Five teams to form ‘draft league’ as MLB’s consolidation of minor leagues nears conclusion

Five minor-league franchises that are losing their affiliation with Major League Baseball clubs will comprise a “draft league” for amateur players as part of MLB’s revamping of its player development systems, the league announced Monday.

Four of the franchises were part of the New-York Penn League, a short-season circuit that’s splintering after 81 years as its franchises either maintain affiliation, move up a level or make do with amateur baseball.

The latter outcome was confirmed Monday for the Mahoning Valley (Ohio) Scrappers, the State College (Pennsylvania) Spikes, the West Virginia Black Bears, and the Williamsport (Pennsylvania) Crosscutters. The Trenton (New Jersey) Thunder are dropping all the way from the Class AA Eastern League — where they served as a New York Yankees affiliate — to the draft league. 

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A 2013 photo shows Alex Rodriguez, who was playing with the Trenton Thunder, signing autographs for fans at Arm & Hammer Park. (Photo: Joe Camporeale, USA TODAY Sports)

MLB also indicated a sixth team is on the verge of joining the league.

Instead of housing recently-drafted players, second-year pros beginning the climb toward the major leagues or, in Trenton's case, nearly big-league ready propects, the draft league teams will instead feature draft-eligible high school and collegiate players in a 68-game season that will pause in July for MLB’s draft, which has been moved back one month.

The league has partnered with Prep Baseball Report, a scouting and media service that runs showcases for amateur players, to promote and amplify the players and league in the run-up to the July draft.

The rollout of the MLB Draft League comes on the heels of the September announcement that the former Appalachian League will serve as a wood-bat summer league for rising college freshman and sophomore players. The draft league and collegiate league will provide baseball to 15 communities that will lose their official connection with an MLB club.

The draft league will “allow local fans to see top prospects and future big-league stars in their hometowns,” MLB executive vice president Morgan Sword said in a statement. “This announcement continues MLB’s commitment to preserving and growing baseball in communities around the United States.”

Yet the drop in play – and potentially fan interest and franchise value – will be precipitous for some.

The Thunder were affiliated with major league clubs since 1980, and as recently as 2013 was named the minors' franchise of the year by Minor League Baseball. Yet they were blindsided when the Yankees and MLB struck an agreement with the Somerset (New Jersey) franchise, which was previously in the independent Atlantic League.

Now, a franchise that saw the likes of Nomar Garciaparra, Tony Clark and Aaron Judge  come through town will go from a 140-game season featuring players on the cusp of the big leagues to a 68-game slate.

It’s expected that some 45 minor-league clubs will lose major league affiliation, as MLB unifies the minors with four affiliates for 30 clubs, along with rookie-level teams at spring-training sites. The consolidation will trim by 42 the number of minor league clubs required, while at least three previously independent teams – Somerset, the SugarLand (Texas) Skeeters and the St. Paul (Minnesota) Saints will make the leap to affiliated ball.

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