As is being widely reported, MLB has finalized its restructuring/downsizing of the minor leagues. Baseball America has a story on it, as well as an FAQ. All 120 of the teams to which MLB offered a ten-year professional development license have now accepted it.
Not everything is clear yet. For one thing, it may not even be called “minor league baseball” any more. According to BA, “For now, MLB has been calling the minors its player development system.” MLB probably wants to de-emphasize the notion that the minors should have their own existence.
It’s also unclear what the new leagues will be called. For now, they simply have geographic designations. Indianapolis will be in the Midwest Division of the imaginatively named “Triple-A East.” Altoona will be in the Southwest Division of Double-A Northeast. (There will also be a Northeast Division of Double-A Northeast.) Greensboro will be in the Southern Division of High-A East. And Bradenton will join the Western Division of Low-A Southeast. MLB is probably looking for some way to monetize the naming of these organizations. A Commissioner who thinks the World Series trophy is a piece of metal certainly wouldn’t care that there’s been an International League for about 120 years.
Everything no doubt is subject to change, but the AAA leagues are expected to begin play in April. The other full season leagues are expected to start May 4. The start dates for the Gulf Coast and Arizona Leagues are undetermined. There will be no playoffs.
It’s unclear whether fans will be able to attend. This will probably depend mainly on local restrictions, which currently are everything from nonexistent to no-attendance. Minor league franchises can’t operate without fans, since that means virtually no revenue. Maybe some teams will operate out of the parent club’s training facility, at least for a while.
Teams will be allowed to have 180 minor league players, not including DSL players. This leaves open the possibility that MLB may allow teams to operate two affiliates in rookie ball, but that hasn’t been established yet.
By my estimate, if the season started today the Pirates would have about 194 players in the US minors. Obviously, there are variables, the big one being the number of international signees who’ll make the jump to the US. I’ve accounted for the guys we know have been in fall instructs the last two years, but for several reasons, the actual number will likely be larger, maybe much larger. That means the Pirates will be doing a lot of downsizing this spring. It could be a tough time for organizational players.
In-season roster limits will apparently have more flexibility. According to BA,
If a team wants to have a 27-player Triple-A roster with extra bullpen arms, they can. If a team wants to have a six-man rotation in Low-A and wants to carry an extra starting pitcher on a 26-to-28 man roster, they are likely to be allowed to do so.
That last bit could help the Pirates, who will have an enormous number of interesting pitchers in the low minors.