There is no question that Minor League Baseball is part of the fabric of small-town American society. In many ways, Minor League Baseball keeps maintains the life in many small towns and communities across the country, as not only do Minor League teams give small towns and cities the baseball excitement they crave in the absence of a Major League team, but it also gives the denizens of these communities a glimpse into the future of a club’s Major League organization. As a student at Gonzaga, I remember seeing Rougned Odor play for the Spokane Indians at Avista Stadium. Little did I know that Odor would have a great career for the Rangers and be responsible for this great moment in recent baseball history:
And that is just the tip of the iceberg. I remember as a kid, when the Indians were an affiliate of the Kansas City Royals, George Brett coming to talk to a group of us cub scouts at Avista Stadium. I remember watching Barry Zito pitch in Sacramento with the Rivercats before he ended up winning a Cy Young with the Oakland A’s. Hell…I remember running a Minor League Baseball blog concentrating on the San Francisco Giants, and writing about Jorge Lopez before the Royals acquired him in the Mike Moustakas trade. Even though Royals baseball remains my primary passion and commitment, I have a soft spot for Minor League Baseball, and the announcement they made today definitely struck a chord with me, as well as other MiLB fans across this country.
Honestly, the cancellation of the Minor League season was to be expected. Considering the dire financial situations of many Minor League teams currently, and the lack of other alternative revenue sources beyond attendance (they do not have the lucrative TV contracts that MLB teams have), it was only a matter of time before the Minor League season cancelled their 2020 slate. In fact, the writing was on the wall for the MiLB 2020 season when teams started to call up top prospect to their 60-man squads, even though it was unlikely that they would play at the MLB level this season. That was particularly evident in Nick Pratto, Seuly Matias, and Bobby Witt, Jr. being named to the Royals 60-man roster, even though it is likely they will not touch the grass and dirt at Kauffman Stadium once the 2020 season begins in late July.
Honestly, the future of Minor League Baseball is concerning. Not just for the league as a whole, but specifically the teams and players in the Kansas City Royals Minor League farm system. After all, with this announcement, as well as the shortened five-round Rule 4 Draft, it seems like Minor League Baseball may be seeing some sweeping changes in the near future.
And unfortunately, that might not necessarily benefit the Royals or its fanbase.
In this current climate of baseball, the farm system is one way for small-market teams like the Kansas City Royals to compete in Major League Baseball. Not only is Kansas City not a “destination spot” for free agents (I mean, it’s hard to turn down big cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and New York), but the Royals do not have the payroll flexibility to compete with teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Angels, and Giants when it comes to free agents. And that is fine, and something Royals fans have come to accept over time. It is the nature of Major League Baseball today, and many small-market teams, including the Royals, have found ways to find success despite an obviously an uneven, and perhaps unfair, system.
That being said, no one believes more in Minor League Baseball than Royals General Manger Dayton Moore. He not only cut his teeth as a scouting and player development guru in the Atlanta Braves organization, but he carried those principles with him to Kansas City when he was hired as GM in 2006, which helped him build a Word Series-winning squad in 2015. Immediately once Moore was hired, he did all he could to boost the Royals farm system: he added teams; he pushed for ownership to pay over slot for certain players; he made sure to invest and scout more in Latin America; he focused on player development throughout the system, etc. Maybe the Royals weren’t a perfect organization when it came to Minor League development, but it was obvious that they valued the farm system and their prospects more than a large number of other MLB organizations.
In other words, the Royals developed an identity: if they were going to win at the Major League level, it was going to come through the Draft, International Signings, and player development in their farm system. The Royals were not just going to acquire talent, but indoctrinate them in the “Royals Way” culture and see the fruits of that process blossom at the Major League level with a winning club.
Furthermore, Moore seemed to reiterate the importance of the Minor Leagues in a comment this summer leading up to the MLB Draft, shortly after the Royals announced that they would continue to pay their Minor Leaguers throughout the year:
As stated before, the Minor League investment hasn’t always transitioned to automatic success for Kansas City. For every Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas there is a Chris Dwyer and Brett Eibner who fails to live up to the hype. That being said, the Royals have developed a priority as an organization, and that has been evident over the past couple of years, as the Royals try to rebuild this organization into a winner again. The Royals won’t sacrifice the long term for the short term anymore, or at least not through this rebuilding phase as they try to bring Kansas City the competitive squad they were used to seeing at Kauffman Stadium from 2013-2017.
