Though they once fought back vociferously against contraction as recently as this past winter, the coronavirus pandemic reportedly has those in charge of minor league baseball singing a different tune.
When first threatened with the loss of 40+ teams in the first wave of MLB's cost-cutting plan, MiLB execs fought back in full force against a stripping of economic fountains from various small-market corners of the country. But now, whenever minor league action returns from the COVID-19 shutdown, it's now more about surviving than thriving for the industry.
The bargaining chips have significantly changed, as reports indicate MiLB is now ready to shrink their outfit to 120 affiliated teams, effectively agreeing to remove short-season baseball and eliminate the desired 40+ squads.
Bizarrely, in addition to the large chunk of teams on the chopping block, MLB has indicated they'd like to add the independent league Sugar Land Skeeters and St. Paul Saints to their affiliated docket, which would squeeze out two additional higher-level affiliated squads.
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While this significant concession would eliminate most of the lower-level landing spots for recent draftees, it would then create a confusing hole between rookie ball (held at Spring Training sites) and Low-A baseball, where most of these 19-year-olds would be significantly under-qualified. Additionally, if independent teams crop up at short-season sites (like Brooklyn and Staten Island), they'd be a far less popular draw -- after all, fans flock to see the future Mets and Yankees, not a collection of undrafted talents without a path to the bigs. Shuttering the stadiums altogether seems possible, and more viable.
Bottom line, this is now a game of survival for the minor leagues, which cannot sustain "empty stadium baseball" in any form in 2020 like their big league counterparts. Promotions, sales, and in-stadium earnings are the name of the game at all lower levels. Without fans, the math doesn't work.
It's a tragic loss for many communities, but it'll come in an entirely different landscape than the one that hosted such fierce push-back many months ago.