SBJ/20080825/This Week's News

Class AAA teams prep for affiliation changes

Another wave of major change awaits Minor League Baseball with the onset of the biennial reaffiliation period and perhaps a half-dozen Class AAA teams poised to change major league partners.

The last reaffiliation cycle, in 2006, involved five Class AAA teams and 26 clubs overall. The new cycle likely will bring a similar amount of switching. At the minors’ upper-most level, the most-talked-about scenario involves the Cleveland Indians parting ways with longtime partner Buffalo to align with Columbus, with a new downtown ballpark set for completion in 2009 for the Clippers.

If Columbus aligns with Cleveland,
it could set off a chain reaction.

That move, should it happen, would set off a chain reaction that could see Buffalo link with Toronto, and the Blue Jays’ current Class AAA partner in Syracuse, N.Y., sign with the New York Mets. That scenario could prompt the Washington Nationals, currently affiliated with Columbus, to go back to New Orleans, where they were in 2005 and 2006. Class AAA markets in Memphis (currently a St. Louis Cardinals affiliate) and Omaha, Neb., (Kansas City Royals) could also become part of the affiliation dance, according to multiple major and minor league baseball sources.

No club is yet allowed to speak publicly about their intentions. The process is a tightly regulated one that begins after minor league seasons conclude in early September, and ends no later than Oct. 7. Behind the scenes, though, planning in many markets has been under way for months, and some clubs, such as Columbus, have more generally announced their plans to seek a different situation.

“For years and years, the [Class AAA] ranks didn’t change. There was a lot of stability there,” said Pat O’Conner, Minor League Baseball president. “In the last couple of cycles, we’ve seen a lot more upheaval, and I think it’s going to take one more cycle to sort itself out.”

The Buffalo Bisons could link
with the Toronto Blue Jays.
A look at four minor league markets and how their MLB affiliations could change for 2009.
Current MLB club
Possible 2009 parent
N.Y. Mets
New Orleans
N.Y. Mets

In recent years, many major league clubs have placed greater importance on their minor league affiliates for both business and baseball-oriented reasons. As a result, teams have aggressively sought out tighter geographic clusters for their farm clubs to promote regional marketing, lessen travel costs and promote easier monitoring of minor league operations.

Such a mind-set is in full flight in Gwinnett County, Ga., where the Atlanta Braves are building a new ballpark for their club-owned Class AAA affiliate that will open next season just 37 miles from Turner Field. In January, the Braves announced plans to move the minor league club from Richmond, Va., after 43 years to the suburban Atlanta locale.

O’Conner said he is currently talking with a handful of Class AA, Class A and Rookie-level clubs about relocating to Richmond.

“This is an incredibly complex process,” he said. “In any of those situations, you’re talking about new alignments, new travel schedules and the like. It’s like putting together a puzzle.”

The reaffiliation process will also expose once more the relatively difficult situation facing the New Orleans Zephyrs. The club has ably rebounded from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but it sits geographically at the edge of the Western-oriented Pacific Coast League, making it a less popular target among MLB clubs. A sometimes-discussed switch to the Eastern-leaning International League would likely do little to remedy the situation. As a result, the Zephyrs have been partnered with four different major league teams since their arrival in 1993 from Denver.

“Any label that New Orleans is not a good market is just not accurate,” O’Conner said. “But it’s a victim of its geography. It’s really on the fringes of both leagues, and on the map, not a good fit on either side.”

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