At some point very soon, maybe even before you’ve read this post, Minor League Baseball will officially announce the cancellation of its season. This hastens MLB’s plan to contract 42 affiliates from the minors next year, meaning minor league baseball as we knew it is dead.
Since 2015, the Cubs’ minor league system has included affiliates in Iowa, Tennessee, Myrtle Beach, South Bend, Eugene, two rookie teams in Arizona, and an academy in the Dominican. We don’t know how things will look next season, but at least one of those affiliates will be gone and others could potentially move around in what some in the industry have called the “Wild West” of new deals.
The chaos about to reign down on the minors stems from the expiration of the professional baseball agreement (PBA) between the majors and the minors at the end of the 2020 season. The Cubs currently have professional development contracts (PDCs) with each of their affiliates through 2022, but apparently those are not set in stone either.
MLB is going to limit the number of stateside teams an organization can have at five while also limiting them to one spring facility-based team. However it ends up shaking out, the days of rostering nine teams with about 300 players are over. The Cubs will have to cut their total number of players down to anywhere from 160-200 or so players, depending on the Dominican limits.
Let’s take a look at some possible scenarios for affiliation in 2021.
Des Moines has hosted a Triple-A squad in the Pacific Coast League for what feels like an eternity, but it could be the new home of the Cubs in the low-A Midwest League. The PCL could be split into two leagues of 10 as MLB looks to reduce travel and cost, so geography isn’t in the I-Cubs’ favor in that regard. What’s more, two other A-ball teams in Iowa — Clinton and Burlington — are rumored to be on the way out of the Midwest League.
Moving the I-Cubs into a league with Cedar Rapids and the Quad Cities creates a nice little regional rivalry and keeps them with their same parent team. The worst case scenario is that Iowa gets assigned to another organization, regardless of level.
The Smokies are almost a sure bet to stay a Cubs’ affiliate, so it’s only a question of what level they’ll be at. They could be part of a restructured Triple-A league or they could just stay put, though two other Southern League teams are on the chopping block and the league itself could be eliminated.
Myrtle Beach Pelicans
One would think this affiliate is a lock to stay in the system as well due to its short travel distances, good facilities, and ties to the community. The only negative anyone ever has about Myrtle Beach is that it is a pitcher’s park. Then again, the Carolina League is well known for stifling hitters over the years, so it’s not just Myrtle Beach.
The ties to the Cubs are strong and their organization is top notch.
South Bend Cubs
With owner Andrew Berlin also owning a small portion of the big league club, South Bend will be a part of the Cubs. The big question here is what level it will host. The Midwest League currently has 16 teams and the travel is brutal at times, so MLB is purportedly wants to cut the league to 12 teams. The SB Cubs could still be part of that new structure.
There’s also the possibility of essentially swapping with Iowa and becoming part of a new Triple-A league. Or they could join the Triple-A International League, which has a team in Indianapolis.
The Emeralds are likely gone as a member of the Cubs’ system since all short-season leagues are being eliminated. That’s really unfortunate because Eugene had developed a bit of a cult following among prospect hounds as the affiliate at which many of us get our first looks at some of the Cubs’ top young prospects and draft picks.
Unfortunately, Eugene will either be part of a new class-A league for West Coast teams or in a new Triple-A league. There will be baseball played in Eugene next year, but no one is sure what level or affiliation.
It’s confusing and painful to watch the minors upended in such a fashion and to be quite honest, I am still perplexed as to what is going to happen and when. Most minor league schedules and affiliations are set by mid-September at the latest so those teams can begin planning travel, promotions, and marketing for the coming year.
I would expect a much later resolution this year as MLB works out the sordid and tragic details for the demise of the minor league system as we knew it.