only club that is not affected by the changes. They stay in the historic Pacific Coast League
The Jackson Generals (2019’s AA affiliate) are looking towards joining an independent league for survival. But there is a roadblock. The lease for the stadium that is owned by the city, The Ballpark at Jackson, requires an MLB affiliation which now looks like the Generals are losing. The good news is the city of Jackson, Tennessee wants to keep the Generals in Jackson and are working at changing the language for if and when the loss of affiliation becomes official.
Visalia Rawhide – California League
The Visalia Rawhide will keep its affiliation with Arizona but will move down one level to Low A. This will mean a change in the level of players assigned to the team. Instead of being one step away from AA, they will now be the entry point from the Rookie leagues.
Kane County Cougars – ???
The Kane County Cougars have also lost their affiliation with the Diamondbacks. But, to confuse things even more, they are also not on the list of 42 MiLB teams to be contracted. It is likely that they will be assigned to a different MLB franchise just as one will be assigned to take their place in the D-Backs farm system.
Hillsboro Hops – Northwest League
The Hillsboro Hops will move up to the High A slot where a season will last around 130 games. After seven seasons in the Short A version of the Northwest league, Hops fans will have the amount of games to watch almost doubled. Plus there is a twist. A former Hops player who was promoted to Kane County last year could find themselves promoted again to — Hillsboro! One advantage for the Hops fans will be a higher quality of player. There are more High A ball players who get to sniff the major leagues than those of the former Short Season A teams.
Missoula Paddleheads – MLB Partner League
the Missoula Paddleheads are a part of the Pioneer League. The entire league is making the same change. Each team is losing its affiliation with the MLB. Instead of Missoula specializing in freshly drafted high school kids from the Diamondback organization, they will be made up mostly of undrafted and drafted players under the age of 24 hoping to get noticed by MLB.
Missoula’s biggest factor in losing affiliation was more related to being a short season league and MLB’s desire to reduce the number of teams down to four per franchise. The Paddleheads were simply caught in a numbers game. MLB wanted to reduce farm systems to four MiLB teams per franchise. With 30 MLB teams, that adds up to 120 teams. There are currently around 160 teams affiliated with MLB franchises which explains why there are 42 MiLB teams on the contraction list.
MLB will not lose sight of their former rookie teams however. They have set up an arrangement for undrafted free agents to go “up” to one of the full season leagues that are still tied to one specific MLB franchise if called by a franchise.
Get Out The Map
Why the moving around? The answer is simple economics. The MLB wants to cut back costs in an age of ever rising salaries and other costs. And this doesn’t even count the hardships created by Covid-19. In fact, this was considered before the world had even heard of Covid-19.
One of the factors is travel. When the distance between you and your franchise is 1510 miles, as in the case of Phoenix, Arizona and Jackson, Tennessee, calling up a player, frequent flyer miles can add up quickly. As recently as 2018, the New York Mets and their AAA farm team Las Vegas were an incredible 2200 miles apart. Imagine the amount of airline peanuts you could eat during a season.
So, the MLB came up with an idea. What if they could rearrange the map and have their farm teams much closer? The costs would be cut and travel time would be quicker. MLB already had a prime example of the benefits. AAA Tacoma is only 35 miles away from the AL Seattle Mariners. Calling up a player is easy and quick when you are that close.
Hence, it is no coincidence that Kane County, Illinois and Jackson, Tennessee would lose their affiliation with Phoenix, Arizona. The other teams are located much closer. Reno is in Nevada. Hillsboro is in Oregon. Visalia is in California. All are west coast locations. It will be likely that the AA replacement for the Jackson Generals will be someone much closer to Phoenix that is also looking for a new team to call home.
The Northwest League Loses Two Teams
Again, we have a numbers crunch. With every team only allowed one High A team, that left 30 open slots for a High A team. There became a surplus of High A teams. One part of the solution was to reduce the eight member Northwest League to a six member league.
