For random reasons having more to do with Carolina League history than the Nationals yesterday evening, I was reading the Wikipedia page for the Potomac Nationals. And in so reading I saw this rather remarkable sentence:

“Upon completion of the new stadium in the Stonebridge at Potomac Town Center, the Potomac Nationals will be upgraded to AA status for the Washington Nationals.”

It’s not sourced, so I’m not sure where this assertion came from. It certainly struck me as odd. My immediate reaction to this, assuming it were true, of course, was, “But what does this mean for Harrisburg and the Senators? How does this make sense for the Nationals organization?” And yes, “What does this mean for me, the ex-pat Nats fan in Pennsyltucky?” As I thought about it, though, my immediate unease turned to understanding, I could see some logic, and I could see how it could work.

Let’s run through the questions.

How would this work?

I’m starting from the premise that the Nationals wouldn’t want to part with Harrisburg as an outpost. First, Harrisburg has been part of the Expos/Nationals organization for twenty-five years. Second, Harrisburg’s Metro Bank Park is a nice and modern facility that was rebuilt five years ago. The Nationals have made a point, as recently as last year’s 4-year PDC extension, of praising their long history with Harrisburg and the benefits of the facility.

Taking that as a given, I imagine it would be this simple. The Potomac Nationals of the High-A Carolina League move to Harrisburg and the Harrisburg Senators of the AA Eastern League move to Woodbridge. Perhaps the two ownership groups “swap” franchises so the current AA Senators owners would own the new High-A Senators and the current P-Nats owners would own the new AA P-Nats.

Why assume that the Carolina League/Eastern League swap would be the move?

There are no other nearby leagues of the same level. The Eastern League is far removed from the Southern and Texas AA leagues. The Carolina League is far removed from the Florida State and California High-A leagues.

If the Nationals want to promote Woodbridge to AA, then the Eastern League is the only league they can go into. And if Woodbridge is promoted, then Harrisburg is demoted, and if Harrisburg is demoted, then the Carolina League is the only realistic choice.

Perhaps a complicated swap would be possible in which the Phillies sell the Clearwater Threshers to the Braves (and the Braves relocate them out of the Phillies’ spring training complex), the Nationals move their affiliation to Lynchburg (which the Braves would vacate by going to Florida), and the Phillies move their affiliation to Harrisburg (which the Nationals would vacate). But that’s so complicated as to be unlikely.

What does this mean for travel time?

My early thought was, “No, Harrisburg is too far for the Carolina League.” However, Harrisburg isn’t any further from Winston-Salem and Myrtle Beach than Wilmington is currently. I could see the Carolina League scheduling 9-game “northern swings” for Winston-Salem and Myrtle Beach through Frederick, Harrisburg, and Wilmington to cut down on travel time. Likewise, “southern swings” through Myrtle Beach, Zebulon, and Winston-Salem for the northern tier. Possibly the Carolina League could adopt an unbalanced schedule to cut down on travel as well, but in an eight team league that would be rather garish.

Is Woodbridge too far for the Eastern League? Not really. Richmond is the southern-most city in the Eastern League and would remain such. The AA P-Nats would be closer to Richmond and Bowie and further away from every other team in the league. The AA P-Nats would be faced with some grueling travel, but it wouldn’t be any worse than what Bowie and Richmond routinely face. Plus, the Eastern League already plays an unbalanced schedule for travel reasons. I doubt that would change if a franchise moved from Harrisburg to Woodbridge.

(How unbalanced is the Eastern League’s schedule? This season, assuming my sums are right, Harrisburg played Bowie twenty-one times, Akron seventeen, Altoona fourteen, Richmond thirteen, Reading twelve, New Hampshire eight, Trenton seven, Erie six. There’s not a lot of rhyme or reason to the Eastern League schedule. I have thoughts on realigning the Eastern League, but that can wait for another time.)

Would the team names change? Would they become the Harrisburg Nationals and the Potomac Senators?

They could, but I don’t see any good reason why they would.

“Senators” is a name that goes back in Harrisburg baseball history to 1893. (Thank you, Andrew Linker and One Patch of Grass.) I suppose the owners could change the High-A team’s name to the Harrisburg Mayflies (an April Fool’s joke the team perpetrated this year), but I don’t find that likely. If you’ve ever been to Metro Bank Park, there’s a palpable sense of pride in the historical identity of the Senators, extending far back beyond the team’s current AA incarnation. (Heck, for that matter, Harrisburg’s team store this year sold replica Harrisburg Giants jerseys in honor of the Negro League team that played there.) Baseball takes pride in its history, and I don’t really see Harrisburg jettisoning over a century of “Senators.”

I doubt Woodbridge has a similar connection to “Nationals.” Minor league teams that use the parent club’s name — like most of the Braves’ organization — strike me as lazy and unimaginative. Personally, I really liked the name “Potomac Cannons” from a decade ago. Perhaps, the AA Potomac would adopt a new name. The Prince William Fusiliers? The Occoquan Admirals? I don’t know, I’m just spitballing names here. The short answer here is, I don’t know what AA Potomac would do with their name. They could do better. They could also do a lot worse. (If anyone can explain “Flying Squirrels” or “Rubberducks” to me, I’m all ears.) But I doubt they would become the Potomac Senators; “Senators” doesn’t make a great deal of sense in the context of Prince William County.

What about ballparks?

The High-A Senators would have the third largest capacity field in the Carolina League; the Wilmington Blue Rocks and the Carolina Mudcats (who play in a ballpark built for a AA team) are slightly larger. Metro Bank Park, as I mentioned, was rebuilt a few years ago. I believe, but don’t quote me on this, that it can even be expanded to a capacity of 10,000; there was talk several years ago that Peter Angelos wanted to move the Norfolk Tides to Harrisburg, and this would have necessitated expanding the facility to a AAA capacity.

