After months of fans in minor league baseball communities across the country having to wonder what would happen to their local teams, MLB and its clubs made the contraction down to 120 affiliates official on Wednesday. In Birdland, the result of the changes is that the Frederick Keys are out as an affiliate, while the Aberdeen IronBirds will move up to the High-A level.
As part of the change, Frederick will now become part of a six-team league that MLB is calling the Draft League. As MLB currently envisions it, those six teams - consisting of Frederick and five other former minor league affiliates in Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey - will host draft-eligible prospects for a 68-game season that will have an All-Star break centered around the MLB draft, which will be taking place in July from here on.
If I was the Washington Nationals, who are shuffling affiliates along with everyone else, I would have wanted to gobble up Frederick. The Nationals don’t seem to have seen it that way. They’re picking up the Wilmington Blue Rocks as a High-A team. Wilmington had been a Royals affiliate. So Frederick, instead, heads out of the affiliated minors and into the nascent Draft League.
Wednesday’s announcement confirmed that the other Orioles minor league affiliates will remain as is, with the Norfolk Tides in Triple-A, Bowie Baysox in Double-A, and Delmarva Shorebirds in Low-A. Bowie is the longest-running affiliate for the franchise, dating back to 1993.
The biggest disruption in the new MLB structure is that it’s shutting out short season leagues from affiliated status. Leagues like the New York-Penn League, where Aberdeen belonged before getting bumped up, and the rookie-leve Appalachian League, are being tossed aside while teams consolidate their lowest-level minor league operations at the spring training sites in Arizona and Florida.
Orioles GM Mike Elias told O’s reporters on Tuesday that the team is likely to field two teams in the Gulf Coast League out of its Sarasota spring training complex for the 2021 season. The O’s, at least, will probably not have a big reduction in the number of prospects playing games. They’ll just have a greater proportion of their prospects playing in Florida.
Previously, you could go to Aberdeen in August and see a lot of just-drafted college players. We’ll see if those players end up making pro debuts for Delmarva instead, or whether the Orioles just end up having all of their new draftees stay based in Sarasota for their first professional action. Fans might have to wait until the following spring to see the newest Orioles minor leaguers playing games in Maryland.
Many, though not all, of the minor league teams being squeezed out of affiliated leagues are teams that are far removed from MLB cities. Frederick being dropped is all the stranger because of how relatively close it is not just to Baltimore and Washington, but to Pittsburgh, whose 2020 High-A team was in Bradenton, FL and whose Low-A team was in Greensboro, NC. And even Cleveland could get closer for High-A if it went from Lynchburg, VA to Frederick.
If MLB’s basic idea is that it has more minor league teams than it needs, it’s hard for me to disagree with that. While writing for Camden Chat I have looked at a lot of minor league box scores and one thing I know is that most of the names in a given box score are not prospects, and even most of the ones a dedicated prospect follower might recognize will wash out somewhere on the way to MLB. Most minor league players are there so that the prospects and fringe prospects have people to play with and against.
This is true even for teams with good farm systems, which the Orioles have not been in a lot of my time on this site’s staff. Frederick, for instance, is a place where Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop were teammates in 2011 when the team won the league title. That was an exciting pair of players you could have seen before they became big leaguers.
There is some romance in that idea, but look at who else played for that team and see how few of them were any kind of prospect. It’s not like this was a lineup of can’t-miss guys. That pitching staff explains why the Orioles were, a few years later, signing the Ubaldo Jimenezes and Yovani Gallardos of the world.
I recognize, though, that I’m not the ideal salesman for the idea of minor league baseball. In every place I’ve lived in my life, the closest professional baseball was an MLB team. I never went to a minor league game until I was 27 or so. It probably stinks for fans in places who have been used to affiliated baseball that now they’re going to have to be the guinea pigs for these new, experimental, slightly affiliated or newly independent leagues. MLB hasn’t tried to come up with even a half-hearted answer for a lot of them.
I hope that the Draft League works out for Frederick. Maybe it will. If the concept receives some purchase from draft-eligible prospects, it won’t be very hard for the 2021 Frederick Keys to have a more interesting lineup than the 2019 Frederick Keys did. Whether this fact will still be selling tickets in three or five years is something only time will tell.