Early on, the two candidates were thought to be the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes and the Tri-City Dust Devils. But now we are hearing the Volcanoes and the Boise Hawks. The Dust Devils have a reprieve.
With both teams in the South Division, there will have to be a reshuffling by moving one North Division team to the South or just make it a one division league. With the North consisting of Vancouver and Everett to the upper north along with Tri-City and Spokane in Eastern Washington, there is no one team to move that would make sense. I’m expecting a one division league for the Northwest League.
What Happens To The Volcanoes and Hawks?
As for Salem-Keizer and Boise, both are hoping for a promotion to another farm team. Their alternative could be an independent league such as one of the new “Summer Wood Bat” leagues.
The Volcanoes are keeping hopes alive for them to hook up with another league. But, with openings cut by MLB’s reduction to 120 teams, it is unlikely for both teams. There is still a chance to work with MLB. Roger Munter spoke with Volcanoes CEO Mickey Walker about their outlook.
Boise is trying to improve their chances by developing plans for a new stadium. Don Day over at BoiseDev goes into depth from a perspective of a developer. Like many teams on the list of 42, they are trying hard to hold onto their MLB affiliation.
Otherwise, the landscape could start to return to the old days of the 19th century. There could be an explosion of independent or semi-pro leagues popping up everywhere. Back then, each county had their own pro team. Now, today, those days might become tomorrow. MiLB franchises cost in the millions of dollars. With a plethora of independent teams, that cost is greatly reduced and is more affordable to more communities.
With the reduction of teams, the possibilities of more independent leagues will pop up. Communities with a history of professional baseball would want to keep a team active in their market. There are three different types of independent leagues working with MLB.
The Pioneer League is now a MLB Partner League. They will host young un-drafted players hoping to catch on with a MLB farm system.
There will also be the Summer Wood Bat Leagues. These are amateur leagues featuring current college players with at least one season of experience but have not used up their eligibility. Wood Bat leagues do not allow aluminum bats. The reason being that professional baseball does not allow metal bats– only wooden ones.
Draft Leagues are a third option. These will feature graduated college students eligible for the MLB draft. For a very short season before the draft commences, draft-eligible players can strut around the diamond trying to improve their stock when draft day comes. Those drafted can report to the spring training camp of the team that drafted them. There, another short season commences as the MLB club decides what to do with them.
Restructuring The Leagues
Before MLB could decide on which teams would stay, move or go, it had to decide which leagues would fit where? Gone is the Pioneer League though it will continue to exist independently as a Partner League of MLB. The Northwest League will become a High A league since the old short season A no longer exists. Many teams will remain with the exception of losing a team or two.
Once the leagues are in place, MLB then looks at the individual teams. Where are they located? Where is their parent team located? How big is their stadium? Not only the seating capacity but existing space for the team to function? What new technology do they have? Can the old place be “techno-fitted”?
These are just some of the criteria that MLB is looking at while it makes final decision on what the final list will look like. Every team and fan is waiting to find out so they can start getting ready for the 2021 season. If they still have a team to make plans for.
The teams that are currently on the list of 42 are making plans of a different source. Some are adjusting to their new role as a Partner or Wood Bat League. Others are getting ready to become a Draft League. Some are still holding out hope that they can regain the affiliation they lost or maybe find a new one with a different prarent club.
The List Of 42
This list has nothing to do with Jackie Robinson’s number or the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Last year, MLB published a list of 42 teams for contraction. In April, Baseball America published an updated list as MLB continued to morph and change its mind, trying to perfect the new farm teams. It still might change today or tomorrow or next week.
The final version of this list is what everyone is waiting for. After that, the MLB office plans the schedule. Teams can start selling tickets for the 2021 season. Vendors can start ordering supplies. Umpires will know where to go. Fans can make plans to go to the games.
For a very concise list of the potential changes, head over to Mike McCann at the Minor League Source. He recently updated his ongoing list on November 30th of this year.
