What Might the Cards' NY-Penn Future Hold?

The St. Louis Cardinals may be en route to their fourth New York-Penn League stop in the last seven years.

With the Monday announcement that the St. Louis Cardinals have signed a new player development contract (PDC) with the Quad Cities River Bandits of the Midwest League covering the 2011 and 2012 seasons, the status of only one of the Cardinals' nine minor league clubs is unsettled for next year and beyond.

The future of the Cardinals organization with the Batavia Muckdogs remains up in the air as does the future of the financially-strapped franchise in the upper New York state town, one of the founding fathers of the New York-Penn League in 1939.

St. Louis extended its contract with Triple-A Memphis through 2012 last fall, with that club up for sale as is the Muckdogs. The Cardinals operate their other six minor league clubs in Springfield, MO (Double-A), Palm Beach, FL (A-Advanced), Johnson City, TN (short-season rookie), Gulf Coast League – Jupiter, FL (SS-R), Dominican Summer League (rookie) and Venezuelan Summer League (rookie).

Prior to the 2006 season, the Cardinals' long-time home in the NYPL, the New Jersey Cardinals, were sold to an ownership group with close ties to the Pittsburgh Pirates. They relocated the team to a new stadium on the Penn State University campus, but after honoring their final year with the Cardinals, the State College Spikes aligned with Pittsburgh starting in 2007.

After the Philadelphia Phillies departed from Batavia four years ago, the Cardinals landed there, more by necessity than choice. Dwyer Stadium, the home of the Muckdogs, is considered one of the poorest conditioned fields in the league and the team is perennially at or near the bottom of the NYPL in attendance.

Local ownership regularly lost money and turned over management to the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings three years ago, but the red ink continued to flow. For their part, the Cardinals brought good baseball to Batavia, including two playoff clubs in three years, one of which was league champion (see photo of 2008 champs).

Unless a local savior steps up where no one has before, the most likely scenario seems the sale and relocation of the Muckdogs franchise.

Assuming the Cardinals want to maintain a presence in the New York-Penn League, will they re-sign with Batavia for two or four more years without knowing who will own the team and where it will be located in 2011?

They may not have a better option.

Looking across the 14-team NYPL, six other player development contracts are up in addition to Batavia. None of the situations look particularly promising for the Cardinals for different reasons.

Two affiliates with good facilities and the appearance of being well-run seem likely to continue their current arrangements, Aberdeen (Baltimore) and Hudson Valley (Tampa Bay). 9/16 Update: The Rays announced they have re-upped their PDC with Hudson Valley for two more years.

At the other end of the spectrum, Vermont (Washington) and Jamestown (Florida), are the other two franchises along with Batavia mentioned by NYPL president Ben Hayes in a recent interview with the Batavia Press as being especially troubled.

Like Batavia, Jamestown has been struggling with their finances for several years but the Marlins may opt to stay. The Burlington, VT field is no longer being maintained after the University of Vermont discontinued their baseball program. There are rumblings that town officials will be studying facility upgrades for what is reportedly the oldest minor league ballpark still in use, but that remains uncertain.

Reports have the Toronto Blue Jays not renewing their PDC with Auburn, but the town is potentially a target for Washington. The aforementioned problems in Vermont and the Nationals' Triple-A club being just one hour away in Syracuse may be factors. Along with Batavia, Vermont and Jamestown, Auburn is among the poorer-attended teams in the league.

9/16 Update: The Jays have informed Auburn that their 10-year affiliation is over and they are moving their players to Vancouver in the Northwest League, replacing Oakland there. Oakland may then be joining the NYPL mix. 9/21 Update: The Nationals have left Vermont and signed with Auburn. 9/23 Update: The A's are moving into Vermont.

The final franchise of the six is new NYPL champion Tri-City, located in Troy, New York. The ValleyCats, who eliminated the Muckdogs in the first round, are currently affiliated with Houston. Fan support is high, with the club having set attendance records in each of the last four seasons. The ValleyCats averaged over 4,300 fans per game in 2010, a vast difference from the barely 1,000 who frequented Batavia's contests. All things considered, it would be surprising if the Astros walk away from Tri-City. 9/20 Update: The Astros and Tri-City have renewed for two more years.

It is worth noting that all towns with franchises are assured of having teams next season. That includes the Muckdogs, even though they may be sold and moved.

Where might this leave the Cardinals?

It could be that their fate will remain tied to that of the uncertain Muckdogs for at least two more years.

We should know by September 30, which is the deadline for clubs to complete agreements with MLB organizations. If any deals remain undone, minor league baseball will then have the right to assign pairings by October 7, though that seems unlikely.

9/21 Update: The Cardinals and the Muckdogs signed a new, two-year agreement even though the team's future location and ownership remain unclear.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnationblog.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Selected TCN content appears at FOXSportsMidwest.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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