Triple-A Intrigue Highlights Start To The Affiliation Shuffle

The moment we have all been waiting for—or at least us few hardcore fans of minor league team movement—has finally arrived. The start of the affiliation shuffle’s two-week open period, when minor league teams are allowed to negotiate player development contracts with unaffiliated major league teams, officially began on Sunday. The every-other-year period is essentially free agency for minor league teams and allows fans to dream about which prospects might be coming to town.

Minor league teams had until Sept. 11 to extend PDCs with their current affiliate or notify their league offices that they want to pursue a new affiliation. Teams that do not strike a deal with a new affiliate by Sept. 30 will be assigned one by their league; no teams will be left without a partner.

While there will not be as much movement this offseason as in past years—20 teams changed partners in 2014—there are several interesting storylines to be played out over the next two weeks that will reshape the minors for several fanbases. Let’s take a look:

The exterior of Las Vegas' new $80 million ballpark due to open in 2019
The bright lights of Las Vegas’ new ballpark will welcome a new affiliate in 2019. Courtesy of Howard Hughes Corporation.

TRIPLE-A

MINOR LEAGUE TEAMS AVAILABLE: Fresno, Las Vegas, Nashville, Round Rock, San Antonio

MAJOR LEAGUE TEAMS AVAILABLE: Astros, A’s, Brewers, Nationals, Rangers

The International League is set. The only change to come in the 14-team circuit—the Mets replacing the Nationals in Syracuse—has been known since New York purchased the franchise last offseason. That decision gave Washington a full year to ponder where its Triple-A affiliate will play during the next two seasons. The Nats’ best options appear to be Nashville, which opened First Tennessee Park in 2015, or Las Vegas, which is scheduled to open a new ballpark in 2019 (hopefully for Opening Day).

Nashville may have the edge as the top choice because it would keep the Triple-A Nats in the East with their other affiliates and is just a short two-hour flight from D.C., but Las Vegas is not a bad alternative. Pacific Coast League President Branch Rickey has long touted Las Vegas as arguably the most important city in the league for travel purposes. McCarran International Airport connects directly to most every city in the league, which is certainly a luxury for whatever team makes a home in Vegas. With Cashman Field and its lone outdoor batting cage and metal bleachers now a thing of the past, Las Vegas may become a sought-after landing spot for teams.

Nashville Sounds First Tennessee Park
Will First Tennessee Park get a new tenant in 2019?

The Astros informed Fresno that they will not be returning after four years together. Most likely, Houston is headed to Round Rock to reunite minor league owner Nolan Ryan with son and Astros President Reid Ryan. The Rangers and Round Rock have been together for eight years, back when Nolan Ryan was Texas’ team president. He resigned as CEO after the 2013 season, not long after ownership restructured the front office to give more power to General Manager Jon Daniels.

The Rangers could very well end up in San Antonio, which is making the leap to Triple-A from the Texas League and will take Colorado Springs’ place in the PCL. Wolff Stadium doesn’t have the bells and whistles, or the capacity, of a modern Triple-A ballpark, but it certainly meets facility standards. It would be a step down for the Rangers from Round Rock’s Dell Diamond, but would be more conveniently located than any of the other PCL options.

DOUBLE-A

MINOR LEAGUE TEAMS AVAILABLE: Amarillo, Chattanooga, Midland, Pensacola, Tennessee

MAJOR LEAGUE TEAMS AVAILABLE: A’s, Cubs, Padres, Reds, Twins

Temporary logo for Amarillo's new minor league team.The only movement in Double-A might end up being the arrival of the still-to-be-named team coming to Amarillo (I’m pulling for Boot Scooters) that will take San Antonio’s spot in the Texas League. It would make sense that the Double-A pieces fall into place Amarillo announces which team will play at its new $45 million ballpark, which seems optimistically scheduled to open by Opening Day after beginning construction last February.

HIGH CLASS A

MINOR LEAGUE TEAMS AVAILABLE: Inland Empire, Lake Elsinore

MAJOR LEAGUE TEAMS AVAILABLE: Angels, Padres

Much like Double-A, the only change likely coming to high Class A next season is the arrival of a new franchise. Fayetteville joins the Carolina League with a team whose name was supposed to be revealed last week but the announcement has been delayed indefinitely due to Hurricane Florence. (My money is on Fatbacks, as hard as that is to say.)

The Padres have been in Lake Elsinore since 2001, and all but certainly will be back. Officially, the Charlotte Stone Crabs (Florida State League) have not announced a renewal of its affiliation with the Rays, but Tampa owns a stake of that team and will be back.

Stability in high Class A is a relatively new development and is largely the result of past races to be in the Carolina League. Major league teams had jockeyed for a spot in the Carolina League to avoid the possibility of being sent to hitter-friendly ballparks in High Desert and Lancaster of the California League. This happened to the Red Sox after they were booted from Wilmington following the 2006 season and ended up playing in Lancaster for two seasons. They were so displeased with the experience that they purchased the Salem franchise in 2007 and moved in for good in 2008. Now half of the 10 teams in the league are owned by their major league affiliate, most recently with the Brewers (Carolina), Astros (Fayetteville) and Rangers (Down East/Kinston) buying in.

Four Winds Field South Bend Cubs
South Bend has packed Four Winds Field since signing on with the Cubs in 2014.

LOW CLASS A

MINOR LEAGUE TEAMS AVAILABLE: Beloit, Clinton, Greensboro, Kane County,  West Virginia

MAJOR LEAGUE TEAMS AVAILABLE: Diamondbacks, Mariners, Marlins, Pirates, Twins

The Midwest League affiliation shuffle could have been renamed the Race for the Cubs in past years. However, that came to an end in 2014 when the Cubs were wooed from Kane County to South Bend thanks to a series of ballpark upgrades that included a $1 million indoor hitting and pitching facility modeled after the one the Cubs use at their Mesa spring training complex. The following February South Bend Owner Andrew Berlin bought a minority stake in the big league Cubs.

SHORT-SEASON

MINOR LEAGUE TEAMS AVAILABLE: Batavia, Salem-Keizer, Spokane, Tri-City

MAJOR LEAGUE TEAMS AVAILABLE: Giants, Marlins, Padres, Rangers

ROOKIE

MINOR LEAGUE TEAMS AVAILABLE: Bluefield, Colorado Springs, Great Falls, Ogden

MAJOR LEAGUE TEAMS AVAILABLE: Blue Jays, Brewers, Dodgers, White Sox

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