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  • GameDay Program Flashback: Rethinking the Farm System

    Parker Hageman

    As Parker Hageman and I watched the Saints' debut as the Twins' AAA affiliate last night at CHS field, he reminded me that one of the first stories he ever wrote for GameDay Program and Scorecard concerned the challenges the Twins face in getting their minor league parks closer together. I dug it up for us old-timers. It was originally published in September of 2008. That's how long we've been talking about this. - JB

    This past offseason, the Atlanta Braves announced plans to terminate their 42-year minor-league relationship with the city of Richmond, Virginia.  The plan is to relocate the Richmond Triple-A affiliate 469 miles to the south.  So starting with the 2009 season, the Braves’ most major-league ready prospects will be just a 45-minute drive away from Turner Field.  The Braves, who already have a Class-A affiliate in Rome, Georgia – roughly 70 miles northwest of Atlanta – will have two of their farm clubs within a two-hour drive of their fan base. 

    Similarly, the Philadelphia Phillies recently moved their top affiliate from Ottawa to Allentown, PA, a nice complement to the organization’s Double-A affiliate, also located in-state in the city of Reading. With these teams grouped so closely, in theory a Phillies fan can spend a weekend and just two hours and forty-five minutes in the car and watch three levels of Phillie talent. On the opposite side of the Manifest Destiny, the Seattle Mariners have nursed a pair of 13-year relationships with both the Class-AAA Tacoma Rainiers (33 miles south of Safeco Field) and the Class-A Everett AquaSox (30 miles north of Safeco Field). This proximity has encouraged local blog communities such as USS Mariner and Lookout Landing to organize outings to inspect the developing Mariner talent first-hand.

    For diehard fans in Twins Territory, it is hard not to be envious. In comparison to a Braves fan who will be able to see up-and-coming prospects perform in Atlanta's northern suburbs starting next year, an ambitious Twins fan in Minneapolis or Saint Paul must drive nearly 17 hours to catch a glimpse of the team's Triple-A prospects in Rochester, New York. Can the Twins organization consider following the path of teams like Atlanta and Philadelphia?

    Notable Braves blogger (Sabernomics.com) and associate professor at Kennesaw State University J.C. Bradbury cited several economical positives regarding the geographical convenience of these farm clubs. First, travel time for scouts and coaches to analyze a potential call-up is greatly reduced. Second, once a player is needed due to injury or general promotion, the cost of getting that player from point A to point B is reduced significantly. In the case of the Braves, Phillies and Mariners, each have two of their clubs within manageable driving distance, thus reducing the cost of shuffling players around. The final but possibly most important reason for clustering the ball clubs is that it creates a commitment to players by the fans region-wide.

    Not long ago, hometown fans received brief snippets of information and weekly reports on players down on the farm through the local paper. Since the proliferation of the Internet, however, minor-league statistics have been readily available to every rube with a modem. Now it appears that major-league organizations are discovering the added benefit of allowing the average fan to see these players before their very eyes. If every Twins draft pick spent a season in St. Cloud, Fargo or Mankato before ascending to the other levels, an investment of sorts would be made between the spectator and the organization. That spectator may be enticed to visit the new Twins stadium when the player was eventually promoted. A relationship is created.

    But there are several barriers that impede the Twins from easily replicating this system. Unlike the Atlanta Braves who own the Richmond Braves franchise, the Twins are only in a partnership with the majority of their farm teams (they own rookie-league Elizabethton outright). The Braves are able to move their club on a whim. For the Twins to adjust their alignment, they would need to wait for one of the Player Development Contracts to expire and simultaneously find a community that would be accommodating to the new club.

    Another issue is that the sparsely populated Midwest region limits the encroachment of almost all of the leagues (minus the Midwest League, of course) which are situated on the dense coasts. The Class-AA Eastern League's closest team to Minnesota is the Akron Aeros, a 12-hour drive from the Twin Cities (but a 45-minute drive for Cleveland Indians fans to see their second-highest farm club). Therefore, relocating the New Britain Rock Cats to the similarly sized Duluth-Superior area would greatly increase the travel budget, completely negating the entire purpose of saving money if every road trip takes a minimum 12-hour bus ride.

    Likewise, the International League, home of the Twins’ current Triple-A affiliate Rochester Red Wings, has a minimum nine-hour drive from Minnesota to the nearest competitor (Indianapolis Indians). Obviously Des Moines would be a great city to host a Twins affiliate, as it is just three hours and 40 minutes south on Interstate 35 and has drawn 14,000 people to one game. The problem, however, is that the Player Development Contract between the Iowa Cubs and the Chicago Cubs is signed through 2012.

    The Twins do have one affiliate that would benefit from relocation. In August 2007, the Twins and the Beloit Professional Baseball Association (BPBA), purveyors of the Low-A Snappers, agreed to a two-year extension on their P.D.C., ensuring the partnership would last through the 2010 season. The Snappers’ home ballpark, Harry Pohlman Field, seats just 3,501 in a league where most of the facilities have around 1,500 more seats per stadium. The Beloit ballpark has been renovated several times – adding box seats and other amenities – but lacks the revenue generators that flashier, newer ballparks have. Recent attempts to get a new stadium built in nearby Janesville, Wisconsin have been thwarted.

    Since the Beloit Snappers are community-owned (like the Green Bay Packers) the sale of the team appears to be an unlikely outcome. So, for a franchise to come to Minnesota, an entrepreneur would need to purchase an existing team (the most recent Midwest League team sold for $6.2 million in 2006), wait until the Twins' P.D.C. with the Beloit organization expired, and then relocate the purchased team to a community closer to the Twin Cities.

    One appealing location is the recently proposed stadium in Burnsville, Minnesota (25 minutes south of the Metrodome). Two private financiers, Tony Pettit and Terry Deroche, have submitted preliminary designs to the city of Burnsville for a 7,300-seat ballpark to be constructed without government assistance and potentially ready for independent Northern League games by 2009. Dakota County, Minnesota's third most populous county with over 380,000 residences, also has strong economic base to support a minor league franchise, just like Gwinnett County in Georgia.

    Bringing a Low-A Midwest League team into the Twin Cities would be a good reward to local Twins fans, providing them with a low-cost alternative to what is sure to be an increasingly expensive ticket at the taxpayer-funded stadium. The team would reap dividends from the residual marketing effect of having future major-league players develop just south of the Minnesota River while saving on travel costs for scouts and coaches. And maybe in 2013 the Twins can finally wrestle Des Moines away from the Cubs, and turn I-35 into a solid corridor of Twins baseball.

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