Players and team owners saw this coming for over a year. On November 30th of this year, the Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) between MiLB and MLB expired. Instead of renegotiating a new agreement, MLB simply took over. MiLB will no longer run the minor league teams. In fact, its current president is retiring at the end of the year. Pat O’Connor has been a part of professional baseball for 38 years, the last 13 as President.
MiLB has been around for 120 years starting the same year that the American League first swung a bat (1901). Babe Ruth was only six years old. Most teams today are under private ownership. Each major and minor league team negotiate their agreement. That will be no longer as MLB now controls the minor league teams and will assign which minor league team will affiliate with which MLB team.
There are MLB teams who own some of their farm clubs. The Gwinnett Braves are one such team.
Now that the MLB has the power to assign affiliations, the shuffle has begun. Some teams do not change per the parent team’s request. The Mariner’s AA team in Arkansas appears to be one such example.
Geographic distance is only one of the reasons why the Minor League shuffle is dancing around the holidays. MLB rates each stadium and what it needs to improve. One such item is the size of floor space in the clubhouse. Other physical characteristics abound.
One of the key items MLB is looking for is statistics. MLB is looking to bring up the technology. Having spent the last five years (not counting 2020) in the press box at Ron Tonkin Field covering the Hillsboro Hops, I have seen first hand the technology coming in every year.
Gameday was one of the first. Typing into a laptop on the counter in front, the Gameday operator enters in the statistics of the game as they happen. Was the pitch a ball or a strike? Translating this data to a graphic on a website, fans can watch an animated figure face the pitcher.
Statcast is also used. Teams mount a radar gun to a rafter and point it at home plate. It tells the statcast operator upstairs the speed of the pitch and its location. From this information automatically recorded, the operator decides what kind of pitch it was: four-seam fastball, curve, slider, etc. When the batter connects, it even gives launch angle and distance traveled along with exit velocity. It has become routine to shout after a
home run has left the park:“How far did it go?”
This information, relayed to the parent club and New York offices, tell the scouts how their prospects are doing. Anything to help their young investments get better. The plan is to “technofit” all farm teams with this technology and more if they don’t already have it.
What Is Next For The Northwest League?
There are still a few questions but that is what it is looking like at the moment. The common feeling that the majority of what we have now will not change except for a few items here and there as the discussions work things out. The biggest question is how long will it take to know more?
The existing Northwest League clubs are secure in their place but not in their time. Clubs are already past their normal deadline for ticket sales to start. But, without a schedule, no tickets can be sold. Fan events can’t be scheduled if you don’t know when your home games are. Same for concessions as they try to figure out their ordering schedule. When and where do the umpires go?
Things are changing. Years from now, we will look back and see the changes as a necessary step to ensure the future. We can see them better organized to allow players to get a chance. More tools to help those players step up the ladder, trying to reach the proverbial cup of coffee in the major leagues.
Could There Be A Different Option?
David Pinto over at the Baseball Musings offers a different scenario. One that old fans of the Portland Mavericks, who played in the Northwest League back in the 70’s, might appreciate. Fans of the Hillsboro Hops might be familiar with the Mavericks as they don replicas of the old uniforms a few times a year to honor the team of yesterday. If you need to brush up on your Portland Maverick manifesto, head over to an article I wrote a few years ago. It also introduces the Mavericks to new fans that have never heard of the Ol’ Battered Bastards of Baseball (still available on Netflix).
But, we won’t be looking at the old pictures of the teams that used to be. A player absolutely giddy about being selected in the 40th round and jumping up and down with Uncle Roy who is over to share the excitement of someone in the family making it. About the days when the Volcanoes and the Hawks used to play in the Northwest League. Or do you remember when the Missoula Team was a part of the Diamondbacks farm system?
Professional baseball will continue to move forward and the changes will evolve into forms more likely to survive. But, as we enjoy the new strength offered by the future, let us not forget the sacrifices made by others to make it possible. While the many continue on, a few will be left behind.