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Giger: Major news in minors: Radical proposal could bring historic changes to industry

Commentary

Minor League Baseball as we know it could be changing in dramatic ways if a jaw-dropping new proposal from Major League Baseball comes to pass.

The future of the Altoona Curve and all minor league teams could be significantly impacted under the proposal, which has the bombshell component of eliminating 42 teams — 25 percent of the industry — and bringing the total number of affiliated minor league franchises down to 120.

To be clear, there is zero chance the Curve could be contracted, for reasons I’ll get to in a bit. Altoona will still have an affiliated minor league franchise, regardless of what happens with this new proposal.

But with the entire minor league system potentially getting restructured under this proposal, the Curve could be impacted in any one of numerous ways — some good, some not so good.

Not to sound like an alarmist, but the most drastic possibilities could be the Curve no longer competing at the Double-A level or being removed from the Eastern League and getting placed into a new league.

Up front, based on everything I know and from talking with sources, I do not foresee either one of those things happening. The Curve are a model franchise and a perfect fit for the Eastern League.

However, this new proposal is groundbreaking on so many levels and would create such a seismic shift throughout the minor leagues that nothing can be assumed until all of the dominoes fall.

The State College Spikes, as a rookie-level affiliate, could see drastic changes come their way if this proposal passes.

Baseball America wrote an extensive story detailing this highly complex issue Friday. I’ll give the nuts and bolts here from the story, and you can go to the Baseball America website for further details.

n The Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) that defines the working arrangements between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball expires at the conclusion of the 2020 season. A new deal must be worked out starting with the 2021 season, and negotiations are already under way. That’s where this new proposal from MLB surfaced.

n MLB believes that roughly 25 percent of the 162 current minor league affiliates have facilities that are subpar. MLB wants its prospects to play in modern, upgraded facilities and is putting pressure on franchises to make improvements. The proposal from MLB calls for eliminating 25 percent of franchises and reorganizing all of Minor League Baseball based on geography of leagues.

n The franchises eliminated would be primarily low-level rookie-league affiliates, many of which play in older, outdated stadiums.

n There would still be Triple-A, Double-A, high-A and low-A leagues. The 120 remaining franchises would be reorganized based on various criteria, primarily geography and condition of their ballparks. It’s possible a Triple-A team in a lesser facility could be asked to move down to Single-A, while a Single-A team in an excellent facility could be upgraded to Triple-A. Geography would play a big role in these moves so that leagues could have teams close by to cut down on travel costs.

n Some leagues would change sizes. For instance, the Baseball America story noted the Triple-A Pacific Coast League would drop from 16 to 10 teams, while the International League would rise from 14 to 20 teams. There are 14 teams in the low-A South Atlantic League, and that number would drop to six. Then there would be a new Mid-Atlantic League with eight teams. Also, the short-season Northwest League would become a full-season league.

n MLB wants to pay minor leaguers bigger salaries, which is long overdue. By cutting out 25 percent of the players in affiliated ball, there would be more money to go around for prospects.

n One enormous point of contention is that MLB wants to have minor league affiliates shoulder some of the extra costs, perhaps even covering some of the salary increases for players. This would be a huge problem for many franchises that don’t make big annual profits and would struggle paying those extra costs.

n Speaking of finances, MLB’s proposal seeks to put a value on a franchise based on the level it plays at. A Triple-A team would be valued at $20 million, Double-A at $15 million, high-A at $10 million, low-A at $8 million and rookie ball $6 million. This notion is absolutely absurd. If franchises sold on the open market, their values could be significantly higher or lower than that designated by the league. For instance, the Curve franchise easily would be worth more than $15 million if owner Bob Lozinak were to sell on the open market. However, the Baseball America story speculates that franchise values across the minor leagues would drop if 42 teams were eliminated. It comes to that conclusion by pointing out that if MLB can cut so many teams once, there’s no guarantee it wouldn’t do so again in the future, thereby casting doubt on the futures of all franchises.

n For cities that lose their minor league affiliate, MLB would create what it’s calling a Dream League to give more players opportunities to play in those ballparks. It’s essentially an independent league.

n One last key element in the proposal concerns player development contracts (PDC) between parent clubs and affiliates. These typically run two years but have gone as long as four. MLB believes these agreements should run for many years when there’s a strong relationship between all parties. This could work in the Curve’s favor if, say, the Pirates wanted to sign a 10-year or even 20-year PDC with the Altoona franchise. There’s not much reason to believe that wouldn’t be the case because both the Pirates and Curve are very happy with their working relationship.

OK, so let’s get into why ALL of this stuff should not have a bad impact on the Curve. There are two main reasons: facilities and proximity.

First and foremost, Peoples Natural Gas Field is an excellent minor league ballpark. That’s not local bias. That’s fact.

A huge reason for that is because of some excellent work done by local politicians in 2016 to ensure that the Curve would be able to receive funds to help with ballpark maintenance. Blair County commissioners worked toward securing a hotel bed tax that would generate money for the Curve, the Blair County Convention Center and other county properties.

This money is vital, to say the least, for helping the Curve keep PNG Field so beautiful. Team owners had always had to pay for ballpark upkeep, but with the stadium getting older, that became more expensive. The bed tax money helps with major expenses, such as replacing the playing surface a few years ago.

That playing surface, by the way, was named the best in the Eastern League this year. And PNG Field continues to draw rave reviews from players and coaches who visit every season.

That is why the Curve are safe. The ballpark is a gem, and there’s money available to keep it being a gem.

“Without this deal that we put together, I think the Curve would have been out of here,” Blair County Commissioner Ted Beam said Friday about the bed tax money. “This stadium would have then been empty, and we would not have had them.

“I think by us utilizing part of the bed tax showed that the local community had a commitment to the baseball team. And for the sake of business development and business interests in the county, I think it was a great compromise.”

Beam’s comments are spot on, especially in light of the new MLB proposal. PNG Field’s playing surface was in major need of replacement a few years ago, and the ballpark needed other major upgrades. Without that money and upgrades, for all we know, PNG Field could have deteriorated to the degree where, at some point in the future, MLB might have deemed it unsuitable and in danger of contraction.

The other big reason the Curve are safe is location, location, location. Not just that Altoona is 100 miles from Pittsburgh, but that it is in a league where numerous opponents are a short drive away — Harrisburg, Akron, Erie, Reading, Bowie, Trenton, Binghamton, etc.

It wouldn’t make much sense, therefore, for the Curve to be removed from the Eastern League in any sort of minor league reshuffling. This league is the perfect home for Altoona in just about every way.

There are a lot of minor league franchises that have to do a lot of worrying after reading the Baseball America story Friday. The State College Spikes may fall into that category because they’re in a rookie league that is susceptible to major changes if the proposal passes.

The Spikes play in a gorgeous ballpark, so that absolutely will help them. But they could be asked to switch leagues, and in all the potential restructuring, the St. Louis Cardinals possibly could be forced to end their successful affiliation with the Spikes at some point. There’s just no telling what could happen.

Whew. All of this is a lot to consider.

Keep in mind, this is just a proposal, a bargaining element that’s in the early stages. But this is a very real possibility from everything I’ve been told, so as radical as this all sounds, it cannot be taken lightly.

Cory Giger can be reached at cgiger@altoonamirror.com.

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