Cards Minor League Affiliate Changes Coming?

Potential minor league affiliate plans evolve, but there's no new word on Triple-A Memphis' future with St. Louis. In addition, plans to increase attendance in Batavia aren't working.

All over minor league baseball, it is again approaching the time for the bi-annual mating ritual with the major league organizations as player development contracts, or PDCs, are being re-negotiated and in some cases, re-thought.


When a minor league affiliate is not owned by the major league club, legal contracts are put in place for a minimum of two years at a time and a maximum of four. Basically they commit the organization to provide players and the local entity to run the team.


Of the nine affiliates of St. Louis, six are owned by the Cardinals and therefore, directly under their control. They include Springfield of the Double-A Texas League, Palm Beach of the A-Advanced Florida State League, Johnson City of the short-season Appalachian League as well as three rookie clubs in the Gulf Coast, Dominican Summer and Venezuelan Summer Leagues.


PDCs for two of the other three, Memphis of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League and Batavia of the short-season Class-A New York-Penn League, expire at the conclusion of this season.


While there are deadlines for these agreements, there is nothing to preclude early contract extensions when both parties are pleased with the arrangement and wish it to continue. Such is the case with the new ownership in the Quad Cities and the Cardinals, who extended their PDC through the 2010 season back in February.


Key dates


September 1: PDCs that run through the current season expire

September 16: Organizations may begin to formally speak with potential new affiliates

August through October: PDCs typically announced

November 30: Agreements for 2009-2010 should be in place


Since Quad Cities re-upped, at least 30 other extensions have been announced across the minor leagues, but none in the Cardinals organization.



The Batavia Muckdogs


The situation in Batavia, on one hand, may be the messier of the two pending, but on the other, could be the more straight-forward.


The Cardinals left their long-standing New York-Penn League home in New Jersey when the franchise was sold after the 2005 season and relocated to State College, PA. While it meant a significant upgrade in facilities for 2006, the new ownership had strong ties with the Pirates. Once the PDC expired after that season, the State College Spikes aligned with Pittsburgh, leaving the Cardinals with no home.


The Cardinals, who have been in the New York-Penn League for years and were committed to remain, explored several other options before taking over for the Phillies, who had just departed Batavia.


Off the field, a complicated local ownership situation became even messier when the club was unable to pay bills that ran well into the six figures, accrued over the first year of the Cardinals agreement.


Over the winter, league officials threatened to pull the franchise before the ownership of the Rochester Red Wings stepped in to both pay off the debt and assume operation of the business side of the Muckdogs for the 2008 season.


An article in this week's Batavia Daily News reported that despite the Red Wings' best efforts to promote the club, it isn't working. Batavia attendance is tracking the same in 2008 as in 2007, at a full-season rate of about 45,000. That is near the bottom of the league. Projections were for 60,000.


Though plans for 2009-10 are unclear at this time, one Cardinals official I spoke with believes the Cardinals will be back. "Where else are they going to go?", he asked, listing off each of the other league towns with expiring agreements, explaining how the various moves and mostly non-moves should play out.


The Muckdogs' GM, Dave Wellenzohn, seems to agree. He was quoted in the Daily News article as saying the team is likely to remain in Batavia next season, but he remains concerned. Wellenzohn wondered aloud how long the Rochester club would continue to invest in the Muckdogs if attendance doesn't show improvement.


Of course clubs can be sold and moved, with some NY-Penn League franchises rumored to be worth from $3 million to $5 million. However, with these teams a major source of civic pride, they are rarely lost without a protracted grass-roots fight.



The Memphis Redbirds


News out of Memphis on the soon-to-expire PDC has been almost non-existent since a summit between the local ownership group and Cardinals president Bill DeWitt, Jr. and vice president/general manager John Mozeliak held back in late May.


Stated concerns seem to be related to the competitiveness of the team, as the Cardinals had used Memphis as a taxi squad in recent seasons. With minor league veterans clogging the roster, there was little youth, excitement and winning baseball played. The 2007 Pacific Coast League entry hit bottom, as their 56 wins set the all-time franchise futility record.


With 65 games already in the victory column with three weeks to go, the Redbirds are seven games over .500 and sit in second place in the American Northern Division, six games behind division-leading Iowa. Though there has been significant roster turnover due to all the problems in St. Louis, young stars like Colby Rasmus, Bryan Anderson and Chris Perez have taken the place of many of the roster retreads of past years.


Whether that will be enough to seal the deal for another two years remains to be seen. Mozeliak did not respond to a request to comment on either set of negotiations, Batavia or Memphis.


Looking around Triple-A, there are nine other situations in limbo in addition to the Cardinals, three in the International League and six in the PCL.


