Surprise! New PCL Affiliations Don’t Go As Expected

The affiliation news came fast and furious in the late afternoon on Tuesday, as major league teams quickly forged new agreements with Triple-A clubs to solidify their farm systems.

We knew that there were going to be some affiliate changes in the PCL, but what we got in the end was quite surprising.

To review before we begin, every Triple-A team is guaranteed a major league affiliate. The MLB teams try to secure an affiliate that has a) modern baseball facilities, b) a good location, and c) an easy front office to work with.

Tacoma’s affiliation with the Seattle Mariners has been constant since 1995, and was extended four more years through the 2022 season.

Other teams aren’t as fortunate – take Fresno, for example. After a long association with the nearby San Francisco Giants that began in 1998, the Giants jumped to Sacramento in 2015. Other MLB clubs in California either had solid Triple-A agreements already in place (Angels, Dodgers, Padres) or weren’t interested in going to Fresno (A’s). Ultimately, Fresno ended up with an unlikely four-year affiliate with the Houston Astros.

That type of thing can happen, and it isn’t always a disaster. Fresno won a Triple-A National Championship with the Astros in 2015, and had two playoff teams in four years with Houston. But it can be a tough sell from a marketing standpoint: “Come see the future stars of the Houston Astros!” doesn’t generate a lot of excitement in Fresno, CA.

By rule, all agreements are either for two years or four years. That way adjustments can be made if a team is not happy with its affiliate, or a minor league team relocates.

Which brings us to the Affiliation Dance of September, 2018.

HOW WE GOT HERE

Two big pieces of news from over a year ago let us know early that we were going to have changes as soon as the 2018 season ended.

The New York Mets purchased the Syracuse franchise in the International League. The Mets were affiliated with Las Vegas, but they would link up with Syracuse at the first opportunity: the 2019 season.

Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan left his executive position with the Texas Rangers and took one with the Houston Astros. Nolan and his family own the Round Rock Express, which had been the Texas Rangers affiliate. They were going to switch to the Houston Astros as soon as the contract with the Rangers expired after the 2018 season.

The Astros were out of Fresno, going to a much closer home in Round Rock, Texas. And Las Vegas needed a new team – just as it was opening up a brand new state-of-the-art ballpark, making a very lucrative affiliate for MLB teams.

We had another moving part in the PCL, quite literally in this case: the Colorado Springs franchise is relocating to San Antonio for the 2019 season. The Milwaukee Brewers agreement with the franchise was up for renewal, and it seemed to all observers that the suddenly homeless Texas Rangers would be a perfect match in San Antonio.

WHAT HAPPENED

Facing an expired agreement and a geographically unnatural association with the Nashville Sounds, the Oakland A’s called the Las Vegas 51s president Don Logan first thing in the morning when the negotiation period opened on Monday and struck a deal. The A’s will move into the brand new ballpark in Las Vegas this year.

Round Rock and the Houston Astros inked their deal, as everyone expected.

On the other side of the country, all of the International League teams re-upped with their existing affiliate… except for Syracuse, which brought in the Mets as planned. That left their previous affiliate the Washington Nationals needing a new Triple-A home. There were no IL openings, so the Nats were coming to the PCL.

Nashville, San Antonio and Fresno were the open PCL teams. The Nationals, Rangers, and Milwaukee Brewers were looking for a partner – and everyone thought the Rangers were going to San Antonio.

At this point the Nashville Sounds were by far the most attractive Triple-A team. They have a terrific four-year-old ballpark in a great city with a major airport for easy player movement. The person who runs the baseball side of the organization just won a minor league baseball executive of the year award, which should satisfy the easy-to-work with front office requirement. They are at or near the top of the PCL in attendance annually.

The Texas Rangers looked at the 25-year-old Double-A ballpark in San Antonio that the league is moving into, the current plan to build a new park in San Antonio (or lack thereof – there is no publicly revealed plan), and said “nope.” Read more about this in the first link down below.

The Colorado Springs/San Antonio management has had a good relationship with the Brewers, so they re-signed with them. It will be the Milwaukee Brewers in San Antonio in 2019.

That left Nashville to decide between the Texas Rangers and the Washington Nationals, with the un-chosen team going to a more difficult location and older ballpark in Fresno.

