Minor League Reorganization
There have been two main periods of minor league reorganization. During these times major changes were put into place which affected the way major league teams choose their affiliates and the way the leagues were structured.
Another radical shake-up plan was discussed following the 2019 season and implemented in 2021.
The first major reorganization was before the 1963 season. It was at this time the classifications were renamed. Classes B, C, D, and E were dropped in favor of the currently used A based rankings: AAA, AA, A and A (short-season) as well as the Rookie-Advanced class. This caused many leagues to be reclassified. The Eastern League moved up to AA as did the Southern League. The Carolina League moved from B to A. The Northern League and California League went from C to A. The Florida State League, Midwest League, Western Carolinas League (later renamed the South Atlantic League) and the Georgia-Florida League all moved to A from D.
The New York-Penn League became a A (short-season) league, having previously been a D League. The other short season A league, the Northwest League, had been a B league. The new Rookie-Advanced class was filled by the formerly C Pioneer League and D Appalachian League.
The biggest move of the reformation was dissolution of the American Association. The six-team league saw three of its teams cease operations (Dallas Ft. Worth, Louisville and Omaha) while the remaining three joined the two remaining AAA leagues. The Indianapolis Indians joined the International League for a season before moving on to join the Denver Bears and Oklahoma City 89ers in the Pacific Coast League. An expansion team, the Arkansas Travelers, joined Indianapolis in the International League for their one-year run. The American Association was re-formed in 1969, as a result of the expansion of 1969.
Following Major League Baseball’s expansion from 28 to 30 teams in 1998, the decision was made to make major changes to the minor league system over the next four seasons. Some of the moves were necessary to make way for the new minor league affiliates of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and others were made for their own sake.
In 1998 the AAA affiliates were added for the two new major league teams. The Durham Bulls were promoted from single A to AAA and joined the International League. The other AAA expansion team was the Memphis Redbirds. Memphis had previously been a AA team. The Redbirds joined the St. Louis Cardinals organization and the Pacific Coast League. With the Diamondbacks bringing major league baseball to Phoenix, the AAA Phoenix Firebirds had to move. They were able to find a new home in Fresno, CA as they became the Fresno Grizzlies.
The biggest move that off-season was the dissolution of the American Association once again. The Pacific Coast League absorbed five of the American Association teams (Iowa Cubs, Omaha Royals, Oklahoma Redhawks, Nashville Sounds and New Orleans Zephyrs) in addition to the expansion Memphis squad to go from a 10-team league to a 16-team league. The International League took Durham and the remaining three teams from the American Association: Buffalo Bisons, Louisville Redbirds and Indianapolis Indians. The league hosted the remaining 14 AAA Affiliates.
Things went smoother in 1999 as the Eastern League added two teams. This allowed for all 30 Major League teams to have their own AA affiliate. This was the last step in creating complete farm systems for the two 1998 expansion clubs. The Erie SeaWolves and Altoona Curve joined the league, though neither team would be affiliated with the Diamondbacks or Devil Rays.
While there were no changes in 2000, 2001 brought major changes to the A level. After years of it being unspoken that certain A leagues were stronger than others, it finally became official. The decision was made that every major league team would have one A-Advanced team in one of three leagues: Florida State League, Carolina League and California League. They would also have one A team in either the Midwest League or the South Atlantic League. 28 teams were able to immediately follow this new doctrine while two other had to wait until the player development contracts expired. This caused the Oakland A’s to have two A-Advanced teams and the Houston Astros to have two regular A teams. These changes made it necessary for two clubs to leave the higher-ranking leagues and join the lower-ranked leagues. The St. Petersburg Devil Rays and Kissimmee Cobras were dropped from the Florida State League. They were replaced by the Wilmington Waves and Lexington Legends in the South Atlantic League. The South Atlantic League also saw two of their franchises move that off-season. The Cape Fear Crocs became the Lakewood Blue Claws and the Piedmont Boll Weevils became the Kannapolis Intimidators. Eleven single A teams changed affiliates including seven of the ten California League teams.
