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The Columbia Fireflies played the Charleston RiverDogs at Segra Park on April 4, 2019. 

A new proposal by Major League Baseball could result in drastic changes to the landscape of the minor leagues. That includes the Columbia Fireflies and teams in Charleston, Greenville, North Augusta and Myrtle Beach.

The MLB plan, aimed at cutting costs, would eliminate at least 40 of the 160 affiliated minor league teams and trim the Major League draft from 40 rounds to 20 or 25.

Changes, if approved, would start after the 2020 season, which is when the current Professional Baseball Agreement — a deal between MLB and the minors — expires. The key part of the proposal involves teams below the Class A level but Class A teams and above are expected to be on the cut list, too.

One idea floated in the reported plan: hacking the 14-team South Atlantic League from 14 teams to six but adding a new Mid-Atlantic League.

The Columbia Fireflies (New York Mets affiliate), Charleston RiverDogs (New York Yankees), North Augusta GreenJackets (San Francisco Giants) and Greenville Drive (Boston Red Sox) are in the low-level Class A South Atlantic League.

The Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Chicago Cubs) are in the high-level Class A Carolina League.

Fireflies president John Katz referred questions to the MiLB office, as did Dave Echols, president of the RiverDogs.

That minor league officials are unwilling to comment indicates the proposal, as first reported by Baseball America, is a serious concern.

It might also be the first move in a leverage battle. MLB, among other things, wants to have more geographically sensible league memberships and force minor league teams to upgrade facilities.

It also wants to raise pay for minor leaguers, apparently with money saved from operational costs.

It's possible a shuffle could benefit the RiverDogs, a model of Class A success, by bumping the franchise up to a high-Class A or Double-A league. But that seems like a longshot.

JJ Cooper, a Baseball America senior editor, said this potentially is the biggest change for minor league baseball since 1962.

“Back then it was like every city had a team,” Cooper said. “But in the 1960s, many teams started going away. But it was still more of a gradual, organic thing. With the MLB proposal, things would be much more direct.”

What It Means

It's too early to know what will happen as a result of the proposal, especially with the PBA negotiations still in the infancy stage.

Minor League Baseball spokesperson Jeff Lantz said an early proposal is setting up a long process.

"While it is unfortunate that this information was leaked, there are still several rounds of negotiations to go and we are hopeful for an agreement that will be in the best interests of both parties," Lantz said.

Power Struggle

A big part of the proposal is major league’s baseball desire to have more control over things that have historically been left up to the minor league teams.

Cooper gave the example of the Double-A Greenville Braves’ 2004 move to Mississippi. At that time, it was Minor League Baseball’s responsibility to bring a new team to the city. That meant putting out feelers to teams, vetting potential owners, etc.

The league eventually settled on the Red Sox and a Class A South Atlantic League availability and brought a new team to Greenville in 2006.

But under the new proposal, MLB would largely be the entity overseeing such a move.

MLB also wants to restructure leagues based on geography. The idea is to eliminate the long bus rides (sometimes 12 to 14 hours) for teams. 

“The MLB does not want to see its farm teams in less than ideal situations,” Cooper said.

Attendance Might Not Matter

It’s unclear how the leagues would determine which teams to eliminate. But Cooper believes sales and attendance wouldn’t play a huge role.

The Fireflies wrapped their fourth season in Segra Park, located in the BullStreet development, back in August. The team has averaged 268,325 fans per year, drawing 245,522 in 2019. 2017, which brought in 315,034 thanks in large part to the presence of outfielder and former University of Florida/Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, was its best attended to date.

Segra Park was recently recognized by Ballpark Digest as the Low A "Ballpark of the Decade."

Chris Trainor contributed to this story.

Reach Derrek Asberry at 843-937-5517. Follow him on Twitter @DerrekAsberry

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