The contraction of Minor League Baseball has reportedly been in the works for well over a year now, and since the Professional Baseball Agreement between MLB and MiLB expired at the end of September, a number of changes have already occurred. A full list of partnerships has yet to be reported, but there will be only 120 affiliated minor league teams in 2021 and moving forward, or four full-season clubs for each MLB franchise. Some former independent teams have become affiliates — the Somerset Patriots, Sugar Land Skeeters, and reportedly the St. Paul Saints — while many former MiLB clubs have become college wood-bat teams. Today, it was announced what the future would be for the Rocky Mountain Vibes, formerly the rookie-level affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers:
It's official... baseball is BACK in Colorado Springs in 2021 and we are here to stay!!! The Vibes are alive, and we look forward to seeing you all back at the ballpark in 2021 and beyond!! pic.twitter.com/rz7Qgg5b4q— Rocky Mountain Vibes (@VibesBaseball) November 30, 2020
The Vibes, along with the seven other members of the former rookie-level Pioneer League, will continue to operate as independent baseball franchises. The Pioneer League will now become the fourth independent “Partner League” with MLB, joining the existing Atlantic League, American Association, and Frontier League. The move to independent status ensures that there will still be professional baseball in those Mountain West markets, and the league will reportedly get a “kickstart” from MLB as they begin to operate on their own.
Along with the Vibes, the Pioneer League will continue to consist of the Billings Mustangs, Grand Junction Rockies, Great Falls Voyagers, Idaho Falls Chukars, Missoula Paddleheads (formerly the Osprey), Odgen Raptors, and Northern Colorado Owlz (formerly located in Orem). They will play a 92-game season that will run from approximately Memorial Day through Labor Day, give or take. That’s up from the 76-game schedule that was played when it was an affiliated minor league. The Atlantic League typically plays a 140-game schedule, the American Association 100, and the Frontier League 96.
While the Pioneer League was a low-level minor league where the average age was around 20-21 and many players were fresh out of the draft, it remains to be seen what level of competition this new independent Pioneer League be designed to attract. In all likelihood, though, fans in these markets will be treated to a higher level of pro ball than they were getting before. Based on their various rules regarding player procurement, the current hierarchy is generally:
- Atlantic League — mostly veteran players
- American Association — mix of veterans and early-career players
- Frontier League — mostly early-career players; soft age limit of 28
Pioneer League teams have generally drawn well, including an average of nearly 2,500 fans per game in 2019. That compares well with the current indy ball scene, where the median team in 2019 had about 2,300 fans turn out per night.
The Vibes “inaugural” season was in 2019, with the club finishing 32-43 during their lone year in the Pioneer League. Prior to that rebrand, the team operated as the Colorado Springs Sky Sox, a member of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League from 1988-2018. The Sky Sox were Milwaukee’s highest MiLB affiliate from 2015-2018 before moving down to rookie ball and continuing as a partner with the Brewers for one more year.