MLB continues leaking its MiLB changes, with a big shakeup for two West Coast leagues, likely including the Everett AquaSox and Modesto Nuts.
Per a report from J.P. Hoornstra of the Orange County Register, combined with a report from Baseball America, the Mariners are expected to retain four of their five affiliates, with the AAA-Tacoma Rainiers and AA-Arkansas Travelers remaining at their long-time level. The Mariners new High-A club is expected to be the Everett AquaSox, as the Northwest League shifts to High-A as a full season league. Seattle, which owns the Modesto Nuts, will remain affiliated with the California League club, though the Cal League is expected to drop to Low-A, replacing the West Virginia Power who are unfortunately at risk of being left unaffiliated. Seattle will also maintain their Arizona Summer League club at their Peoria complex, as well as the Dominican Summer League club at their academy in Santo Domingo. The implications of these moves not only impact the Mariners, but have ripple effects for pro ball across Washington State and the Pacific Northwest.
The Mariners have posted job positions at their four locations, as well as their complex in Arizona, all but confirming their affiliation locations, while Hoornstra’s reporting relays confidently a move long rumored and hinted at: the shift to full season for the Northwest League. The NWL has over 65 years of history and has existed for most of that time as a Class A Short Season league, featuring mostly recent draftees and some of the youngest players in organizations, including many signed as international amateurs in recent decades. If Hoornstra’s report is correct, the Northwest League will be moving up two rungs, jumping over Full Season Low A (e.g., the South Atlantic League where the West Virginia Power have played) and into Full Season High A (e.g., the California League where the Modesto Nuts have played). This is relatively good news for the Northwest League, which has boasted strong attendance and engagement even as a short season league, due in part to chilly, rainy springs from Vancouver, B.C., south through Eugene along I-5, which is the corridor where over half the league is located. A jump to High-A means some challenges, including navigating the weather, but the tradeoff is higher quality players, a longer season, and potentially more stability and revenue. The NWL currently contains three of the four affiliated minor league teams in Washington State, with Spokane, Everett, and the Tri-City Dust Devils, which hopefully suggests the continued existence of each club, though it’s unclear whether the NWL will remain at eight clubs, drop to six, or add up to 10 or more.
The second part of the report is a less exciting, but still impactful countermove, with the California League being dropped one level from High-A to Low-A. As the Mariners are the primary owners of the Modesto Nuts, it’s unlikely anything will change for them in terms of affiliation, but this does all but certify the end of affiliation with the West Virginia Power. The South Atlantic League as a whole is in flux, and the Power may be one of the clubs scrambling to find new affiliation as MLB culls affiliations from 140 to 120 as widely reported. For the Nuts, the makeup of their rosters will likely grow a bit younger, with more recent draftees and advanced international signees coming their way, the first step up from the Arizona League based out of the club’s Peoria complex.
The worst implication of these moves is the dropping of affiliation for the West Virginia Power. Much of the South Atlantic League is considered at risk in MLB’s evaluations, as the clubs occupy smaller towns with less wealthy populations on average than those in the PNW and California. The Power’s most lasting affiliation was with the Pirates for a decade prior to joining Seattle in 2019, but without a clear fit in 2021 they are in danger of being forced into Indy Ball. The Power’s location in Charleston, WV would make them a convenient fit for a few Mid-Atlantic, Midwestern, or even Southern clubs, but as the Eastern U.S. is more heavily dotted with MiLB clubs the competition is fierce. They would make a fabulous fit for a future Nashville expansion team, but any such hope is years away at best. For the Mariners, it’s understandable to want their entire developmental pipeline located within something between a drive and a three-hour flight, but the casualty may be severe in Charleston, just as it could be for dozens of cities and towns.
JJ Cooper of Baseball America, who has been at the lead of many of the breaking details in the shifting landscape of MLB’s whole cloth takeover of MiLB, notes that though many things are being planned on, nothing is entirely finalized quite yet.
I will note with all of the MiLB moves leaking out. From everything I understand from my reporting, the exact language of the professional development licenses and how the business relationship between MLB and MiLB teams will operate has not been agreed to or finalized.— JJ Cooper (@jjcoop36) November 19, 2020
The official announcement of the full restructuring of the minors is expected within the next couple weeks. Several clubs, including the Yankees and Mets, have announced their full affiliation for the 2021 season, while the Astros and Nationals have announced individual associations, though MLB has reportedly discouraged teams from doing so ahead of a coordinated release.