Drayer: Mariners’ affiliates hit by seismic change to minor leagues in different ways

Dec 10, 2020, 8:06 AM

Mariners T-Mobile Park...

The Mariners extended invitations to four teams to remain affiliates. (Getty)


With the long-awaited announcements of invitations to affiliates coming out via press releases and social media posts by MLB parent clubs, the picture of what the minors will look like across baseball moving forward became somewhat clearer Wednesday.

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It was a painful and not particularly pretty day for baseball as the news of MLB reducing the size of the minor leagues from 160 affiliated teams to 120, which began to filter out in fall 2019, finally came to fruition. In all, 43 minor league clubs in 43 baseball communities were left without major league affiliation.

For the Mariners, four affiliates were offered invitations – the Tacoma Rainiers, Arkansas Travelers, Modesto Nuts and Everett AquaSox. Tacoma and Arkansas would remain at the Triple-A and Double-A levels, respectively, with Everett switching to the High-A designation and Modesto bumped down to Low-A. Gone are the West Virginia Power, who were one of 11 full-season clubs across baseball who did not receive invitations from an MLB team.

The impetus for the moves: opportunity for change with the Professional Baseball Agreement between MLB and minor league teams expiring at the end of the 2020 season. MLB is taking more control of the minor leagues, setting new standards for facilities and player care and new requirements of how costs will be covered.

The agreement that has yet to be reviewed by those who were extended invitations will little resemble agreements from the past, and with that comes the uncertainty that was reflected in a statement from the Rainiers.

For the Everett AquaSox, the story is a little different.

With geography being a major factor in the assignment of affiliates, the AquaSox found themselves to be in good position for a big upgrade. MLB had the desire to keep the affiliates close to its cities where possible, and as a result the Northwest League has been shifted to the High-A designation. Just like that, Mariners fans in the Seattle area will be able to see more baseball – Everett will jump from short-season to what is hoped to be a 132-game season in 2021 – with higher level prospects filling out the roster.

While all of this is good for Mariners fans in the Pacific Northwest, it is impossible to ignore what has happened elsewhere. While MLB has looked to avoid leaving former affiliated communities high and dry, offering spots in new amateur wood bat summer leagues and independent leagues with some form of partnership, losing an affiliation is a tough pill to swallow. It’s hard to see all of the now disaffiliated teams surviving in the long run, and in a time where it would seem growing the game should be the priority, this doesn’t sit well.

A reduction of the minor leagues also means a reduction in the number of minor leaguers, with hundreds of players expected to be impacted. This will extend to future players as well if the MLB Draft is shrunk as many expect it will be.

We are seeing a major readjustment of the sport, and jarring as it may be, perhaps it shouldn’t be entirely unexpected. Advances in the game in identifying and working with talent have lessened the value of some of the time that is spent on minor league fields. While there is unquestionably invaluable development that needs to take place at the minor league level, problems that took weeks – perhaps even months – to identify in the past can now be isolated on the spot with new technology or through the expert eyes of specialists now employed by teams. Organizations are putting more into player development than ever before, and as a result are achieving desired results in fewer at-bats or innings pitched.

This is where baseball is right now and time will tell where these developments lead the game. With more change on the horizon and all that we have seen in the last five years, it might be time to hand the mantle of “most traditional and slowest to change” professional sport off to another.

For 43 communities in baseball, that change was seismic.

Follow Shannon Drayer on Twitter.

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Drayer: Mariners’ affiliates hit by seismic change to minor leagues in different ways