The three IL expiring PDCs are the Buffalo Bisons (Cleveland), Columbus Clippers (Washington) and the Syracuse Chiefs (Toronto). In addition, the Atlanta Braves are relocating their organization-owned franchise to Gwinnett County, GA.


On top of the sheer distance problems for the Cardinals to consider the IL, the 2009 changes are already rumored to be lining up as follows: Buffalo with Toronto, Syracuse with the Mets and Columbus with Cleveland. The latter open a new ballpark next season. All of these moves would make a lot of sense geographically.


That would leave the Nationals to consider the Mets current home in New Orleans as well as five other potential PCL openings, several of which are three time zones away, hardly convenient for quick player movements.


They are the Omaha Royals (Kansas City), Albuquerque Isotopes (Florida), Las Vegas 51s (Dodgers), Portland Beavers (San Diego) and Tacoma Rainiers (Seattle) along with Memphis.



The Omaha Cardinals redux?


Considering all the alternatives if the Memphis situation deteriorates, Omaha, Nebraska would seem the Cardinals' next-best fit, in this writer's opinion.


It would not be a new idea. Long-time Cardinals fans may recall the city hosted St. Louis' Triple-A entry back in the 1950's, a time when a local boy named Bob Gibson pitched in front of his adoring hometown crowd before he ever set foot in Busch Stadium.


In fact, the Cardinals maintained a presence in Omaha through one of the longest down periods for the major league franchise in the century - from 1947 through 1959. During the final five seasons, the Omaha Cardinals competed in the Triple-A American Association after playing in the single-A Western League prior.


Future World Series-winning manager Johnny Keane led the Cardinals during four of these Triple-A years before joining the major league staff in 1959. In addition to Gibson, major leaguers like Dick Schofield, Ray Sadecki and Curt Flood wore the Omaha uniform.


Returning to the present, the current ballpark situation in Omaha is a complicated one.



The 1948 facility in which the Omaha Cardinals played way back then, Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium (right), is the same one in use today. While it does not compare to the likes of modern facilities such as Memphis' AutoZone Park, the home of the College World Series since 1950 has undergone several extensive renovations in the almost-50 years since the Triple-A Cardinals called it home.


To keep the CWS in its long-time base through at least 2030, Omaha city officials sold a plan to build a $140 million replacement ballpark downtown. The new stadium is scheduled to open in time for the 2011 College World Series and Rosenblatt will be torn down.


Those decisions were made without the involvement of the Omaha Royals ownership, who are balking at several aspects of the new stadium plans. Some issues are financially-based, such as operational costs and revenue distribution, as well as CWS schedule conflicts, fan amenities and seating capacity.


One example: The Royals average 5,400 fans per game while the new park will seat 24,000, comparable to Rosenblatt's 23,100 maximum. The Triple-A club instead wants a more intimate environment in which to play their games.


As negotiations with the city broke off, Royals president Alan Stein heated up talks with a suburban group pushing a second, smaller new ballpark of 9,000 seats as well as reportedly entertaining proposals from at least two other locales outside the metropolitan Omaha area to move his team. Those are suburban Houston and Vancouver, reports Ballpark Digest. Stein acknowledged to the Omaha World-Herald that a decision is needed by March, 2009 to ensure a move can be made by 2011.


This uncertainty may or may not affect the Kansas City Royals' immediate decision on renewal of Omaha's Triple-A PDC. This would seem a tough marriage to break as the then-expansion Kansas City Royals placed their top farm club in Omaha back in 1969 and they have fielded a team there ever since. That agreement is the longest-running in the PCL by a dozen years.


On the other hand, the recent actions of Omaha city officials clearly indicate the Royals are an after-thought compared to their crown jewel, the CWS. And would the parent Royals really want their top farm club in the Astros' backyard or on the west coast of Canada?


Interestingly, on Tuesday of this week, the Royals announced the extension of their PDC with their Double-A club, the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, a Texas League rival of the Springfield Cardinals.


No matter what team plays in Omaha over the next two seasons, it would surely have to call Rosenblatt home. By the fall of 2010, when the next agreement would expire, all the current drama should be old news.


In conclusion… there is no resolution


Perhaps this is but a moot point for the Triple-A version of the Cardinals here and now, but there is one caution.


Though the Redbirds and Cardinals have been wed since 1998, over the past year or two, there has been an undercurrent of concern coming out of Memphis interspersed among the standard "we love and respect each other" remarks.


In the past, the Memphis PDC has often been extended early, as with Quad Cities in February, but this time, the locals specifically declined to do so last fall when the Cardinals reportedly came calling with new contract in hand. Memphis officials made their point clear via the press – no early deal.


Maybe it is just a tougher negotiating stance taken prior to an extension being agreed upon. Or instead, perhaps there is a fire building from among the smoke signals.


Events over the upcoming 60-75 days should provide the answer.



Brian Walton can be reached via email at


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