And yet, this plan could get scuttled with the future of MiLB so hazy. Going into 2020, the Burlington Royals, Idaho Falls Chukars, and Lexington Legends were pointed out as candidates for contraction, and this latest cancellation could only be the nail in the coffin. After all, a lost season of revenue will only make it tougher for these organizations to stay afloat, especially in an economy where people are struggling to hold onto their jobs and livelihoods. Yes, Minor League Baseball is important to the fabric of Americana. That being said, it’s hard to justify spending tickets and money on Minor League Baseball games, especially lower level Minor League games, when it’s hard to pay for the rent, mortgage and basic subsidies.
The elimination of these three teams without a doubt would impede the Royals rebuilding process and then some. Just this past year, the Royals won three minor league championships, which included titles in the Dominican Summer League, the South Atlantic League (back-to-back actually as they won in 2018), and the Carolina League (they also finished a runner up in the Appalachian League). The Royals farm system has been competitive again, and though it has been primarily in the lower levels, that is a good sign for the future of the Royals organization. Teams and players feed off of a winning culture, and if they are getting that in the Minor Leagues, then it is possible that they will be able to transition that to the Major League level. It may not happen overnight, but over time, that winning culture will carry over to Kansas City, much like it did in 2013, when the Royals enjoyed a five-years span of competitiveness.
That being said, that Royals “process” is being threatened. The Royals have thrived with multiple rookie league teams and a Single-A squad, and now, those three teams could be eliminated by 2021. And hence..all that drafting, development, and scouting could go to waste, which would only thrust the Royals back to page one in the rebuilding process, much to the dismay of frustrated Kansas City sports fans. For a team with a history of frustration like the Royals, that cannot happen. They cannot afford to lose ground, especially considering that it took 29 years in between playoff appearances from 1985 to 2014. Royals fans, especially those basking in Chiefs mania, won’t be patient to wait as long again.
The future of the Royals Minor League clubs will be interesting to follow at the end of this summer and beginning of fall. The cancellation of this Minor League season is a punch to the gut for sure to many baseball fans, but hopefully, the Royals can find a way to preserve their squads and the future of their farm system in its current format. The Burlington Royals, Idaho Falls Chukars, and Lexington Legends are key components to the culture of the Kansas City Royals organization, and it would be sad to see them go away after this recently cancelled season due to the COVID pandemic.
Of course, that is easier said and done. At the end of the day, Burlington, Idaho Falls, and Lexington have to prove that baseball is feasible in their communities, and that isn’t always easy to do in small-town communities. Could baseball still have existed in these cities beyond 2020 had COVID not happened? Does it make economic sense for the Royals to have as many Minor League teams as they do? And can this method of investing and trusting the Minor League system produce fruit again for the Royals at the Major League level?
That is yet to be determined, and this lost 2021 season doesn’t help. Yes, we all remember how great 2014 and 2015 was as Royals fans. But at the end of the day, the Royals need to keep moving forward, and if they aren’t seeing talent come out of their lower levels, it makes sense to question how effective this current model is when it comes to developing Major League talent.
There is no doubt that Minor League Baseball will be undergoing some massive changes this off-season across the board, which can be both good and bad. They will need to make some adjustments in order to preserve baseball in smaller communities. As of now, the future of baseball in Burlington, Idaho Falls, and Lexington is unclear. That being said, it is also likely to think that Moore and the Royals are fighting for their existence and their importance not just to the Royals organization, but to the fabric of Minor League Baseball in general. Sure, we could live in a society where the only minor league lower level ball being played is in the Arizona Rookie League…but would that be the best thing for the Royals and the overall state of the game? That is hard to determine.
The Royals are showing signs that positive progress is on its way in Kansas City, and the Minor Leagues, especially the lower levels, has been a key factor in that progression. And thus, as Royals fans, we should hope that the cancellation of this 2020 MiLB season is just a blip, and not a sign of things to come for the Royals organization.
And that is because baseball needs to be continued in Burlington, Idaho Falls, and Lexington. Not just for the Royals and their chances of winning in the near future, but for Minor League Baseball fans everywhere. As a kid growing up in Spokane, I remember not only how fun Indians baseball was to watch as a kid, but I recall how much it meant to our community in Eastern Washington, even if it was just a short-season Rookie League.
After all, professional baseball is still professional baseball at the end of the day. It would be sad to lose this experience in small communities and deprive a generation of baseball fans (Royals fans especially) of this experience just to save a buck .