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Dave Nichols: Spokane Indians affected by major changes to minor leagues

UPDATED: Sat., April 25, 2020

Earlier this week, representatives from Minor League Baseball met with counterparts from the big leagues about sweeping and immediate changes to the MiLB landscape. Those changes will impact every facet and market of minor league ball, and the Spokane Indians figure to be impacted as much as any.

In case you missed the news, MLB wants to drastically streamline the minors and how franchises operate, as soon as next season.

The current Professional Baseball Agreement – the contract between MLB and MiLB – expires following the 2020 season, giving MLB its “in” to make the changes it wants.

MLB floated a proposal in October to contract teams and realign the minors. It was predictably met with anger, apprehension, threat of litigation and congressional oversight.

But with the pandemic causing financial unrest everywhere, not the least of which to professional sports, MLB has seized the opportunity caused by the public health crisis to try to ram its changes through – without concession.

It may get its wish.

A report by Baseball America surfaced on Tuesday stating MiLB was prepared to acquiesce to just about all of baseball’s proposals regarding contraction and realignment of the minors. It went further to suggest that MiLB may surrender its governing rights altogether to provide stability for the franchises that escape the purge.

The sides met on Wednesday, with no announcement of an agreement, and they will continue to negotiate until the agreement is ratified.

How did we get to the point where MLB wants to eliminate 40 of the existing 160 minor league franchises, essentially cutting the work force by one-quarter? MLB publicly insists it’s because of substandard facilities in many locations and travel expenses – which are both legitimate concerns.

But, as always, there’s a bigger picture.

In 2014, a group of minor league players sued MLB over a pay increase. Since then MLB has lost twice, most recently in January, in its effort to avoid having the case being ruled as a class action lawsuit, allowing the proceedings to move forward.

The lawsuit, which alleges that baseball’s owners have not complied with labor laws, could expand to include thousands of players who participated in spring training from 2014 to 2019.

All kinds of bad things could happen if MLB is dragged into a class action suit over minor league pay, including costly and embarrassing discovery and the potential to lose its antitrust exemption.

Given the direction the litigation seems to be going, it’s likely the real reason MLB is seeking contraction is because it has a good idea the minor league pay structure is going to change dramatically, either by injunction or settlement.

One way to offset those costs is to eliminate 25% of those jobs. It’s simple business economics.

So that’s how we got here. What happens now?

Part of the negotiation between the sides is the list of teams to be contracted. MLB wants to eliminate short-season and rookie-level ball – leagues that are typically stocked with players selected from that year’s draft. But with March’s agreement to trim the entry draft from 40 to five rounds this year, and 20 moving forward, those leagues are essentially obsolete.

That brings us back to the Indians, who have played short-season ball since 1983.

The Indians and five other Northwest League teams were not on the list of teams circulated in November that were slated for contraction.

That’s the good news for Spokane, and one can hope the final agreed-upon list keeps it that way.

(Note: The Brett family’s other NWL team, the Tri-Cities Dust Devils, was on the contraction list – despite a recent $2 million upgrade from public funds to Gesa Stadium.)

The rest of this is projection as we await the final list of eliminated teams, but let’s have some fun with it.

Theoretically, a six-team Northwest League in affiliated, full-season low-A baseball emerges from all this. Currently, low-A leagues play 140 games from the second week of April until September.

Are you ready for some chilly early season nights at Avista Stadium?

Now, here’s the kicker.

The overwhelming majority of minor league teams are independently owned from their MLB parent clubs.

But the Indians’ current parent club, the Texas Rangers, own two Class-A affiliates already – the creatively named Down East Wood Ducks (high-A) in Kinston, North Carolina, and the Hickory (North Carolina) Crawdads in low-A. Not surprisingly, neither was on the list for contraction.

The Rangers certainly wouldn’t give up ownership rights to those affiliates. With each MLB club slated for one minor league affiliate in each classification, in this scenario it would seem to leave the Indians without an MLB parent club.

If the proposal goes through as expected, instead of MiLB owners being allowed to negotiate deals for themselves, franchises will be assigned to parent clubs.

Six low-A teams were on the original contraction list, coinciding with the number of NWL franchises to survive.

So where might the Indians end up?

The MLB teams that would be left without a low-A affiliate include the World Series champion Washington Nationals and the team they defeated, the scandal-ridden Houston Astros. As a D.C. native and Nats fan, I wouldn’t mind the Indians being paired up with the champs.

Also among the list are the Los Angeles Angels and Miami Marlins.

But the final two names are where it gets really interesting.

The Seattle Mariners would lose their low-A affiliate, the West Virginia Power. That would be an enticing parent club for the many Spokane-area folks that claim the M’s as their home team.

But Seattle is already affiliated with the Everett AquaSox, who also survived the proposed cut, so it’s logical that Everett would slide into that slot.

That leaves one more MLB team without a low-A affiliate: the Kansas City Royals. Almost like it was scripted.

The Indians were the Royals’ short-season affiliate from 1995-2002, featuring 2009 AL Cy Young winner and four-time MLB All-Star Zack Greinke and nine-time All-Star Carlos Beltran. It seems like a natural fit to renew the relationship.

It’s like going through a breakup and getting back together with your previous ex.

On top of that, as if our Editor-in-Chief Rob Curley wasn’t already enough of a baseball nut, he’s a Royals fan through and through, and having a K.C. affiliate here in Spokane might be enough to drive him completely over the edge.

There’s a lot to ponder as we await the agreement between MiLB and MLB deciding the fate of the minors. The only thing that’s certain is change – and plenty of it.

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