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MLB’s plan to cull 42 minor league teams expected to go through

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The result? A whole reinvention of the minor league system as we know it.

MiLB: JUN 23 Florida State League - Tortugas at Threshers Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last fall, word began circulating that Major League Baseball was pushing for a significant revamp of their minor league system, one that would include something of a cull of some 42 current MiLB affiliates. The existing agreement between MLB and MiLB is set to expire after this, the 2020 season that may never actually be, and whether it’s due to poor attendance and lack of top-tier facilities (unlikely) or simply due to the bottom line of making the most money possible (very likely), it appears that MLB is about to get their way with a major reshuffling.

Baseball America’s JJ Cooper relayed earlier today that MiLB and MLB are nearing an agreement on the proposal, one that would feature a “significant reduction in teams.”

In particular, the Cincinnati Reds appear to be getting pretty adversely impacted. The plan calls for the dissolution of the Appalachian League and Pioneer League as we know them, which would lop off the Reds affiliates in both Greeneville, TN, and Billings, MT. On top of that, the Daytona Tortugas of the Florida State League - Cincinnati’s latest A+ affiliate - as well as the AA Chattanooga Lookouts of the Southern League are also in the crosshairs, meaning the Reds are about to lose a full four of their affiliates in one fell swoop.

(Add-in that the Class A Lexington Legends from my hometown are about to get doinked, too, and I’m decidedly nonplussed at the moment about this whole idea, even if there is some form of independent league backfill plan as part of it.)

In theory, the plan will rework things so that each MLB team ends up with four primary affiliates, from AAA to AA to A+ to A level. And while there’s also a consideration that there will finally be raises for the MiLB players in the newfangled system, the number of minor leaguers as a whole sure appears to be about to take a hit.

If you walk things back a bit further, the 2020 pandemic in which we are living is about to pair with this realignment to completely reshape the way we’ve come to consume our baseball. Seasons have been canned at both the high school and college levels for this year, with the cancellations and potential alterations to big-money sports like college basketball and football already putting significant strains on the ability for schools to continue to support low or no-revenue sports that depend on the two larger revenue-generators to survive. On top of that, MLB reduced the 2020 MLB Draft by some 75% already.

That means that the 2021 season could see the complicating triumvirate of a) college players returning en mass due to their cancelled season and fewer professional jobs, b) high school players opting to seek college spots due to the lack of draft bonuses and professional jobs, and c) college programs slammed with more players than they can afford to dole out scholarships to.

That result, obviously, would mean a hyperconcentration of talent at the college level which - if universities can find ways to afford it - could eventually begin to elevate that level in ways we’ve not seen before. However, it also would push down the road the ability for many players to become professionals and earn money, while limiting the overall number of professional jobs would also inevitably mean that some under the radar future stars might never get the opportunity to turn heads, too.

Cooper reiterated that despite 42 teams and their locales losing clubs, there is a plan to somehow keep those places “included in a sustainable system going forward.” If that’s unaffiliated independent league ball, then it’s unaffiliated independent league ball, something that has already long existed in various forms and fashions. Exactly how that would be expected to flourish in often small and rural communities without the allure of a direct big league pipeline is questionable, in my mind, but whatever.

What is clear at this point is that the pushaback from these MiLB clubs is not nearly as strong now as it was back in the fall, back when the world was seemingly operating under the comforts of the status quo. Obviously, the last two months have seen that change dramatically, and there’s no doubt that some of these MiLB clubs are hurting financially in big, big ways, and that’s allowing MLB to gain increased leverage in this back and forth, enough so that it might actually happen as soon as this week.