Washington Nationals outfielder Michael A. Taylor last season played 57 games with Double-A Harrisburg, 53 games with Washington, and none in Triple-A.
That seems odd, unless you recall that the Nationals’ Triple-A team was in Fresno, Calif.
Washington had no intention of stationing Taylor, a valued big league backup with extensive experience in the majors, 2,800 miles away from D.C., so he went to play Double-A in Pennsylvania.
Taylor is the kind of player who needs to be on alert and relatively close to the big league club so he can fill in when needed. He ended up playing in eight postseason games, and went 7 for 21, for the eventual world champions.
Major League Baseball would like to strike those problematic Washington-Fresno arrangements by tightening its grasp on the minor leagues. The Richmond Flying Squirrels for 11 seasons have been the Double-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, another odd geographic partnership.
These affiliations happened because MLB at this time does not directly manage the relationships between its organizations and minor league franchises.
Minor league ownership groups and big league front offices agree to terms, and it’s like a game of musical chairs played every couple of years.
The Nationals had no choice but Fresno because that’s the only Triple-A city that didn’t have a player-development contract with a parent club. The Nats’ Triple-A team was based in Syracuse. The New York Mets bought that franchise and put their Triple-A team there, forcing the Nats to Fresno in 2018.
This weird system, and league compositions in the minors, may change before Thanksgiving.
The contract that defines the relationship between MLB and Minor League Baseball expires in September, though negotiations are likely to extend beyond then. Because MLB has other concerns at the moment — guiding each of its clubs through a 60-game regular season during a pandemic — there are no known negotiations currently taking place between MLB and minor league representatives.
Minor league franchises are therefore on hold, bracing for a fresh setup but not having a clue how it will look.
Early August is generally the time that minor league teams release their schedules for the subsequent season, but the Flying Squirrels, for instance, won’t know what league they’ll be in, or which MLB organization will be their parent club, until MLB decides to carry on with some version of the current model, or establishes a new system.
“The disturbing thing from a minor league/major league standpoint, the truly disturbing and disheartening thing is, absolutely nothing is new,” Lou DiBella, the Flying Squirrels president and managing general partner, said Friday. “No affiliations, no nothing. Our contract runs out in September and we don’t have a new contract.”
After the Atlanta Braves moved their Triple-A team to Gwinnett County, Ga., in the fall of 2008, stadium leases around the Triple-A International League prohibited any Triple-A team from setting up shop in Richmond. Minor League Baseball eventually designated Richmond as a Double-A, Eastern League market, paving the way for the Flying Squirrels’ landing. The franchise relocated from Connecticut.
Richmond cannot return to Triple-A status until Minor League Baseball reclassifies it, or MLB takes over supervision of the minors and redesignates Richmond.
The Nats and the organization from which they sprang — the Montreal Expos — have been affiliated with Double-A Harrisburg for 30 years. Harrisburg remade its stadium, 6,302-seat FNB Field, during 2009 and 2010, investing $45 million. There isn’t much difference, in distance, between Harrisburg and Richmond for the Nationals. Washington is 108 miles from Richmond, and 119 miles from Harrisburg.
Richmond might have a better shot at becoming the Nats’ Triple-A affiliate, though The Diamond, which opened in 1985, isn’t much of an attraction. There could be a new ballpark in Richmond in a few years, however, if VCU follows through with its plan to build one on Hermitage Road.