The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, April 22, 2020 1:00 am

Source: Minors to accept reduction

TinCaps not concerned as virus is biggest issue now

Staff, news services

NEW YORK – The minor leagues are prepared to agree to Major League Baseball's proposal to cut guaranteed affiliations from 160 to 120 next year, a person familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press, a plan that would impact hundreds of prospects and cut player development expenses.

The person spoke Tuesday on condition of anonymity because no announcements were authorized. The development was first reported by Baseball America.

An electronic negotiating session is scheduled for today.

In informal talks, parties have discussed the possibility of a radical overhaul in which MLB would take over many of the duties of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the minor league governing body, another person familiar with the negotiations said.

Instead of franchise affiliations, there would be licensing agreements similar to those of hotel chains, that person said. MLB would then sell sponsorship, licensing and media rights, a switch that may lead to decreased overhead and increased revenue.

“There have been no agreements on contraction or any other issues,” the National Association said in a statement Tuesday, adding it “looks forward to continuing the good-faith negotiations with MLB tomorrow.”

TinCaps president Mike Nutter said the PBA negotiations are not at the top of the priority list for his team, because so much effort has gone into keeping the organization running and the team's employees healthy during the coronavirus pandemic. Nutter joked with his wife that he has never worked as hard as he is now, even when games are actually being played.

“I can honestly tell you around our office, ... (the negotiations are) not (a big topic) at all,” Nutter said. “That doesn't mean it isn't extremely important to some teams, the teams that are on the (contraction list), but we don't have the capacity right now to focus on that.

“We have to focus on our operation here in Fort Wayne. At the end of the day – when a deal is struck – we feel like we're going to be just fine in Fort Wayne, whatever that means. We've just got to focus on our people, our front office staff now.”

Among the organizations on the list for contraction, which leaked in November, are Fort Wayne's fellow Midwest League teams – Clinton LumberKings, Burlington Bees and Quad Cities River Bandits.

Nutter said recently that the tenor of the negotiations has been more amicable than it was early in negotiations.

“It feels like the tone, and I'm hopeful, but it feels like the tone has been a lot more collaborative,” Nutter said. “(It's) 'let's find a deal.' There was a lot of stuff said early on on both sides, and now it seems like folks are settling in and (saying) 'let's just try to get the best deal that we can.'”

Still, the ongoing negotiations have left the teams that were on the leaked contraction list in limbo, adding another issue to deal with as the pandemic eats into the minor league schedule.

The negotiations bring “another level of uncertainty to the situation,” said Jason Freier, managing owner for the TinCaps, Class A Columbia and Double-A Chattanooga. “As people are deciding further investments in their teams and things like this, I'm sure that every owner has to have that somewhere in their mind.”

Fort Wayne, Columbia and Chattanooga have avoided employee furloughs and layoffs, so far. Each of the teams was approved for a paycheck protection program loan from the U.S. government. Chattanooga, however, has been mentioned as one of the teams that might lose its affiliation if the PBA does lead to team contraction.

In talks to replace the Professional Baseball Agreement that expires after the 2020 season, MLB last year proposed cutting 42 affiliates. The plan would eliminate affiliations for the 28 teams from four Class A short-season and rookie advanced leagues that do not play at spring training complexes.

MLB said in a statement it looks forward to “continuing our discussion about how we can jointly modernize player development and continue to have baseball in every community where it is currently being played.”

Under MLB's proposal, each franchise would have four full-season farm teams, a rookie level club at its minor league complex and prospects in the Dominican Summer League. Some franchises would cut their U.S.-based affiliates from seven to five.

The National Association lobbied Congress as it fought MLB's plan. But the coronavirus pandemic changed the dynamic and sapped minor league teams of revenue and willingness to fight.

Opening day for the minors has been pushed back indefinitely; the MLB commissioner's office and players' association have discussed the possibility of playing in empty ballparks.

Without big broadcast contracts, the minors don't have that option and are less likely to play this year. MLB refused the minors' request to extend the PBA for a year.

Now the minors are prepared to accept MLB's concept with modifications.

MLB already has gained an agreement with the big league players' union to cut the amateur draft from 40 rounds to as few as five this year and 20 in 2021.

MLB hopes to push back the amateur draft permanently, likely to July. Minor league teams losing affiliations may be able to stock rosters with unsigned players in a showcase environment.

Ahead of an agreement, MLB said it will raise the pay of minor leaguers next year.

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