As you may have heard, the Brewers’ Class Double-A affiliate, the Huntsville Stars, will be moving to Biloxi, Mississippi following the 2014 season. The move hasn’t been officially rubber-stamped yet, but in all likelihood it’s a done deal. Additionally, the Player Development Contract (PDC) that the Brewers and Stars have in place expires after this season. The way PDCs work is that they are signed or extended in two-year increments with an expiration year ending in an even number, i.e. 2012, 2014, 2016, etc. As such, a major league club and an affiliate can sign a deal for two years, four years, six years, or higher numbers ending in an even number. The Brewers’ current PDC with Huntsville was signed as a two-year deal in 2012, and will expire in September of this year.
For decades, the Huntsville Stars have called Joe Davis Stadium home, and 2014 will be the last year of play in what is the oldest regularly-used stadium in the Southern League. The Brewers have expressed their displeasure with Davis Stadium in the past, and Doug Melvin once referred to "a number of challenges on the player development front" in regard to the facilities at the stadium. Melvin won’t have to worry about these challenges much longer, however, as the Stars will be heading further south to Biloxi next year.
One possible positive scenario that could play out would be the Brewers and the front office of the Biloxi franchise working together to build excellent facilities and establish a strong bond that could hold for years. After all, this is going to be a brand new stadium. Perhaps Doug himself can put his fingerprints on the blueprints and add oh, a weight room here, an extra ice-tub there. When minor league sports franchises move to a new city, there is typically a groundswell of support and plenty of people fill seats within the first few years; out of curiosity, if nothing else. The excitement and revenues associated with a new team may grease the gears for the Crew to be able to mold their Double-A franchise in ways that they see fit. With a nice new brand (may I suggest Biloxi Redfish?) this team could become a mainstay of the Southern League.
With that said, I expect that the Brewers will make a play to sign on with a completely different Double-A franchise this fall. "Open season" on PDCs will be in September of this year, and there are usually a few weeks of frenzied renewals (for the most part) and a few new affiliations. In most years, the overwhelming majority of PDCs are extended, and a good number of them are inked in the winter or throughout the season. In 2012, for example, all Double-A PDCs were renewed, and there were only a handful of changes at the Triple-A and Single-A levels. When you take the long view, however, it’s clear that affiliation turnover is fairly common. The Brewers/Stars connection has existed since 1999, when ties were cut with the El Paso Diablos. Make no mistake; a sixteen year relationship is a long one by minor league standards.
So if the Crew choose to look elsewhere, what options do they have? Well, fifteen—at least in theory. As of this writing, there will be sixteen Double-A PDCs expiring in September, with Huntsville/Biloxi counting as one. As a reminder, each American and National League team has one and only one Double-A team, and affiliations may occur with teams in any of the three Double-A leagues: the Eastern, the Texas, and the Southern.
First off, we can assume that some of these fifteen other teams and their parent club will absolutely renew contracts. The Reading Fightin’ Phils, in fact, are actually owned by the Phillies. The Akron Rubberducks (Indians) and Bowie Baysox (Orioles) both play within the market of their parent club, and this is usually an ideal situation for both parties—in fact, both Akron and Bowie have been affiliated with their current parent clubs since the early nineties. Speaking of longevity, the Birmingham Barons and Chicago White Sox have an expiring PDC in 2014, but the two clubs been together continuously since 1986—one of the longer streaks in the minors. I would be shocked if the two teams parted ways, and I would not be able to look at my 1990 ProCard of Frank Thomas in a Barons cap the same way ever again.
Now that we’ve whittled it down to eleven, let’s look at some of the attributes that a major league club looks for in a farm club, and vice versa. As I alluded to earlier, the adequacy of training facilities is likely near the top of the list for GMs and other major league front office people. Crowd attendance is another attribute, and it can vary dramatically in the minor leagues, even within the same leagues. For example, the Midwest League’s Dayton Dragons perennially average north of 8,000 fans per game; while another MWL team, the Beloit Snappers, is lucky to hit 900 fans per game on average. Though we as baseball fans are supposed to believe that the crowd has little to no effect on the superhuman players, it is probably better practice for minor leaguers to be playing in front of larger crowds.
Geography is certainly another factor, but not always in the straight line/closest-is-best sort of way. Consider the fact that the Brewers have both of their top level farm clubs (Nashville and Huntsville) fairly close together. While I certainly don’t know the travel logistics of Melvin and the Brewers’ scouts, I can only assume that both sites are routinely visited on the same trip. Same-market affiliations are certainly the best for scouting convenience, fan building, and rehab stints (such as the Crew have with the Timber Rattlers) but this is not an option for the Brewers in Double-A. The leagues within the minors, and their geographic limitations, have mostly been in place since the mid twentieth century—they aren’t changing anytime soon. Double-A in particular is severely limited by having all 30 teams playing in the Northeast, Eastern Seaboard, Deep South, or greater Texas region. Some teams (Akron, Ohio and Springfield, Missouri come to mind) stretch these bounds a bit, but this is of little geographic use to teams playing on the west coast or in the upper Midwest. You won’t see an Eastern League team in Madison or a Texas League team in Green Bay any time soon.
