Cardinals shopping for new minors affiliates?

Quad Cities' Modern Woodmen Park

What does it mean for the St. Louis Cardinals to be considering two minor league affiliate changes? Brian Walton breaks down the possibilities.

Over the past few months, major league organizations and minor league affiliates across the game have announced extensions of many current player development contracts (PDCs). These deals are usually for two additional years into the future and always on even-year boundaries.

These standard agreements bind a major league organization to a minor league franchise and vice-versa. With the St. Louis Cardinals having three such deals coming up this month, their lack of renewals was notable.

That changed on Tuesday, when the Cardinals and Triple-A Memphis announced the extension of their long-standing commitment for two more years (details here).

However, the Post-Dispatch reports that "the club is expected to announce today (Wednesday) it will not renew its relationship with Class A Quad Cities and Batavia."

Let's dig into what that means.

The background

Those MLB clubs wishing to explore alternatives are not allowed to do so until a defined period in September. From Wednesday, September 12 through Saturday, September 15, minor league baseball will provide a list of potential partners to those organizations and teams who had expressed formal interest in re-affiliating.

It is important to remember that organizations can only move to a location where a team is available in the desired league.

Between September 16 and 30, those interested in re-affiliation are free to discuss the possibility of a new relationship with all others designated as available.

However, despite the Post-Dispatch's warning, until a deal is done elsewhere, the possibility of the current alignments being continued remains. It all depends on whether or not the parties can find a better deal to their liking with another.

This uncertainty will not drag on indefinitely. If matches cannot be made voluntarily, Minor League Baseball has the right to assign partners by October 7. This is understood by all, increasing the sense of urgency to get new PDCs done.

The landscape

Now, let's look at the two leagues in question, the Midwest League (MWL) and New York-Penn League (NYPL).

Though the Cardinals could try to jump from their current leagues to another league at the same level, that seems less likely. The other comparable leagues are the South Atlantic League, or Sally League, which is comparable to the MWL, and the Northwest League, at the same classification as the NYPL.

Ownership could also theoretically relocate their franchise to another city, though those moves require much advance planning and approvals. No such moves are currently known.

The Midwest League

Half of the affiliations in the 16-team MWL are not locked down for next season. Though none of this is known with any degree of certainty, three of them may be more set to continue with current alignments. They are Burlington (A's), Clinton (Mariners) and Fort Wayne (Padres).

The four that may be most in play in addition to Quad Cities are Beloit (Twins), Cedar Rapids (Angels), Kane County (Royals) and Peoria (Cubs).

Rumors have the Twins unhappy with Beloit and interested in looking at alternatives. The possibility of the Cubs leaving Peoria and aligning with Kane County has been widely reported for weeks. That puts the Royals in need of a new home. Other rumblings have Cedar Rapids being unhappy with the parent Halos.

The Cardinals were previously in Peoria, from 1995 through 2004, before ownership opted to hook up with the Cubs instead. The Peoria Chiefs won one league title and had two other playoff appearances during that decade. While the potential of a St. Louis return has some fans excited, there is no way to know if there is any substance to the idea.

The Quad Cities River Bandits

St. Louis came to Davenport in 2005. Prior to that, Quad Cities had been aligned with both the Twins and Angels. Both are potentially in play now.

One scenario has the Cubs moving to Kane County, forcing the Royals to shift to Beloit, which would have the Twins heading to Cedar Rapids, the Angels returning to Quad Cities, and the Cards going back to Peoria. That is still nothing more than speculation.

Main Street Baseball, LLC, run by Dave Heller and Bob Herrfeldt, owns the River Bandits. The club plays in a stadium that is almost 80 years old, Modern Woodmen Park. All is not gloomy, as there have been a number of facility upgrades. The club set a new attendance record in 2012, despite averaging just ninth in attendance in the MWL.

The New York-Penn League

The short-season Class-A league has 14 franchises, of which only four are currently without PDCs for 2013 and 2014. Along with Batavia, they are Aberdeen (Orioles), Jamestown (Marlins) and State College (Pirates).

The Batavia Muckdogs

The situation in Batavia is far from optimal. In fact, the team is on long-term life support. The ballpark is old, attendance is perennially at the bottom of the league, the team continues to lose money and not surprisingly, the club has been for sale with no apparent prospects.

The Muckdogs are operating under a baseball version of a reverse mortgage. Local ownership, the Genesee County Baseball Club, is annually ceding a five percent share of its franchise to the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings in return for the latter group operating the team (and taking the associated annual operating losses).

With this arrangement, Rochester Community Baseball would seem to be in no hurry to see the team sold. After all, their equity increases each year at a rate higher than the operating loss they incur running the Muckdogs.

As this continues, local Batavia ownership will bleed off more and more of their equity in the team. Unless a white knight willing to lose money annually emerges, baseball is almost sure to leave the up-state New York town eventually.

The Cardinals did their part to try to improve the situation, providing two post-season teams in six years, including one league champion (2008).

Other NYPL options

Given the long-time relationship between the Orioles, Ripken Baseball and Aberdeen, I expect that partnership to continue. That leaves Jamestown and State College as possibilities.

The Jamestown situation in terms of fan support is almost as bad as Batavia, making the New York town an undesirable destination. This season, the Jammers were second-to-last in the NYPL, averaging barely 1,000 per game in attendance. The Muckdogs are in the cellar at 900, while the other 12 league clubs average four times that, over 3,600.

I believe the Spikes could/should be the Cardinals' target.

The State College Spikes

As part of the Nolan Ryan-led takeover in Texas, Chuck Greenberg was pushed out as Rangers CEO in March 2011. The Pittsburgh native has since been rumored to be interested in buying the Pirates, but the team is apparently not on the market.

One club Greenberg does own is the State College Spikes. Cardinals fans may remember that the Spikes were affiliated one year with the Cardinals, back in 2006. Previously, the franchise was located in New Jersey, sold and relocated to a brand new, state-of-the-art complex on the campus of Penn State, Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.

Prior to the 2007 season, despite the Cardinals apparently being satisfied with the relationship, St. Louis was pushed out of State College. The area ties to the Pirates made that affiliation change a logical one. The Cardinals were cut loose to hook up with the Muckdogs after the Phillies bailed out of Batavia.

Things have changed in Pennsylvania in the interim. After six years of consistently below-.500 baseball clubs provided by the Pirates, Spikes officials have been making noise all summer about looking for a new affiliation this fall.

The only season in which the Spikes posted a winning record was the year the Cardinals were there. Even so, they drew over 3,500 fans per game this season, almost four times the average Muckdogs home gate.

A return to State College seems the Cardinals' best bet to escape the decaying situation in Batavia, but the Greenberg ownership group would need to be agreeable, as well.

Stay tuned for additional developments on the PDC plans here at The Cardinal Nation, your best source for news and commentary about the St. Louis Cardinals system.



Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnationblog.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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