The Giants new Minor League System
What we know and what we don't
The word we’d be waiting for for weeks, if not months, finally came on Wednesday:
Invitations have been sent out. The Ball is finally ready.
So, where to begin? Perhaps we should start with that word “invitation.” I’ve seen some hard feelings over this language — why should teams who have been in the minor league system for years or decades need an “invitation” to join something they’re already a part of?
It’s a point that we shouldn’t overlook: “invitations” were sent out to teams because the negotiations between MLB and MiLB over a new Professional Baseball Agreement ultimately failed. After two years of talks and negotiations, no new contract was ever agreed to between the parties. The Office of Minor League Baseball has been disbanded and the structure that has existed for over a century is now extinct. As of yesterday (and over the last month in drips and drabs), we are seeing a brand-new structure for developmental baseball which MLB has invited 119 of the teams left standing without a ticket to join that new structure. (The 120th invitation, which didn’t go out yesterday, is Fresno’s to become the Low A affiliate of the Rockies, but there are still some negotiations to be had there surrounding the differing financials for AAA and Low A teams).
Some, very likely, might choose not to. Most of the statements we saw yesterday from minor league teams mentioned something along the lines of “looking forward to reviewing the contract” which MLB will be sending in the next couple of weeks. Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper — whose amazing work everything I’m writing here is based on, and I can’t recommend a BA subscription highly enough for those of you with the means — has said that is no slam dunk that all 119 invited teams will ultimately sign their Professional Development Licenses (PDLs). Minor league teams know that their expenses will go up in this new structure — the new travel requirements are likely to add $100,000 or more in expenses. But what they have not seen yet (and won’t until they receive their PDL) is the fine details of the new revenue opportunities on the business side. MLB has made a case that they can increase revenues with national marketing, but among the important revenue items that minor league teams don’t know yet:
What is the split of the beverage pouring rights going to be (and what companies will those rights go to);
What is the split of wall advertisements;
What is the split of TV/Radio advertisements;
If, at the end of the PDL, a team loses its affiliate status, is there going to be a buy-out for the loss in asset value and, if so, what will that buy-out be based on?
Are any of these provisions negotiable?
In other words, until teams review the proffered contracts, there is no way for them to calculate the financials and determine whether or not they make sense for that individual ownership group. Which is why, yesterday, we saw a lot of this:
Some teams may well decide that the financials don’t work out for them and will choose to go a different way (joining the new Partner Leagues that are essentially taking the place of Indy Leagues). When and if that happens, suddenly, teams like Trenton, Lancaster, Kane County, or Salem-Keizer might be kicked back into play as the backup plan. As Cooper joked, there’s going to be whole lot of billable hours logged between now and the end of this process.
MLB has sent a memo to all 30 teams letting them know that no announcement of new leagues or schedules will be sent out until all 120 PDLs have been signed and returned to New York — which means we’re still a long way out from knowing exactly what 2021 and the future will look like. Cooper has estimated we won’t see anything definitive before the end of January at the earliest. That certainly makes things like selling ticket packages or making air travel reservations difficult, but I suppose one thing 2020 has taught all of us is that organizations have much greater capacity for flexibility and creativity than they might have imagined. This is a year, after all, in which we’ve seen sporting leagues, including MLB, rearrange schedules in season to respond to facts on the ground.
The Giants System
So, with all of that said, assuming the four teams that received invitations agree to the PDLs, the Giants’ system is not going to be all that unrecognizable.
AAA — Sacramento River Cats
AA — Richmond Flying Squirrels
A+ — Eugene Emeralds
A — San Jose Giants
As expected, the Giants had no desire to move on from Sacramento, which is the ideal AAA partner for them in every conceivable way (location, organization, facility, fans).
And the Giants expressed to MLB a desire to remain with Richmond as their AA affiliate as well. This may be surprising to some — the team is 3,000 miles away, the facility is old and a new one is badly needed, and there was the potential opportunity to fix both of those issues by moving to the brand-new, never played in stadium in Wichita in the Texas League (which ultimately went to the Twins).. However, the Richmond management team is one of the best in minor league baseball and I think the Giants really have valued the partnership. In addition, having an upper-level East Coast affiliate has come in handy many times over the years when the team needed a quick boost to the bullpen or other roster needs while on an east coast swing.
Ironically, the state of the facilities is likely what kept the relationship with Richmond going. The Nationals, who have been locked into a highly unsatisfactory AAA relationship with Fresno the last two years (causing them to leave major league ready pitchers in AA so that they could be recalled quickly in need), looked at Richmond as a potential replacement. Ultimately, Washington and/or MLB determined that Richmond wasn’t a suitable AAA facility and moved on. This was actually the second time that the Nats flirted with, and passed on, a relationship with Richmond due to the need for a new stadium. But one team’s trash is another’s treasure and the Giants get to continue a valued relationship (and, not unimportantly, I get to continue to go watch their AA team)!