As we explore the eleven options, we’ll assume that the Brewers will be renewing contracts with two other franchises (Nashville and Brevard County) that also have expiring PDCs in 2014. Since both of these clubs are angling for new stadiums, I probably should not make this assumption—but I’m going to anyway. We’re already casting a wide enough net. The eleven teams that we are looking at include three Eastern League teams (Richmond, Erie, New Britain) five Southern League teams (Tennessee, Chattanooga, Jackson, Jacksonville, Mobile) and three Texas League teams (San Antonio, Tulsa, Arkansas.)
In the Eastern league, I like the prospect of the Richmond Flying Squirrels the best. The Squirrels are a relatively new club, and they have drawn very well in the fairly large market of Richmond, VA. Their current contract is with San Francisco, so you’ve got to assume that the Giants will be exploring new options—to save on air fare, if nothing else. There’s an outside chance that the Orioles will make a play in order to expand their Virginia base, but my hunch is that they stick with their current club in Bowie, Maryland. The big x-factor is that the Squirrels are also building a new stadium; so again, it depends on whether that would be considered a plus or a minus to the Brewers. The budget for the Squirrels’ new stadium will be larger than Biloxi’s, so this could be a tantalizing option for the Brewers and for other clubs. The Erie SeaWolves are a somewhat lackluster team (in terms of attendance and brand visibility) and I expect they will renew with the Tigers, as they are roughly a geographic neighbor to Detroit, and the Pirates and Indians are already satisfied with other clubs. The New Britain Rock Cats of Connecticut have been affiliated with the Twins for nearly two decades, and I don’t expect that to change—particularly as New Britain has recently benefitted from Miguel Sano and soon, Byron Buxton.
Beyond Biloxi, there are some enticing options in the Southern League. Three potential teams in Tennessee could make for a mini Brewers colony in the state, assuming that the Sounds stay with the Crew. The Tennessee Smokies (near Knoxville) are a solid franchise. I’m pulling for them because they are one of only a handful of Double-A teams to broadcast live on MiLB.com, meaning us Wisconsinites could check in on the team—at least those of us nerdy enough to pay for a MiLB.com game streaming subscription. The Chattanooga Lookouts would be a welcome addition to the Brewers family. The Lookouts are a very old team that has existed in a few forms for about 100 years. Legend even has it that a woman playing for the Lookouts once struck out Babe Ruth in an exhibition game. The Lookouts are currently with the Dodgers, and as with all of these west coast teams, it’s assumed that they have some level of indifference with Double-A; with more emphasis put on Triple-A and the High Single-A California League. The Mariners’ contract with the Jackson (Tennessee) Generals is also up. Despite low attendance at Generals’ games, their stadium is fairly new and is close to Nashville. If it remains available, the Jacksonville Suns could be a strong option as well. The Florida city is large enough to fly into fairly easy, and is also a couple hours’ rental car ride from Brevard County, where the Crew’s High-A club plays. However, the Marlins are currently the Suns’ parent, and the other Double-A Florida-based team, in Pensacola, has a long-term deal with the Reds. Mobile, Alabama is another option, though I’ve heard that their parent club, the Diamondbacks, have made noises regarding the team’s facilities in much the same way that Melvin criticized the Stars.
The Brewers had a good thing going with the Texas League’s El Paso Diablos for many years, so could a return to the Lone Star state still be a good option? The San Antonio Missions are linked with the Padres for now, so the market could be up for grabs. San Antonio is a very large market, and it’s a neutral site for Milwaukee as the Brewers are not strong rivals with either the Astros or Rangers. Among the non-Texan Texas League teams, the Tulsa Drillers (Rockies) and Arkansas Travelers (Angels) may be coming up for grabs. I see all three of these Texas League teams (San Antonio, Tulsa, Arkansas) as solid options.
Assuming that certain teams will be unavailable, and assuming that Nashville remains with Milwaukee, and assuming that I have any clue what Melvin & Co. are thinking, here are my total-guess-top-ten options:
4. San Antonio
So who will be our new Double-A team? Hopefully we’ll be too busy watching meaningful baseball in September to notice a switch. Maybe Doug will forget about it and after the ticker-tape World Series parade through the November-cold Cream City streets, he’ll wake up to realize that he needs to find a new favorite hotel in Biloxi, Mississippi.