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Tigers officially switch West Michigan and Lakeland in minor-league hierarchy

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit -- The Tigers' player development ladder has maintained essentially the same rungs, but they will in a different order under Major League Baseball's new agreement with minor league baseball. 

The Tigers, as The Detroit News reported on Nov. 12, have invited four familiar affiliates to be part of their developmental system. Toledo and Erie will remain as their Triple-A and Double-A clubs, as has been the case since 2001.

But the two Class A affiliates have swapped spots. Lakeland will now be the Tigers' Low-A team and West Michigan will be designated High-A. The switch makes sense geographically, for sure, but it was also a nod to the ownership and success of the West Michigan organization.

The Toledo Mud Hens have been the Tigers' Triple A affiliate since 1987.

"The first thing is the fantastic setup in West Michigan," said David Littlefield, the Tigers' vice president of player development. "Just in regards to the fan support, the way the league is structured and the tremendous front office that's been highly successful for a lot of years. 

"We just think that experience is a really good one and our players will benefit from it, particularly as they move into Double-A."

In MLB's initial plans to downsize the number of teams in minor league baseball, Erie was on the list to be dropped, but a commitment of $16 million in public funds to renovate UPMC Park and facilities helped saved their affiliation status. 

"We are very happy with the Erie affiliation and the people there," Littlefield said. "The commitment the ownership has shown has solidified a good situation for us."

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Moving Lakeland to Low-A helps keep the Tigers' youngest players together at the Joker Marchant Field and complex in Lakeland. There will be four rookie ball teams, two in Lakeland and two at their academy in the Dominican, as well as the Low-A Lakeland Flying Tigers. 

"The geographic part makes sense," Littlefield said. "Having the extended spring training and Gulf Coast League teams there and then moving up to Lakeland and the Flying Tigers makes life a lot easier in a lot of ways with travel and player movement."

Gone in the realignment, though, is the Tigers short-season Class A team in Connecticut. The Tigers used the club, recently renamed the Norwich Sea Unicorns, as a June-August stopover for prospects and recent draft picks.

"We are extremely disappointed by the news that we will no longer be affiliated with the Detroit Tigers," Sea Unicorns organization said in a statement. "Dodd Stadium is a first-class facility energized by first-class fans both young and old that deserve the ability to fall in love with the game, either for the first time or all over again.

"We are in the process of evaluating all options in hopes to be able to continue to provide quality, affordable baseball for our great fans for years to come."

Littlefield, though, said the Tigers' four rookie league teams can absorb the loss.

"I think overall it's going to be very much a positive," he said. "The way they are going to be aligned going forward, it's going to be better for our player development system. We have four strong affiliations, we'll have better facilities overall and a better working environment. 

"I think it will benefit the players in a very positive way all across the board."

Toledo has been the Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate since 1987, Lakeland has been in the organization since 1967 and West Michigan has been a Tiger Single-A location since 1997.

“Player development has never been more important to our organization than it is today,” Tigers general manager Al Avila said in a statement. “These clubs play a key role in our long-term plan for sustainable success, to ensure our players are in the best position for growth and development to become impactful contributors at the major league level.

"I’d also like to thank the affiliate owners, executives, state and local government officials, and the overall community in each of these markets. Their passion for the game is one of our sport’s greatest assets and is something they should be very proud of.”

Twitter @cmccosky