Usually when people talk aobut the word “contract” in the context of baseball, a player is getting rich. As in “Joe Mauer signs $184 million contract,” or “Twins exercise Scott Baker‘s contract option.” But some of the most important contracts in the game are not signed by players. And one of those in particular could have a major effect on the future of the Twins. Minnesota’s player development contract with the Rochester Red Wings is set to expire after the 2012 season.
This leads to some potentially interesting questions. Is Rochester the best option for the Twins’ AAA team? Do the Twins want to explore other options? While we’re at it, do the Red Wings want to explore other options?
That last one may be key. A minor league team is a business just like any other sports team, and they need to try to make money from tickets, concessions, and merchandise sales. As with any other team, those revenues are usually higher when fans can go to the park and watch a team that usually wins its games (makes sense, doesn’t it?). The difference with a minor league team is that they are at the mercy of the MLB club as to which players they can put on the field to try to win those games. The past few years, the Twins have not exactly provided the Wings with a winner – they’ve dropped more than 90 games in back to back years. Furthermore, some have speculated that other teams like Toronto and the Mets might want a team in upstate New York, so there could be some competition for the Red Wings.
The Red Wings are one of the oldest teams in professional baseball, having been founded back in 1877 (24 years before the franchise that is now the Twins). According to their website, they even spent a season in the Majors in 1890, back when the American Association was considered a Major League. Usually only minor league players get called up to the Majors, so that’s quite an achievement for a whole team!
The Twins have had a contract with Rochester since 2003. Prior to that, the spent a couple of seasons with the Edmonton Trappers. The Trappers became an Expos affiliate, then they went kaput after 2004, just like Montreal did. Before Edmonton, Minnesota had a team in Salt Lake City from 1994-2000 (the Salt Lake Bees used to be the Portland Beavers, who were also a Twins affiliate).
So where would the Twins go if they parted ways with Rochester? There are quite a few possibilities. According to the source linked above, there are 14 AAA squads whose contracts are set to expire after 2012. Along with Rochester in the International League, Buffalo, Indianapolis, Lehigh Valley, and Pawtucket are up for renewal. In the Pacific Coast League, Albuquerque, Fresno, Iowa, Las Vegas, Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans, Oklahoma, and Reno run out at the end of the year. Some of those cities are almost certain to stay with their parent clubs. Pawtuckett, for example, is just an hour away from Fenway Park, and that city has never hosted any team other than the Red Sox. On the other hand, it is not unusual for a AAA team and an MLB team to part after a long relationship. Before the Twins came to town, Rochester had been an Orioles affiliate for over 40 years.
There are a couple of Midwestern teams in that list. A Midwestern affiliate would probably cut down on travel costs and make it more convenient for the team brass to keep an eye on their prospects. A closer team would also make it easier for dedicated Minnesota fans to get in the car and take a road trip to a AAA game. Iowa, right next door, would be a great fit if the Twins could somehow talk them into abandoning their 30 year relationship with the Cubs. Indianapolis has no such lengthy relationship with the Pirates, so that might seem like a possibility. Las Vegas and New Orleans are big enough to be MLB cities, so their might be some advantages to putting a team there. On the other hand, there might be too many distractions in those places that would make it too easy for prospects to get into some off-the-field trouble.
I have to admit some bias here – I live on the West Coast, and I’d be thrilled to see the Twins move their AAA operations to the Pacific Coast League. My city of Sacramento hosts the Athletics’ affiliate, the Sacramento River Cats, so if the Twins got a PCL team, I’d be able to see them visit town at least once per year. I’m sure there are some East Coast Twins fans who feel the opposite.