M's Faced With Choice of Clinton or Hickory

With the Brewers officially parting ways with their low-A affiliate, it appears nearly certain that they will pluck the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers away from the Mariners. That leaves the M's with a choice between teams in Clinton, Ia. and Hickory, N.C. Read on for the details and an update on the situation in the California League.

The Milwaukee Brewers officially parted ways with their low-A affiliate this week, the West Virginia Power, paving the way for the Brew Crew to team up with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, who have been partnered with the Mariners since 1993. The Power made the move official when they chose to sign a player development contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates. That leaves only three clubs at the low-A level without a signed agreement: the Timber Rattlers, the Clinton Lumber Kings (also of the Midwest League) and the Hickory Crawdads of the South Atlantic League (previously the Pirates affiliate).

With the M's, Rangers, and Brewers the only three teams without deals at that level, it appears as if the Mariners are going to be stuck with a choice between the LumberKings and the Crawdads. While many franchises try to keep their affiliate teams in close proximity (as the M's have done with Tacoma and Everett), it's simply not possible for western franchises at the full-season low-A level because both leagues operate in the eastern half of the country.

Clinton has had a Midwest League franchise since 1954 and is the oldest franchise in the league. They were affiliated with the old Seattle Pilots in 1969 (and were called the Clinton Pilots). The team has been known as the LumberKings since 1994. Clinton is at the easternmost point in Iowa, right on the shore of the Mississippi River, and has a population of just over 27,000. Perhaps that is why the team had the third-lowest attendance in the MWL this season at 1,744 per game.

Hickory is a small city in and of itself in North Carolina, but is the center of a metropolitan area of well over 300,000. Still, the Crawdads struggle at the gate, drawing just over 2,000 fans per game this year. The Hickory franchise has existed since 1993 and was affiliated with the White Sox before its 10-year run with the Pirates.

Still up in the air as well is the fate of the Mariners' deal with the High Desert Mavericks. The M's had been hoping for an opening in the Florida State League, but that appears unlikely to happen. The Mariners will probably be staying in the Cal League and will apparently have the choice of re-signing with the Mavs or heading to Lancaster (the most favorable offensive ballpark in all of baseball). The Mavs are one of two Cal League teams that are being considered for relocation to the Carolina League after the 2009 season (the other is Bakersfield). While there has been no comment on this from the Mavs other than to confirm they will be playing in Adelanto in 2009, the Bakersfield owner has publicly stated that his team will be moving after one more season. Thus, if the M's sign with High Desert, they would have to consider the ramifications of the club relocating after one year. Lancaster wouldn't present that issue, but also wouldn't solve the biggest problem the M's have with their desert affiliate: odd playing conditions (strong wind and high elevation) distorting player stats and making it disproportionately tough for pitchers to succeed.

Clubs have until September 30th to negotiate deals with teams, after which time MLB would assign clubs.

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