In the A ball ranks there were more significant changes. Early on in this process, the idea of making the California League a Low A league was established. I’ve personally never seen a great rationale for this change, but it does seem to have been locked in early on. Most of the egregiously bad facilities in the Cal League have been left behind either in recent years (Bakersfield) or this week (Lancaster), but I do think dissatisfaction with facilities must have played a crucial role.
With the change of the California League to a Low A league, the Giants suddenly were faced with a dilemma: they had spent years working with the owners in Augusta on getting a new stadium built to the Giants’ specifications. But now they suddenly had two Low A teams: one of which had a beautiful new stadium (Augusta) and one of which they were part owners (San Jose). Ownership and the easy access to view their prospects that the drive down the peninsula offered won out, and the team said goodbye to Augusta, which has been a great affiliate for the past 15 years. And San Jose now becomes the new Low A team.
As for A+ the California League’s demotion was connected to a somewhat surprising promotion for the formerly short-season Northwest League. This has always seemed curious to me — the spring weather in Oregon and Washington makes pro schedules difficult, and outside of two gems (Hillsboro and Eugene), the facilities, as far as I’m aware, aren’t particularly superior to the Cal League. Nonetheless, the change is being made and with it, the Giants now have a new High A affiliate: the Eugene Emeralds, who have been the Cubs affiliate for the past six years (and were, way back when I was born, a Giants affiliate in their early years).
This was a devastating blow to the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, who have been a great partner for over a quarter of a century and who believed that they fit all the new requirements that MLB was demanding of teams. I’ll get back to the Volcanoes in a moment, but first let’s discuss the new kid.
Eugene, as noted above, is without a doubt one of the two elite facilities in the Northwest League. The $19.2 million PK Park is home to the Pac-12 Oregon Ducks baseball team, and was built in partnership with local heavyweight Niké. The stadium is beautiful, their TV/video feed is one of the best in the minors, and they sit next to a world class athletics and training facility that the Giants may be able to negotiate some use of. Gaining Eugene’s facility certainly helps make up for the loss of the new stadium in Augusta — in fact, one wonders if that exact calculation drove this change in affiliates. (The Giants also have a brand new facility in the Scottsdale area that should be ready for use this spring).
Eugene’s management group is also one of the best in the business. In fact, just the week prior to receiving the Giants invitation, they had been awarded Baseball America’s 2020 Freitas Award as the best organization in short-season ball. The award was granted to Eugene for this non-baseball year, in recognition of the extraordinary work they did to help their community recover from the ravages of the COVID pandemic. You can see the passion the Giants’ newest development partner brings to his team and his community in the clip below:
Those Left Behind
I wrote a long twitter thread yesterday trying to suss out my thoughts on this topic but let me try to expand on those thoughts here. There is reason to be pained for the situation of the teams who did not receive invitations yesterday and we saw much condemnation of MLB. But while MLB’s manner and tactics under Rob Manfred make it easy to jump straight to condemnation (their heavy handedness in particular often comes off as loathsome, as did their clear gag order to teams to prevent them reaching out in person to affiliates being cut loose), I’m trying to take a more balanced view of the structural disruption we’re seeing right now.
Dr. Bob Froelich, owner of the Kane County Cougars, one of the teams displaced this week, gave a fascinating quote to Cooper about his situation (and I recommend reading this entire article if you have access):
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed. We were really looking forward to being on the list of 120. [But] what really changed today with this announcement? It really implemented Commissioner (Rob) Manfred’s One Baseball. To execute that vision you need to blur the line and maybe erase the line between affiliated teams and what we used to call independent teams that are now partner league teams. He did that.
Froelich’s framing of this as a “blurring of the lines” really caught me and I do think that’s an appropriate way to put it. We tend to think of there being a bright line between affiliated baseball and everything else. But fans and players of the Cape Cod League are not watching or participating in something alien — nor are NCAA teams or travel league teams or even Independent Leagues. There is a common aim for the players, there is a common joy for the fans. Many minor league fans — myself certainly included — go because of their connection to the major league team. But, as anybody who attends minor league games regularly knows, many do not — they’re there because it’s a wonderfully pleasant way to spend a summer’s night.
I said when I wrote my very first post that there were agents in baseball who believed the development system badly needed disruption. And I admitted that, were one to design baseball development from scratch, what we’ve been used to would not necessarily be the system designed. There is certainly some slack in the system. There will still be some slack, but the structures are being changed. And yes, some — much, perhaps — of that change is cynically motivated by cost reduction (an omnipresent topic when talking about baseball owners). Changing players’ status from professionals in affiliate teams to part of Partner Leagues, or increasing their opportunity to develop their skills as amateurs in expanded wood bat leagues means more of the “longshot” players are developing at least partly on someone else’s dime. There is no doubt that that is a lot of what is going on here.
