Reshuffling AAA baseball, worth a thought?

At the end of last season, two California League teams were moved to the East coast to join the Carolina League. The ten team CAL League shrunk to eight teams, while the Carolina League grew to a ten. The reason for this move was purely financial, as the two teams that were moved, the High Desert Mavericks and the Bakersfield Blaze, were the worst drawing teams in the league. When we are looking to costs, perhaps, a reshuffle of AAA baseball should be considered too.

With the demise of the American Association in 1997, the teams that played there were appointed to the Pacific Coast League and the International League. Before the demise of the AA, the Pacific Coast League was purely located in the western part of the United States. But with the expansion, six teams were added to the ten-team league.The following teams were added to the league: The Iowa Cubs, the Omaha Royals (now StormChasers), the New Orleans Zephyrs (now Baby Cakes), the Memphis Redbirds, the Nashville Sounds and the Oklahoma City RedHawks (now Dodgers). For a team like the Tacoma Rainiers, the distance to New Orleans is a whopping 2,600 miles, a distance that must be covered by plane (according to MiLB rules that say that distances above 500 miles must be covered by plane). So the Rainiers have to do almost all of their traveling by plane as all other clubs are more than 500 miles away.The clubs are much more widespread than those in the International League as you can see on the map below. Every club on the left of the line is playing in Pacific Coast League and every club on the right of the line is playing in the International League.

pcl

This 500-mile mark can really be a problem. Take the Reno Aces for example. If they have to play in Salt Lake City, they have to travel by plane, even though the distance exceeds the 500-mile mark by 18 miles…

Thanks to all this air travel, the costs for an average PCL team add up quite a lot.
The departures of the flights of minor league teams are as early as possible, just to make sure that the team will make it in the opponent’s stadium in time. In some cases, it is possible to travel by bus. For example, as the Tacoma Rainiers have played the Las Vegas 51s, they can travel to Fresno or Reno by bus depending on the schedule.

When you look at the schedule of the 2017 PCL season, you will see that the Tacoma Rainiers will play both the Memphis Redbirds and the Nashville Sounds only once in a series of four games in Tacoma. Last year, the Rainiers were the road team vs these two teams from Tennesse. It is very likely that this way of scheduling is used to cut (travel) costs too.

But the travel is not only very costly for the clubs, it is also very tiring for the players. If the Rainiers move east, they pass three time zones (including their own) so with a five hour flight to New Orleans, add two hours of the other two time zones. It may happen that they arrive only a few hours before game time, battling a jet lag. With the brutal schedule in the minor leagues, where players do not have as many days off like MLB players do, those trips must be killing. Because of the air travel, it is very well possible that games must be postponed because the equipment of the road team doesn’t arrive in time.

This blog contacted the Tacoma Rainiers to find out what the travel costs are and what the club does to save money at this part of the balance sheet. Quite understandable, the Rainiers were not willing to provide the amounts of travel costs as it is strictly confidential. But they were willing to tell how they try to save money in this area (a big thanks goes out to Brett Gleason and Ashley Schutt of the Rainiers):

“We try to take advantage of low fares and book our flights as far in advance as possible. All of our airline tickets are purchased through the airlines’ group desks which offer some savings and gives us the flexibility to change names later. If multiple airlines offer similar flights we’ll look at both the cost of the ticket and the airlines excess baggage policies to determine our best option. We aren’t always able to choose the lowest fare due to the game schedule and giving the team the best chance of making it to the next city at the best time.”

To cut the travel costs a bit more and to make traveling less exhausting for players, perhaps it would be a good idea to move the teams from Memphis and Nashville to the International League; especially when you know that MiLB teams handle their own travel costs. Geographically this move would make a lot of sense since the two cities are closer to the nearest IL team than to the nearest PCL team.

Since minor league baseball is also a cold and hard business, perhaps it is time to move those two teams. Or, even more radical, perhaps a third AAA league should be established again. One that serves the Midwest of the United States from the Canadian Border to the Gulf of Mexico. In that way, you can create three AAA leagues with ten teams each. Of course, travel costs will still be a lot for PCL teams and an eventual league in the Midwest, but it both saves them some money that doesn’t need to be spent on air fares without traveling from Tacoma to Memphis or New Orleans.

Of course, you have to realize that if a third league is established again, those teams may even need to travel more to get to a number of 144 games per season. A league must be attractive for fans and it is not attractive if one team plays five teams of its own division about 50 times. You have to find a schedule in which each team will face the other on a regular basis.

But nevertheless, it may be worth a thought.

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