Bishop, Stewart oppose MLB plan that may cut Ogden, Orem from minor league system



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OGDEN — It’s become abundantly clear over the past month that two of Utah’s three affiliated minor league baseball teams are in jeopardy as Major League Baseball continues to negotiate its agreement with Minor League Baseball, which is set to expire in September 2020.

Negotiations have been ongoing, but not extremely secretive since Baseball America turned the entire minor league baseball world upside down on Oct. 18 by reporting that MLB was seeking to cut 42 minor league organizations across the country.

The reported cuts likely include the Ogden Raptors and Orem Owlz, as well as the other teams in the short-season Pioneer League and many others across the country, according to the New York Times. Any final changes won’t affect the 2020 season.

Officials from both sides were scheduled to meet face-to-face Thursday for the first time since MLB’s proposal was leaked, Jeff Lantz, MiLB senior director of communications, told KSL.com. They will meet again in three weeks as they work to come to an agreement.

Lantz said Minor League Baseball opposes the idea of cutting teams from the minor league system.

The controversial plan has gathered enough attention that a bipartisan congressional letter — authored by Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Massachusetts, and Rep. David McKinley, R-West Virginia, and signed by more than 100 congressional leaders, including Utah Republican representatives Rob Bishop and Chris Stewart — was sent to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred Tuesday, asking him to reconsider what they described as a “radical” plan.

"Tens of millions of fans attend Minor League Baseball games each season. These professional baseball clubs are vital components of our communities because they provide affordable, family-friendly entertainment to members of our communities, support scores of allied businesses, employ thousands of individuals, donate millions of dollars in charitable funds, and connect our communities to Major League Baseball," the letter says.

So, what is this plan and why are the Owlz and Raptors at risk of being eliminated?

Understanding the proposal

MLB has had an agreement in place with Minor League Baseball for more than a century that dictates how the system works between minor league affiliates of major league affiliates. All minor league clubs run independently from their MLB affiliations. However, the MLB parent organizations supply and pay players for the minor league teams.

The current agreement, which was updated around 2010, expires at the end of the 2020 season and MLB is looking to make changes to that agreement.

As detailed by the New York Post last week, the New York-Penn, Appalachian, Northwest and Pioneer leagues would be cut from the agreement. Both the Ogden Raptors and Orem Owlz participate in the Pioneer League, which is a short-season league comprised of mostly recently-drafted players from major league teams with affiliates in the league. The Raptors and Owlz are affiliated with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Los Angeles Angels, respectively.

Lantz explained some of the cuts were due to ending short-season leagues, while others were meant to curb travel costs. Among the possible cuts is the Chattanooga Lookouts, which has continued a baseball tradition in Chattanooga, Tennessee, since the 1880s.

In addition, the New York Post reported the league’s player entry draft would be moved from June to August — after the college baseball season instead of during it — and cut to just 20 rounds. All picks would sign contracts for the following season instead of participating in rookie-level leagues, like the Pioneer League, after the draft.

The number of farmhands, a nickname for athletes who play on minor league teams, in a major league system would be capped for the first time at 150 players, and changes would be made to ensure minor league clubs are closer together to trim travel costs. Minor league clubs would also have to upgrade facilities for players, Lantz said.

It’s unclear if any of the other proposed changes will in any way affect the Salt Lake Bees, which are the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate and Utah’s only other minor league franchise.

What happens if the Owlz and Raptors are cut from MiLB?

It is worth noting that if the Raptors or Owlz are cut off from the minor league system, that’s not entirely a death sentence for either organization. However, it would make it trickier for them to operate following the 2020 season.

If cut from MiLB, the Raptors and Owlz would have to find a league independent from MLB and sign its own players. Schedules would likely also be different because the teams wouldn’t have to wait for the MLB Draft to end before any season begins. The upcoming Pioneer League season begins June 19, 2020, but an independent league could start sooner in a year than that.

Baseball America reported there could be a “Dream League” set up for baseball players not drafted, and there would be more undrafted baseball players if the number of rounds is sliced in half. It’s possible the Owlz and Raptors could be added to that.

In a statement on the Raptors’ Facebook page, the team acknowledged the confusion existent with news reports about proposed cuts.

"MLB and MiLB are still early in the negotiations, and thus, nothing has been finalized and may not be for quite some time. Although MLB has stated publicly that their main concerns are facility standards, club travel, and proximity to an MLB affiliate, the Raptors currently meets MLB’s facility standards and has good travel within the Pioneer League," the team said in the statement. "We recognize the press surrounding this is hard to ignore, but we want to stress that it is business as usual for the Ogden Raptors in 2020 and we be playing Professional Baseball in 2021 and beyond."

Political reaction

Lantz said he was surprised that MLB’s proposal, which had been sent months ago but was leaked in the media mid-October, would be controversial enough for there to be a congressional letter disapproving it.

"Anything that gets bipartisan support these days is a good thing," he said, adding that it might bode well for MiLB’s case as it negotiates with MLB.

The letter not only mentioned the potential impact to more than three dozen communities, but also reminded Manfred of the congressional help baseball has received over the years.

"Reducing the number of Minor League Baseball clubs and overhauling a century-old system that has been consistently safeguarded by Congress is not in the best interest of the overall game of baseball, especially when Major League Baseball’s revenues are at all-time highs," the letter added.

KSL.com has reached out to both Bishop’s and Stewart’s offices for comment.

As for the current negotiations, Lantz said he was hopeful an agreement would be reached that would save minor league teams from being cut and urged fans to be patient as the long process of negotiations plays out.

KSL.com also reached out to officials from the Salt Lake Bees and Orem Owlz for this story, but both organizations declined to comment on the current negotiations.

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant by the way of Rochester, New York.

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