But it’s not the ONLY thing going on. Some of the new structures are really interesting and potentially very valuable for players. The new Draft League, which will give players a chance to increase their profile immediately prior to the draft, for instance, will give JuCo players or college players who suffered injuries in their Junior year or simply didn’t play that well a final opportunity to increase their status — and that could very easily translate into hundreds of thousands of dollars more in signing bonus for players who bump themselves up even a couple of rounds. It is innovative and it fills a pretty clear need. (For a very long and deep dive into this new league, I’d recommend listening to Nathan Rode’s latest podcast).
The summer bat league specifically for rising Seniors does something similar. And further below, MLB’s increased involvement in youth athletics should help to remove some of the less savory and more exploitative actors from the scene. It may even give MLB the opportunity to make access to the sport more equitable — if they really devote the energy and attention to doing so (and if they stop this damnable wave of firing all their area scouts).
In my podcast with J.J. Cooper, I asked him: can fans really trust MLB to hold to the aspirations of “One Baseball” in a transparent and beneficial way, rather than just hiding behind it further opaque power and money grabs. That, I think, is the key question going forward. And your answer to that question may reasonably differ from mine. There are reasons to be cynical and suspicious. There are reasons to be upset and angry. People’s lives have undoubtedly been impacted for the worse and deserve support and empathy. But there are too, I think, possibilities that this new system could ultimately provide new benefits and improvements to all parties — players, fans, owners, colleges, lovers of baseball. It’s not all one way or the other.
But, of course, I can’t end this without talking a little more about the team that was left out of this process — and really left out! Forty-three teams were removed from affiliated ball this week, but out of that group, more than half already have a path laid out for them as part of one of MLB’s new amateur wood bat leagues, the new Draft league, or Partner Leagues. The number of former teams, at this point, that have no clear idea of what their future holds is far less (maybe 15-18). And the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes belong squarely in that group facing the unknown.
The Volcanoes weren’t quite the longest running affiliate of the Giants — San Jose joined the system nearly a decade earlier — but the partnership between San Francisco and Salem-Keizer had been extraordinarily successful over the greatest portion of their 26 years together. Jerry Walker first connected with the Giants when he bought the Billingham club, and then, working with local government in Salem, he built a, then state-of-the-art stadium, mostly with his own money, and the Volcanoes were born.
In their second year of existence (1998), they won their first division title and their first league championship, with a 20-year-old Ryan Vogelsong leading the pitching staff. They’d win six more division titles and four more championships over the next decade, creating nothing short of a Northwest League dynasty. It’s no coincidence that the Volcanoes and San Jose Giants were both pumping out championships regularly during that decade, nor that the San Francisco Giants would shortly do the same, as the three teams shared so many crucial players: Vogelsong, Sergio Romo, Pablo Sandoval, Tim Lincecum (who holds the distinction of being a member of both the 2007 Champion Volcanoes AND 2007 Champion San Jose Giants), Nate Schierholtz, Travis Ishikawa, Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner. The players who made the Giants great over the past decade nearly all began their professional careers in Volcanoes Stadium.
You want one image for the moment when the fortunes of the San Francisco Giants turned around? You couldn’t do much better than this one:
Or, of course, my oft-used favorite of an 18-year-old Pablo Sandoval and a very young batboy who grew up to be the team’s CEO, Mickey Walker.
Yesterday, that young tyke, now a heartbroken young man, told Hank Schulman:
The family poured their all into the franchise for decades and now, after a lifetime of work, they’re left behind and have to figure out how to pick up the pieces and move on. If, according to MLB’s view anyway, that Stadium began to look a little insufficient over the decades, the Walker Family and Salem-Keizer should still have a distinct and honored place in Giants’ history. I know they are hurting right now and feel for them tremendously. I hope that the Walkers are successful in their efforts to keep baseball in the Salem-Keizer community for a long time to come.
Rule 5 Roundup
Giants Prospects and I managed to hit on a lot of the right names for the Rule 5 draft — tabbing Akil Baddoo, Garrett Whitlock, Zach Pop, Trevor Stephan, Tyler Wells, and Dañy Jimenez as potential selections. But we collectively whiffed on the Giants’ pick, former Mets RHP Dedniel Nuñez.
The 23-year-old Nuñez ended 2019 with a shoulder injury, but, according to BA, he was healthy and throwing 95 in Instrux, “with pitch characteristics teams desire, including elite spin rate and riding life.” Unlike the Giants’ Rule 5 picks the past two years, Nuñez comes with very little experience, having spent two years in Rookie ball and just one season in full season A ball. He’s something akin to a Dañy Jimenez pick, however. He throws hard and isn’t a negative command guy, and his stuff should play up at the top of the zone. GPT noted that his vertical release looks lower than normal, which gives it the desired flat plane along with elite spin that should give it electric hop.
The Giants didn’t lose anybody in the major league portion of the draft, though 2b Jalen Miller (a longtime fave of mine) was taken in the minor league portion (which means that the Giants didn’t have him protected on even their AAA roster — a bit surprising and probably indicating that he could use a new organization to guide his development) by his hometown team, the Atlanta Braves. We wish him great luck!
For the Giants’ minor league selections, I’ll let GPT do the heavy lifting:
Have a great weekend, everyone!