Again, the trend was bucked. It would appear on the surface that the Nationals would be a much better fit in Nashville, but… the Sounds took the Texas Rangers.

So that left the Washington Nationals in a bizarre forced marriage with the Fresno Grizzlies.

WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE NOW

Here are your new PCL divisions for 2019. New affiliates in italics.

Pacific North

  • Fresno (Washington Nationals)
  • Reno (Arizona Diamondbacks)
  • Sacramento (San Francisco Giants)
  • Tacoma (Seattle Mariners)

Pacific South

  • Albuquerque (Colorado Rockies)
  • El Paso (San Diego Padres)
  • Las Vegas (Oakland A’s)
  • Salt Lake (Los Angeles Angels)

American North

  • Iowa (Chicago Cubs)
  • Memphis (St. Louis Cardinals)
  • Nashville (Texas Rangers)
  • Omaha (Kansas City Royals)

American South

  • New Orleans (Miami Marlins)
  • Oklahoma City (Los Angeles Dodgers)
  • Round Rock (Houston Astros)
  • San Antonio (Milwaukee Brewers)

A few thoughts on it all:

Tacoma plays its Pacific Conference foes 16 times each season, and only one series (three or four games) against each American Conference team. From a Mariners perspective, the Rainiers will see M’s AL West rivals affiliate 40 times in 2019: 16 games against the A’s and Angels, and four against Astros and Rangers.

Getting the Astros out of the Rainiers division can only be seen as a positive right now. The Astros have had really good Triple-A teams the past few seasons, and it looks like that will continue into the immediate future. The Washington Nationals Triple-A teams in the International League have finished well under .500 in each of the last four years.

It will be fun seeing a new organization, the Washington Nationals. I know close to nothing about their farm system and prospects, so it will be something to read up on during the offseason. We haven’t had a new major league team affiliate in the PCL since the Mets came to Vegas in 2013.

Fresno-to-Washington DC is going to be a tough travel obstacle for quick call-ups. Even more difficult is their Double-A to Triple-A transfer, from Harrisburg (PA) to Fresno. Look for the Nats to alleviate these concerns by carrying two or three extra Triple-A players in Fresno all season, shuffling them on and off the active roster. Several PCL teams were doing this already in 2018 – it costs more in terms of Triple-A salaries, but the team saves money by not flying in players from other affiliates every time a need arises (these costs all fall on the major league budget). It also eliminates a lot of headaches and midnight phone calls.

Given the choice between a two- and four-year deal, the Las Vegas – Oakland agreement was for only two years. This is interesting. There is no doubt that the ideal affiliate of the Las Vegas ball club is the Dodgers. But the Dodgers currently share ownership of the Oklahoma City franchise, locking them in. I can’t help but wonder if Las Vegas wants to take it slow with Oakland, in case the ownership situation changes down the road in Oklahoma City.

All told, this offseason featured one franchise relocation, a realignment of the American Conference divisions, and 25% of the league affiliates changing. That’s a lot of stuff!

The Mariners extended their affiliation with Short-Season Everett two more years, through 2022. It’s the longest running affiliate in the Northwest League, at 24 seasons.

Seattle has renewed its affiliation with all minor league teams except for Low-A Clinton in the Midwest League. There are a few other openings at that level, so if there is going to be any change in the Mariners farm system it will be at Low-A.

Links:

  • Story from the San Antonio newspaper on the Texas Rangers turning down the affiliate due to ballpark concerns.
  • The Washington Post has an article on the Nationals new affiliate, which includes the fact that there are no direct flights to Washington, DC from Fresno-Yosemite Airport.
  • Round Rock and the Houston Astros make perfect sense, according to the Austin Statesman.
  • From The Tennessean, some facts about the Nashville Sounds – Texas Rangers partnership.
  • The Mariners wiped out the Astros on Wednesday night, 9-0. Seattle won the season series against Houston, 10-9. I think that is both a sign of progress and an indicator of how frustrating this season has been.
  • Bob Dutton has a post on sunk costs and the final year of Felix Hernandez‘s contract.
  • Baseball America’s Top 20 PCL Prospects appears today. Here’s a link to the introduction, and you’ll need a subscription to advance from there.
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