After a year of speculation, the landscape of Minor League Baseball became a lot clearer Wednesday, when 120 minor league organizations were invited by Major League Baseball to become full-season affiliates, starting in 2021. The Padres announced that they have invited the El Paso Chihuahuas (AAA), the San Antonio Missions (AA), the Fort Wayne TinCaps (High-A), and the Lake Elsinore Storm (Low-A) for the 2021 season and beyond. There is no agreement in place; it is merely an invitation at this point. The actual agreements are expected to be finalized this winter.
“We’re eager and excited to continue our long-standing relationships with El Paso, San Antonio, Fort Wayne, and Lake Elsinore,” said Padres Executive Vice President and General Manager A.J. Preller in a press release the club sent out. “They have been valued partners of the Padres throughout our player development system for many years, and each of their respective communities have supported their teams and welcomed our players and staff with open arms. We look forward to bringing Padres baseball back into these communities again in 2021.”
The landscape of minor league baseball has changed dramatically over the last year and will leave the Padres and all other MLB teams without a short-season affiliate. There have been a lot of steps throughout the process that have impacted teams across the country.
Last winter, Baseball America reported that Major League Baseball wanted to reduce the number of affiliated teams from 162 to 120 for the 2021 season. The Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) between Major League Baseball and minor league teams expired at the end of the 2020 season. MLB’s proposal was designed to make the player development process more efficient, reduce travel, and improve the facilities at each affiliate. The move was met with some controversy, as it would take affiliated baseball out of several communities across the country, would devalue minor league teams for some ownership groups and thousands of opportunities would be eliminated for players in professional baseball.
The move is also designed to give each major league franchise four full-season clubs, a complex league team (Arizona or Gulf Coast League), and a team in the Dominican Summer League. It would also essentially eliminate short-season ball, and there would a limit on the number of players that could be under contract in each organization. That number has not been set in stone but is expected to be around 150-180 for stateside players. DSL players aren’t factored into that number.
What ultimately transpired
Major League Baseball stated that they were committed to keeping baseball in each community in some form and the first domino fell in September when it converted the rookie-level Appalachian League into a college wood-bat league, removing all 10 teams from the professional baseball landscape. All 10 teams were owned by Major League Baseball making the transition seamless.
On November 30, MLB announced that they developed a new league for eligible prospects that will feature six teams, all previously affiliated with major league clubs. This league will be called the MLB Draft League and will have a 68-game season regular season. The teams in this league include the Trenton Thunder, who had been the Double-A affiliate of the New York Yankees since 2003, and the Fredrick Keys, who had been the High-A club of the Baltimore Orioles since 1989.
On the same day, the rookie-level Pioneer League was converted into a “partner league” with Major League Baseball. It will serve as an independent league with no direct major league team as a partner. The league will feature an expanded 92-game season that starts in late May. Major League Baseball will cover the operating expenses and provide scouting technology for the league.
In affiliated ball, there was an expanded game of musical chairs, with some teams falling out of professional, affiliated baseball and leagues completely changing levels. The California League and Florida State League will shift from a High-A level to a Low-A Level. The Midwest League will move up a level from Low-A to High-A. The Northwest League which was a short-season A club will go from eight teams to six and become a full-season, High-A club. A new Mid-Atlantic League is expected to be created and will feature 12 teams and play at the High-A level.
While 43 teams were eliminated from affiliated baseball, many others changed leagues and or levels. Minor league baseball also welcomed St. Paul, Sugar Land, and Somerset into the fold as affiliated teams. All three teams were previously in the independent baseball landscape and not affiliated with Major League Baseball. The St. Paul Saints — who are arguably the most successful independent league team of all-time — will now be the Triple-A club of the Minnesota Twins. The Sugar Land Skeeters will become the Triple-A affiliate of the Houston Astros, moving up from the Atlantic League. The Somerset Patriots will also move up from the Atlantic League and will be the Yankees’ Double-A affiliate in the Eastern League.
How it impacts the Padres
The Padres will have four full-season affiliates and at least one club in the Arizona League, although it would not be a surprise to see the organization field a second club, assuming that will be permitted by Major League Baseball.
For Triple-A, the Padres will retain their relationship with the El Paso Chihuahuas. The Chihuahuas have had a partnership with San Diego since coming into professional baseball in 2014. El Paso has direct flights to San Diego and plays in a brand-new ballpark, so it makes sense for the relationship to continue. While there is no official word on how long the professional agreements will last, but there have been some reports that the new deals will last as long as 10 years.
At the Double-A level, the Padres will welcome back a familiar club into the fold. The organization will invite the San Antonio Missions to rejoin the organization ladder. San Antonio served as the Padres’ Double-A affiliate from 2007-2018. The club moved up to Triple-A in 2019 and served as the Brewers’ top affiliate through the end of the cancelled 2020 season. The Missions will reenter the Texas League, along with Wichita, which will serve as the Double-A club for the Minnesota Twins. The league will feature 10 teams in 2021, up from eight in 2021.
“We are pleased to have received an invitation to affiliate with the San Diego Padres,” said the Missions in their official press release. “We enjoyed a terrific 12-year partnership with the Padres through the 2018 season.”
“However, we first need to have the overall agreement with Major League Baseball formalized before any affiliation can be finalized. Once we receive the full details, we’ll be evaluating the proposal carefully to assure it works for the Missions, our fans and the city of San Antonio before formally accepting.”
The Fort Wayne TinCaps have been invited to become the new High-A affiliate of the Padres, extending a relationship that has existed since 1999 — the longest that the Padres have had with any affiliate in franchise history. The Midwest League will go down from 16 teams to 12 and move up a level.
“There has been a lot of anticipation regarding the restructuring of Minor League Baseball,” said TinCaps President Mike Nutter in a press release. “We’re excited that the TinCaps have been invited to join at the High-A level. Fans in Fort Wayne will have the chance to experience a higher level of baseball than before with players becoming Major League stars.”
The Lake Elsinore Storm were invited to become the Low-A affiliate of the Padres, as they move down a level. The California League will stay an eight-team league with the Fresno Grizzlies expected to take the place of the Lancaster JetHawks, who were an affiliate of the Colorado Rockies. While the move works as a demotion of sorts for Lake Elsinore, it could pay dividends for the Padres’ organization.
The Storm will be the first, full-season destination for players in the Padres’ system. It will prevent draft picks and international players from having to start their full-season careers in the cold weather of the Midwest League. One could assume that the Storm will also continue to be a likely destination for major league players on rehab assignments.
The Dust Devils, who were the Padres’ short-season affiliate in the Northwest League will make the cut in affiliated baseball. They will transition into a full-season baseball club and become the High-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels. The Dust Devils were on the original list of teams to be contracted from affiliated baseball.
“We are thrilled to be given this opportunity to continue as an affiliated minor league baseball team,” said Dust Devils President Brent Miles. “We look forward to working with the Angels to develop future major leaguers and provide our community with a new and exciting level of baseball.”
Going forward, Triple-A teams are expected to play 144 games, Double-A teams will play 138 games, and both levels of A-ball are expected to play 132 games. There hasn’t been any information on how many games complex teams will play going forward.
Finally, although the short-season level was eliminated, our friends with the Tri-City Dust Devils will now be part of the High-A Northwest League with the Los Angeles Angels. To say the least, the Dust Devils were pretty excited.
“Going through the process, which was a long one, we are super excited to continue to be a part of affiliated baseball, which all along was our goal for ourselves and our community,” said Derrel Ebert, the Vice-President and General Manager for the team.