Following the 2019 season, Major League Baseball proposed an update of the Professional Baseball Agreement to eliminate 42 minor league franchises and two minor league classifications. The proposal allowed MLB teams to pay higher salaries to minor leaguers by having fewer of them. The net loss was to be 40 teams, as two of the 42 were to be replaced by importing the St. Paul Saints and Sugar Land Skeeters from independent circuits. This was in response to attempts by various former and current minor leaguers to raise a legal challenge to the minor leagues' salary structure, arguing that it violated federal minimum salary rules. While MLB managed to obtain protection from Congress which passed a law in 2019 shielding it from such claims, the issue caused significant backlash, and one team, the Toronto Blue Jays, decided unilaterally to raise its minor leaguers' salaries in response.
Two lists of teams to be eliminated - one published by Baseball America and the other by The New York Times - circulated in the media in November 2019. Whether either list was official was not clear, nor were the criteria determining which teams were to disappear. MLB did say the lists were not current. The only difference between those two lists involved two Midwest League clubs: the Quad Cities River Bandits appeared on one and the Beloit Snappers on the other. A reasonable deduction is that Beloit saved itself by, in that very time frame, getting a deal to build a new ballpark.
However, it was clear that the objective was to eliminate the Rookie Class level, except for the two complex-based leagues (the Arizona League and Gulf Coast League, now renamed as the Arizona Complex League and the Florida Complex League), thoroughly reform the two short-season A leagues, and possibly eliminate the low Class A full season level. A number of teams in the Class A-Advanced level and in Double-A would also be eliminated, either for geographic reasons (a number of teams in the northeast seemed to have been targeted because of weather concerns) or because they played in ballparks that were considered outdated. But even taking these criteria into account there were contradictions. In many cases, local and state governments had invested heavily in renovating or upgrading ballparks for teams slated for elimination, and politicians were starting to ask questions to MLB. With no one willing to explain exactly what the plan was as negotiations continued, everything was in flux as the 2019 winter meetings started.
What should have been the last season under the old system, 2020, was cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and the following January a final list of teams was made public, confirming most of the rumors that had circulated for over a year. Minor League Baseball now became the Professional Development League, there were now five levels of play (Triple-A, Double-A, High-A, Low-A and complex-based leagues) and the existing names of minor leagues were abandoned in favor of generic geographic monikers (e.g. "Double-A Central"). In addition to the teams and leagues being eliminated and the three independent teams integrated into Organized Baseball (e.g. the St. Paul Saints), three independent leagues were also integrated as "[Partner Leagues]]" while two lower-level leagues, the Pioneer League and Appalachian League were reorganized as an independent league and a summer collegiate league, respectively.
Clearly, there was some evolution along the way. Both Quad Cities and Beloit survived, at the expense of their league-mate the Kane County Cougars. The Double-A Eastern League's Erie SeaWolves and Binghamton Rumble Ponies also survived, as did the Chattanooga Lookouts of the Double-A Southern League. The level-shuffling seemed to come out of left field, with the California and Florida State leagues dropping from High-A to Low-A and the Midwest and Northwest leagues rising to High-A - changes that made sense given the relative attendance in those circuits. Several teams changed levels, including the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp moving from Double-A to Triple-A. MLB clearly chose geography over balance in changing Triple-A from two leagues of 16 and 14 teams to two leagues of 20 and 10. The number of teams imported from independent ball rose to three when the New York Yankees dropped the Eastern League's Trenton Thunder in favor of the Atlantic League's Somerset Patriots. Thus, the final number of teams that lost franchises was 43 and the net change was 40, from 160 (not counting the complex-based leagues) to 120.
Of the teams that survived, the Fresno Grizzlies and Wichita Wind Surge seemed to be the most injured. The Grizzlies, who were in the Pacific Coast League, found themselves not only in the California League but - because of the circuit's shift - falling from Triple-A to Low-A. Meanwhile, Wichita built a Triple-A quality stadium to lure the New Orleans Baby Cakes to Kansas, only to get dropped from Triple-A to Double-A.
- Gabe Lacques: "'Ripping a community apart': Minor-league franchises on the chopping block ready to fight MLB's proposal", USA Today, December 10, 2019.