A new proposal by Major League Baseball could result in drastic changes to the landscape of the minor leagues. That includes the Charleston RiverDogs and teams in Columbia, 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 RiverDogs (New York Yankees affiliate), Columbia Fireflies (New York Mets), 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.
RiverDogs president Dave Echols referred questions to the MiLB office, as did John Katz, president of the Fireflies.
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.
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.
Still, it’s worth noting that the RiverDogs have been one of the more successful teams in both categories. Last season, the team drew 301,320 fans to Riley Park, the fourth-highest in the league. It was also Charleston’s third consecutive year eclipsing 300,000 fans — a benchmark that used to serve as a selling point for moving up to Double-A or Triple-A.
With merchandise, the RiverDogs totaled more than $400,000 in 2018. That put them among the top 25 in all of minor league baseball.
Those facts may hold some weight. But they aren’t the primary focus for Major League Baseball, said Cooper.
“For the majors, it’s more about having a larger say in the minor leagues and putting players in better situations,” he said.
In the end, Cooper said the proposal sets the table for a “contentious” negotiation period.