I don’t what the planned capacity of the new P-Nats ballpark is, but I can’t imagine it would be less than the current 6,000 capacity of the Pfitz. Richmond’s new downtown ballpark, if it’s ever built, is supposed to seat about 6,500, so given the larger population of the surrounding area and potential fandom for the AA P-Nats, I suspect a 7,500 seat facility would not be out of line. Scratch those last few sentences. Two minutes with Google show that the planned capacity is a mere 6,000. That seems small to me.

Would swapping Woodbridge and Harrisburg affect attendence negatively?

Probably not. Certainly not in Woodbridge; they would likely see an attendence boost in the first year from the new stadium and a very familiar team filled with names from the previous year’s High-A Potomac Nationals’ squad.

Harrisburg would be a more interesting case, because there would arguably be higher quality on-field product twenty-five miles away in Lancaster and York where two independent teams in the Atlantic League play. However, I don’t believe that would actually matter a great deal. Minor league baseball is family friendly. Are families in the Harrisburg area going to pile into the minivan and drive down 83 or Harrisburg Pike, or are they going to pile into the minivan and go to the much closer City Island? I suspect the answer to that is rather self-evident. Even if Lancaster and York field teams filled with major and minor league cast-offs who are more developed than High-A players — and they do — the Senators and City Island will remain a destination for Harrisburg families.

What about traveling fans?

Harrisburg would probably see an influx of Frederick fans during series; I believe Harrisburg is about an hour and a half up US 15 from Frederick. This would make up for the loss of Reading, Bowie, and Trenton fans who come over to Harrisburg for those series.

Potomac would probably see an influx of Richmond and Bowie fans. (This year, the Senators played a combined 17 home games against these two teams.)

What about mascots?

I see no reason why Rascal needs to leave Harrisburg (his backstory is that he’s a swamp monster from the Susequhanna), nor why Uncle Slam needs to leave Woodbridge. The mascots would remain where they are.

Does this swap of Woodbridge and Harrisburg make sense for the Nationals?

I’m not sure. The Nationals would have a AA facility half an hour from DC instead of two hours away, which could be beneficial for rehab assignments. Otherwise, I think it’s really a wash. Swapping the teams seems like a lot of work to me for that marginal a gain.

It seems to me that, if that’s the reason — the Nationals want to have have player rehab in the high minors close to DC — then there’s a more radical and, in the long term, beneficial way to go about it. Syracuse to Woodbridge, Woodbridge to Harrisburg, Harrisburg to Syracuse. And then, when the PDC with AA Syracuse comes to an end, make a play for Richmond if they have the new stadium built. The minor league configuration, then, would be this to start:

  • AAA: Woodbridge (International League)
  • AA: Syracuse (Eastern League)
  • High-A: Harrisburg (Carolina League)
  • Low-A: Hagerstown (South Atlantic League)

Four years later, it could look like this:

  • AAA: Woodbridge (International League)
  • AA: Richmond (Eastern League)
  • High-A: Harrisburg (Carolina League)
  • Low-A: Hagerstown or Fredericksburg (South Atlantic League)

Or, to make it even more fun, once the Nationals had Richmond, it could look like this:

  • AAA: Richmond (International League)
  • AA: Woodbridge (Eastern League)
  • High-A: Harrisburg (Carolina League)
  • Low-A: Hagerstown or Fredericksburg (South Atlantic League)

Richmond has history as a AAA city with the Richmond Braves. I think, though, that I would do this:

  • AAA: Woodbridge (International League)
  • AA: Harrisburg (Eastern League)
  • High-A: Richmond (Carolina League)
  • Low-A: Hagerstown or Fredericksburg (South Atlantic League)

Move Harrisburg back to the Eastern League, and move Richmond to the Carolina League. It would be better for travel in both leagues.

The thing is, at 6,000 seats, the new P-Nats stadium isn’t big enough for AAA, so this whole thought experiment would be a non-starter.

Would I hate it if Harrisburg and Woodbridge swapped?

The most important question! For me, anyway. :)

I did at first, but after thinking about it, I really don’t. That one sentence on Wikipedia could be errant nonsense, but if it’s not, swapping Harrisburg and Woodbridge wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Losing Harrisburg and its Nationals connection would, for me, be the worst thing in the world.

I’d be sorry to see AA baseball leave Harrisburg, but I grew up with High-A in Lynchburg. All that would change, really, would be the age of the players on the field and the teams that visited City Island on a regular basis. If the Senators’ current ownership group remained with the new High-A Senators, if they kept the name Senators, if they presented the High-A Senators and the on-field product in the same way as they do with the AA Senators, I would be fine with it.

And, of course, it’s entirely possible that, if this came to pass, that I would no longer be living near enough to Harrisburg for it to personally matter. Perhaps I’ll have moved closer to my job in the Baltimore suburbs. Or perhaps I’ll have moved altogether to take a new job.

Conclusion?

It could work, moving Potomac to the AA Eastern League and Harrisburg to the High-A Carolina League. It’s not as nonsensical as I first thought.

This is all speculative, anyway. Wikipedia could be wrong (wouldn’t be the first time), the new P-Nats stadium could remain a pipe dream (wouldn’t be the first time that happened to a stadium), the Carolina or Eastern League (or both) could balk at the plan, etc. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting thought experiment — if this happened, how would it work?

Not too badly, I think.

Original posted at Federal Baseball

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