Tigers could lose two minor league affiliates, including Erie, in MLB reorganization plan

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Casey Mize  pitches for the Erie SeaWolves during the 2019 season.

Detroit – The Tigers could lose two of their minor league affiliates after next season if the plan Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has proposed is implemented.

The existing agreement between Major League Baseball and its minor league affiliates – the Professional Baseball Agreement – expires after the 2020 season. One of Manfred’s first proposals for a new agreement includes streamlining and reorganizing the minor league system.

The proposal would strip 42 minor league franchises (26 percent) of their major league affiliations before the 2021 season. Among those franchises to be cut, according to the list leaked to the New York Times, are the Tigers’ Double-A affiliate in Erie and their short-season, Class-A team in Connecticut.

Teams have been instructed not to comment on this, which is why Tigers general manager Al Avila politely refused The Detroit News’ request for an interview Monday. Tigers vice president of player development David Littlefield and Erie manager Mike Rabelo also opted not to comment. 

More: Tiger prospects at Double-A Erie immersed in winning culture

More: Double-A Erie's pitching depth serves as foundation for Tigers' future

The proposal would essentially wipe out all four rookie leagues and limit each organization to 150 players among teams at the Triple-A, Double-A, High-A, Low-A and minor league “complex” teams – which would include extended spring training squads and instructional leagues.

The draft, in conjunction with this, will be moved from June to August and reduced to 20 rounds. Drafted players would sign contracts for the following season. In effect, the rookie leagues would be replaced by what is being called the “Houston plan.”

Instead of playing games, players would report to teams’ spring training complexes and go through a series of analytics-based testing – spin rates, bat speed, launch angle, etc. – for the month of September.  

If Erie loses its affiliation, it has been with the Tigers since 2001, logically, West Michigan (presently a low-A affiliate) could move up to Double-A, leaving Lakeland (presently High-A) and the Tigers’ lone Class A affiliate.

The Erie SeaWolves celebrate an extra-innings victory over the Binghamton Rumble Ponies on July 3, 2019.

This, as you might expect, isn’t going over well in the affected cities. Liz Allen, a member of the Erie city council, wrote a scathing email to Manfred’s office regarding “your greedy decision to eliminate 42 MiLB affiliates,” which she shared with The News.

“The state of Pennsylvania has committed $12 million to upgrade UPMC Park, where the SeaWolves, an affiliate of the Detroit Tigers, play.

“Construction, paid by tax dollars, has already started on this project, which will end up being a white elephant. What use is there for an empty minor league ballpark in the heart of Erie?

“Since it opened in 1995, the ballpark has been part of the economic engine to revitalize downtown Erie.

“I wrote about the new ballpark as a special projects editor at the Erie Times-News. Later, as the public editor, I wrote editorials every year about the ways the baseball team contributes to the quality of life for Erie residents and tourists.

“As a newly elected public official, I spoke to the Erie Convention Center Authority about the need to make improvements to the ballpark.

“As a fan, I wrote about our collective grief when catcher Chace Numata died at the end of the season.

Alex Faedo pitches for the Erie SeaWolves this past season.

“Your decision is reckless and ill-timed. The Erie SeaWolves have a diverse workforce and the team provides entry-level experience for many young people in our community. Minor league baseball doesn’t just provide jobs; it nurtures future fans of your product.”

Allen went on to say that she and her husband will no longer support Major League baseball in any shape or form.

“Rob Manfred may think that he is saving baseball,” Allen wrote. “In reality, he is trying to line the pockets of greedy owners, but in the long run, he is killing America’s pastime…

“As a City Council member, I will urge the state’s General Services Administration to take legal action to recoup the money that has been appropriated for the ballpark construction. I have already written to the Department of Economic Development for the state of Pennsylvania seeking a remedy.”

The impetus of the proposal, according to the MLB’s initial statement, is to upgrade facilities and improve wellness of minor league players. Presumably, cutting out 42 teams should lead to salary increases for players and more geographically-viable travel.

The Houston Astros have already trimmed their system from nine teams to seven and are essentially the model for this plan.

Minor League president Pat O’Conner has vowed to fight for the continued affiliation of all 42 teams on the chopping block.

“If we are forced to defend ourselves and fight for mere survival, we will,” said O’Connor told the New York Daily News. “We understand (MLB’s) concerns about facilities that are deficient and not up to standards of what 21st century baseball requires and we have said we’re more than willing to work with them on that, as we are in respect to other (wellness) issue.

Erie has pledged to make upgrades to UPMC Park.

“We can work on re-aligning some of our minor leagues so they are more geographically convenient and we can do things with our schedules, as in longer — five-game series — to cut out extra trips.”

Apparently, though, the affected teams have been informed that Major League Baseball can implement this plan without approval of Minor League Baseball. What the plan is offering those 42 teams is acceptance into a “Dream League” – an independent league operated by Major League Baseball.

Unfortunately for those minor league teams, they would still be on the financial hook for stadium maintenance and taxes, salaries of players, managers, coaches, trainers, etc., and worker’s compensation.

So, in effect, these teams would still have operating costs of up to $400,000 after they had lost the equity provided by Major League affiliation.

The best recourse for the affected teams will be through the courts. MLB will likely be hit with a flurry of lawsuits, especially from cities like Erie, which built its new ballpark with taxpayers’ money.  

Cutting 42 teams would mean the elimination of more than 1,000 players, plus coaching and training positions. In addition, for the communities involved, it would be the end of more than 2,000 years of combined grass roots baseball history.

Twitter @cmccosky