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Joe Posnanski and Fixing the Minor Leagues

Yesterday, Joe Posnanski posted an article on his blog about freeing the minor leagues from their major league affiliations as a way to improve the baseball experience. I'm not familiar with Posnanski or his work, but a Harrisburg Senators blogger I follow on Twitter sent out a link to the article and, curious, I took a look. Posnanski's argument is that the minor leagues prioritize developing talent over playing competitive baseball, with difficult consequences for the health of the sport as a whole:

The sole purpose of the minor leagues is to develop players for the major leagues. That’s all. It’s not to build interest for baseball. It’s not to develop fan bases. It’s not to give fans exciting and competitive baseball to watch. Charlotte doesn't have a competitive baseball team. Charlotte has a training facility, and people are allowed to come watch.

Then I remembered reading an article earlier in the year on Baseball Nation about the problems in the minors, and it turns out that Posnanski made that argument there as well:

There are so many towns around the country that have baseball, but they don't really have a baseball team. They have a team that is driven by the major league team, by the major league needs. So if you have a really good pitcher, you go out to the game, you bring your kids, and the guy has thrown six shutout innings and he's pitching great, and he's not there in the 7th because he's on a pitch count because of the major leagues, he's not really yours. He's not a part of your community, a part of your town. He might get pulled out at any time. It would be better for baseball if there was great connection to teams in all of the little [towns], not just in Cleveland and New York and Chicago, but Des Moines and Omaha and Austin...

The argument was intriguing to me. I have two minor league teams near me, an unaffiliated team in York and an affiliated team in Harrisburg. York's general manager does everything a major league GM does — build the team, contract with the players, etc. Harrisburg's general manager receives his players from the Washington Nationals organization. York has to pay their players. The Washington Nationals pay Harrisburg's players. York's players can, and do, play multiple seasons for the team. It would be a rare player that sees Harrisburg more than two seasons. York's players are in some cases community fixtures. Harrisburg's players, not so much.

I wondered if that might point the way to a solution to Posnanski's problem of how to build ties between the affiliated minors and the community. Perhaps the solution is not to go the full-independent route and have the team's GM build the entire team. The parent club still needs to have a role in player development, and they would have prospects that they would want to control and develop. Perhaps a hybrid roster system, one in which both the major league parent and the local team have a role in building the roster, is the way forward to making the minor leagues relevant in the local communities and building local interest and connections in the team.

Here's what I have in mind. What if, in the hybrid system, at levels above Rookie and Short Season (and possibly Low-A) the minor league team was only provided 15 to 18 players for the roster by the parent club and the minor league team had to contract the rest on their own. The minor league general manager would have to make personnel decisions that directly affected his team and the product on the field. A minor league team in this scenario could have players who could remain with the team for three, four, five years, even through affiliation changes (since their contract would be with the minor league club, not the parent club). This would shift what's called the "organizational player" (a non-prospect who fills a roster role) from the major league team and onto the minor league team, tying these players to the community instead of the parent club. And if a major league club wanted one of these locally-contracted players, they could purchase the contract from the minor league club, exactly as was done in the pre-affiliation system.

Some minor league teams might find the financial situation — where they now have to pay 7 to 10 minor leaguers — difficult to navigate. It would certainly alter the financial model the affiliated minors have been built upon. It would be a short-term shock, but it would have long-term rewards in terms of building fan interest and loyalty. And this wouldn't totally up-end the system on which the player development process has been built for the last half-century.

Is anything remotely like this likely to happen, though? Probably not. It was, however, an interesting thought experiment to ponder.

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