Yesterday the New York Yankees announced their minor league affiliations for the 2021 season, and it provided our first glimpse at what MiLB will look like next season and beyond:
— New York Yankees (@Yankees) November 7, 2020
We’ve known since last year that Rob Manfred and the owners want to restructure the minors, streamlining the leagues and eliminating teams. Teams, even entire leagues, will change levels. Even entire new leagues will be created. The goal for the owners is to have better facilities and less travel time for fewer players.
The Yankees are severing ties with two long-time affiliates — the Trenton Thunder (AA) and the Charleston River Dogs (Low-A) — while a team in the now-defunct New York-Penn League (formerly Short Season), the Hudson Valley Renegades, will become their High-A team in a new High-A league in the mid-Atlantic region while the Somerset Patriots, formerly an independent team in the Atlantic League, will become their new AA franchise.
As the Yankees have announced their affiliations, I expect more teams to announce theirs in the days to come. What might the Nationals’ minor league affiliations look like in 2021? If distance and facilities are the issues, where would the Nationals make sense?
The current affiliations for the top four levels, as of the end of the 2019 season, looked like this:
- Fresno Grizzlies (AAA)
- Harrisburg Senators (AA)
- Potomac Nationals (High-A)
- Hagerstown Suns (Low-A)
A new stadium was built for Potomac in Fredericksburg, so I think it’s safe that the Fredericksburg Nationals will, when they finally debut, will be a Nationals affiliate.
Harrisburg has been a Nationals affiliate since before the Nationals were the Nationals, and both the Nationals and the Senators give all indications of being happy with the association. It’s probably also safe to say that Harrisburg will be a Nationals affiliate in 2021.
Fresno is gone. Fresno will be a Low-A team in the now Low-A California League for the west coast teams. (The Northwest League, previously a Short Season league, will become the west coast’s High-A League.) So, the Nationals will need a new AAA affiliate.
Hagerstown is also gone. The facility there is ancient, and the team was on the leaked contraction list.
So, this leaves the Nationals needing cities for a Low-A team and a AAA team.
Here we enter the realm of sheer guesswork, because we don’t know yet how the dominoes will fall, how the leagues will be configured, which teams will move up and down, etc. The “affiliation dance” is supposed to be a bit different this off-season, as basically everything’s on the table. The exception naturally would be where a major league team has an ownership stake in a minor league team.
If the realignments bump Richmond from AA to AAA, that’s where the Nationals should affiliate for AAA. Norfolk is probably out as an option — the owner has multiple teams, all affiliated with the Orioles — so the next targets should be either Durham or Nashville, assuming both are on the table.
For Low-A, there are several options, some better than others.
The Orioles are losing Frederick — the Keys were on the leaked contraction list — and it appears that their High-A team will be in Aberdeen; while the New York-Penn League is being torn apart and put out to pasture, Aberdeen is not. (Of Frederick, Aberdeen, and Bowie, if I had to keep two, it’s Bowie I’d cut. But I’m not the one making decisions.) So Frederick could be a possibility under certain circumstances — the Nationals can’t find anything better, Frederick’s owners are looking for an affiliated team instead of fielding an indy club, etc. It’s something to keep this in mind.
Another survivor of the New York-Penn League is the West Virginia Black Bears in Morgantown. Move that up to Low-A, and it’s an attractive target. Morgantown’s about six hours’ easy driving from DC, and the stadium is brand new. But the distance from Morgantown to other teams might be bad for the South Atlantic League. If the Nationals could get Morgantown, then making that the home of their High-A Mid-Atlantic League team while Fredericksburg becomes the home of the Low-A Sally League team would probably be best.
If things have changed with Frederick and it’s not being elimination, and if the Orioles keep Frederick (and make Aberdeen their Low-A team), then Delmarva would become available. Personally, I think this is the best scenario if we stick with current affiliated cities, but it’s also the most contingent on other things going certain ways.
There is one other option, and this is maybe the most contingent on other things happening, but it’s also a possibility given the way the affiliated minors are raiding the independent minors — Waldorf. There was a group who wanted to relocate the Batavia Muckdogs to Waldorf, home of the Atlantic League’s Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, several years ago, but this was vetoed by the Orioles. If everything‘s on the table, this is probably the best and most convenient option for the Nationals.
The best possible scenario, imho, would be:
- Richmond (AAA)
- Harrisburg (AA)
- Fredericksburg (High-A)
- Southern Maryland (Low-A)
The most realistic scenario in my mind would be:
- Durham or Nashville (AAA)
- Harrisburg (AA)
- West Virginia (High-A)
- Fredericksburg (Low-A)
With a new Mid-Atlantic League, though, I think it’s possible that the levels of existing AA, High-A, and Low-A teams could move around a bit. Harrisburg could end up in the High-A Mid-Atlantic League and Fredericksburg in the AA Eastern League, for example.
Another thought: the Nationals can grow their fandom in the Old Dominion, so they might want to target Lynchburg. I could imagine Lynchburg as the Low-A Sally League team, take Richmond as the AA Eastern League team, and hold Fredericksburg as the High-A team, and then they target an existing AAA franchise like Durham or Nashville further south or west. As a Nationals fan, I’d be sad to see the Curly W leave Harrisburg’s FNB Field — it’s currently decorates the steps to enter the stadium — but I do understand the business side of it.
It’s entirely possible, of course, that the Nationals have their eyes on some target cities I haven’t even considered.
The next couple of weeks will tell the tale, and hopefully we have minor league baseball in 2021.