Wednesday was the day Major League Baseball officially invited 120 minor-league teams to be part of a revamped development system. Dozens of teams are now without MLB clubs, including one of the Detroit Tigers affiliates.
Minor-league baseball affiliations have always been somewhat strange. MLB teams like the Detroit Tigers would sign minor-league clubs to player development contracts lasting two or four years, and every so often teams switched affiliates.
These swaps didn’t mean much to fans of the big-league teams, but for the millions of people who lived near minor-league towns it could be confusing and upsetting.
Take fans in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. From 1969 to 2006 the Tidewater/Norfolk Tides were the New York Mets Triple-A affiliate, but then in 2007 they became an Orioles farm team. It’s hard to suddenly become a fan of a new team, or stay connected to a club that now sends its Triple-A players to New Orleans or Las Vegas.
For their part, the Detroit Tigers have largely avoided those kinds of jarring transitions. Their four full-season affiliates have been in the same locations since 2001. But in the last year it became apparent Major League Baseball was unhappy with the minor-league system as a whole.
MLB wants fewer teams, more control, and a shorter draft. And MLB gets what it wants.
And so today the Detroit Tigers officially say goodbye to their New York-Penn League affiliate.
The Tigers have maintained a presence in the short-season New York-Penn League since 1989, with teams in Niagara Falls, Jamestown, and Oneonta, New York, and, beginning in 2010, Norwich, Connecticut.
The writing has been on the wall for a while, with reports about the end of short-season baseball surfacing back in April. It’s still a sad day for the great fans in Connecticut, and the employees of the recently rebranded Sea Unicorns. Hopefully the club can catch on in an Independent League, or perhaps as part of the new MLB Draft League.
Fortunately, the rest of the Detroit Tigers minor-league system has stayed largely intact. Let’s run down those affiliates.
Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens
The Detroit Tigers and Toledo Mud Hens have been linked since 1987, and today’s announcement keeps the teams together for the foreseeable future. It’s an ideal marriage. With Toledo about 60 miles from Detroit, players can get into town quickly in the event of an emergency. Plus, Fifth Third Field offers a great all-around atmosphere. Fans can enjoy a terrific view of the action from The Roost, watch rising prospects or rehabbing stars, and then head across the street to eat at Tony Packo’s.
Double-A Erie SeaWolves
This one was in some doubt, with Erie’s name showing up on an unofficial cut list in the New York Times last November. It didn’t make much sense, though, as the team had just landed a $12 million state grant to upgrade the facilities at UPMC Park. Thankfully things worked out, and Erie will remain Detroit’s Double-A affiliate, a role they’ve served since 2001. Let’s just hope it doesn’t snow much this year.
High-A West Michigan Whitecaps
This one is a bit of a change, but it makes a lot of sense. The West Michigan Whitecaps began in 1994, and for the last 26 years they’ve been a Low-A team. They’ve been affiliated with the Tigers for the last 23 seasons, and it’s definitely nice to have them back. The Whitecaps are a top-notch organization, the gameday experience there is excellent, and their play-by-play announcer is one of the best in the business. And now the fans in Comstock Park now get to see a slightly better brand of baseball.
Low-A Lakeland Flying Tigers
Lakeland has been the spring training home of the Detroit Tigers since 1936, and the Flying Tigers have been a Detroit minor-league affiliate since 1963. The drop down to Low-A makes a lot of sense, as young minor leaguers will now be able to live on site and use Detroit’s spring training facilities, meaning they won’t have to move in with a host family or deal with frigid West Michigan temperatures in early April. Also, they may feel a little less pressure, because the Flying Tigers typically get about 850 fans per game. That’s no knock on the fans. Summer baseball in Florida is brutal, with temperatures in the 90s and humidity that is, scientifically speaking, about 4000%. It’s like watching baseball inside an aquarium.
The rest of the Detroit Tigers minor league teams remain the same, with two rookie league teams set to play in Lakeland, and two more in the Dominican Republic.