Will Major League Baseball force the Fresno Grizzlies out of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League and down two notches to the California League?


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Details have emerged of an MLB proposal to drastically alter its relationship with Minor League Baseball. These include eliminating 42 teams and others, such as the Grizzlies, shifting leagues.

While the thought of the Grizzlies playing at a lower level might be unthinkable to their fans, history is littered with reorganizations forced by MLB, which provides players for minor league teams.

At issue is the Professional Baseball Agreement expiring at the end of the 2020 season. The PBA is the agreement between MLB and Minor League Baseball spelling out their relationship.

Simply said: Fewer teams mean less expense for the big league clubs. Right now, a group of minor league players is engaged in a class-action lawsuit over their salaries under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Will Grizzlies Replace Lancaster in Cal League?

According to a November Baseball America story, 42 teams would be shuttered, mostly in the lower levels of the minors. One of them is the Lancaster JetHawks of the California League at the High-A level.

The Grizzlies would take Lancaster’s place in the Cal League, according to Ballpark Digest.

Grizzlies president and part-owner Derek Franks, as well as PCL President Branch Rickey III, deferred to Minor League Baseball for comment.

“Minor League Baseball is currently negotiating a new PBA with MLB. An early MLB proposal suggested switching the Fresno club to the Class-A California League,” said Jeff Lantz, communications director for  Minor League Baseball.

“Nothing has been decided regarding the movement or contraction of any club. Minor League Baseball does not have plans to move the Grizzlies to another classification level, and Minor League Baseball is working daily to preserve affiliated professional baseball in all 160 markets that currently have teams.”

If they move to the Cal League, the Grizzlies would have the league’s largest stadium at 10,650.

A Major League Baseball proposal would drop the Fresno Grizzlies from the Triple-A Pacific Coast League to the High-A California League and eliminate the Lancaster JetHawks. (GV Wire/Alexis DeSha)

Others React to the Elimination and Transfer Proposals

Aside from cost-cutting, other reasons given for the changes include the relative ease — or difficulty — of travel between cities and the quality of minor league facilities.

“The PBA is a 10-year partnership agreement between MLB and MiLB with one year to go,” California League President Charlie Blaney told GV Wire via email. “The renewal negotiations are in the very early stages with both parties stating their respective positions. Since everything is speculation at this point with nothing having been decided or agreed upon, we have no idea yet what the impact will be on Cal League teams.”

The Lancaster franchise said that it was “disappointed and surprised” that its potential elimination leaked out.

“We can assure you we are 100% committed to keeping Minor League Baseball alive, well and flourishing in the Antelope Valley and for JetHawks fans everywhere,” the team posted on its website.

MLB: ‘Negotiations at Very Early Stage’

MLB, in a statement to GV Wire, said it supports all teams, especially those in California.

“Negotiations with Minor League Baseball are at a very early stage. No one can predict what the agreement will look like at this point,” an MLB spokesman told GV Wire. “However, MLB’s goals of improving working conditions for Minor League players and protecting baseball in local communities remain unchanged. Major League Baseball is committed to protecting baseball in California, which is why MLB has subsidized Minor League operations at a rate of hundreds of millions of dollars per year over the past decade.

“Certain Minor League Baseball officials have disseminated an inaccurate and distorted account of our conversations in an effort to create pressure on Major League Baseball. It is not Major League Baseball’s goal to eliminate any club in these negotiations, and MLB currently has a plan for every club to continue operations with some level of support.”

The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred “said the leaked proposal was simply a starting point for negotiations.”

Relationship Between MLB and Minors

Generally, MLB provides players, managers, and coaches to its 160 affiliated minor league teams. The minor league teams, like the Fresno Grizzlies and Visalia Rawhide, provide the stadium, equipment, and most travel.

Additionally, MLB and minor league teams are paired through Player Development Contracts. Those tend to last two-to-four years, expiring at the end of even years. Fresno is contracted with the World Series champion Washington Nationals; Visalia is paired with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

By many accounts, these are the most contentious PBA contract negotiations since 1990. And, the prospect of cities losing their minor league teams has even become a presidential campaign issue.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, sent a letter to Manfred, urging him not to follow through with contraction, which would include the Vermont Lake Monsters, a short-season A team affiliated with the Oakland A’s.

“The time has come for Major League Baseball to stop these bogus threats, withdraw your proposal to eliminate 42 minor league teams, negotiate in good faith and pay minor league players a living wage,” Sanders wrote.

Other federal legislators. both Democrats and Republicans, also have expressed concern about losing teams in their respective states.

Photo of Bernie Sanders

“The time has come for Major League Baseball to stop these bogus threats, withdraw your proposal to eliminate 42 minor league teams, negotiate in good faith and pay minor league players a living wage,” presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders wrote to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. (AP File)

Other Changes to the Minors

Various forms of the contraction proposal call for a drastic realignment of Triple A. Instead of two leagues — the 16-team PCL and the 14-team International League — there would be three 10-team leagues.

If Fresno is eliminated from the PCL, a franchise in St. Paul, Minnesota could be added. St. Paul now plays in the American Association, an independent league not affiliated with MLB.

Another idea floated for the contracted teams is to form a “Dream League,” a quasi-affiliated organization featuring undrafted players hoping for a crack at the big leagues.

The proposed changes are the biggest since 1998 when MLB expanded by two teams. Triple-A went from three leagues to two, and the Phoenix franchise had to relocate with the birth of the Arizona Diamondbacks. That opened a PCL slot for Fresno.

Does Realignment Make Sense?

While the PCL utilizes buses and planes to travel, the Cal League is almost exclusively a bus league. The addition of Fresno would bring a fourth team along Highway 99, along with Stockton, Modesto, and Visalia.

It is rare, but not unprecedented, for players to be called up to the big leagues directly from High-A. Such player promotions are a regular occurrence from Triple-A.

Another potential benefit for the Grizzlies is playing more games against affiliates of popular MLB teams in Fresno.

While the Giants and A’s PCL teams played eight games a year each in Fresno, the Dodgers top club in Oklahoma City makes a trip to Fresno every other year.

Teams in the Cal League, like the PCL, play 70 games at home. That means more visits from the San Jose Giants, Stockton Ports (A’s affiliate), and the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (Dodgers).

The Cal League also plays its season in two halves, with the winner in each half qualifying for the playoffs. Four of the league’s eight teams make the postseason.

Fresno’s Baseball History

Fresno’s history of organized baseball stretches back to 1898.

After 27 years without a professional team, Fresno played in the Cal League for 48 years (1941-88), most of that period as an affiliate of the San Francisco Giants.

After a 10-year hiatus, Fresno joined the PCL in 1998, playing initially at Fresno State’s Beiden Field.

 

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