Henning: Tigers farm set for shake-up as West Michigan prepares for promotion

Detroit News

Lynn Henning
| The Detroit News

Baseball life is about to change at Fifth Third Field in Comstock Park, just north of Grand Rapids.

That quaint club known as the West Michigan Whitecaps is growing up. It is expected to drop its old low Single A minor-league designation and its personality as a kind of freshman dorm for players hoping to graduate one day and reach the big leagues.

Although plans are being kept secret at commissioner Rob Manfred’s office, the Whitecaps will be swapping Single-A spots with the Lakeland Tigers, which to date has been the higher step, just before Double-A Erie, on the Tigers’ farm-team staircase.

While no formal confirmation has seeped from MLB headquarters in New York, a source close to the proceedings, who requested anonymity because of the intense pressure Manfred has placed upon confidentiality, acknowledged that the flip in Tigers affiliates is all but final.

West Michigan’s gain is that the Whitecaps are about to flaunt high Single-A players who are a major step closer to playing at Comerica Park or another big-league venue.

This has been rumored for some time, the dropping of Florida State League teams to Low A, with the Midwest League — West Michigan’s orbit — moving to High A. But there was more than the usual mystery here. Plans have been so airtight in New York that whispers more than revelations hinted that a flip-flop was, in fact, in process.

But within the past few days, cover has been blown. The Yankees, and then the Mets, announced their new farm-system lineups. Both teams have designated their Florida State League outposts, at Tampa and Port St. Lucie, respectively, as Low A affiliates, a one-level descent in status.

That one portion of the Florida State League would be downgrading minus other members isn’t plausible. Not when they compete in the same circuit. And not when it has long made more sense for teams like the Yankees, Mets, Phillies, Blue Jays, Tigers, etc., to have their Low A partner at the same town and complex where their rookie hatchery, the Gulf Coast League, sets up shop, and at the team’s spring-training complex.

Now, instead of kids leaving Lakeland’s back lots for a stopover at West Michigan, or at the disbanding New York-Penn League, the Tigers farm-minnows simply move a few hundred feet to Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium.

That’s advantageous, also, for young Latin players who get one more year of acclimation to a new culture and language at the TigerTown campus in Lakeland, all before they’re shipped north for an introduction to that Michigan seasonal staple: spring, which, in terms of temperatures, might as well be called winter, at least until mid-May.

Common sense plan

The benefits, of course, for the Tigers in keeping these lowest-rung clubs in Lakeland aren’t only that their youngest kids won’t freeze their knickers off until they reach West Michigan. The overall gain is that, for the Tigers and for a host of clubs, keeping the kids in Florida for consecutive years is cost-efficient, practical, and pretty much a matter of common sense.

It’s also part of a grand plan Major League Baseball has had in place for more than a year now to reorganize, reduce teams, and consolidate its control over the minor leagues — a shift in landscape that has been followed and reported on by Baseball America.

Manfred’s office is expected, probably before Thanksgiving, to announce its new league alignments as it trims what were 162 farm teams to 120. The new lineup will consist of teams that have direct-licensing agreements with MLB. The old days where Minor League Baseball had a headquarters in St. Petersburg, Florida, and acted as something of an organizational middle man, are essentially over, with the new direct-current wiring replacing a system that has been in place for much of the past 120 years.

What this means for West Michigan is significant.

Fans there tend to have quite the affection for team that’s as much adopted as followed. Whitecaps turnstiles spin to the tune of a half-million customers a year (8,942-seat capacity) in one of the healthiest minor-league towns in America.

And now that same town and team get an upgrade.

The move from Low A to High A means a more sophisticated level of baseball is coming West Michigan’s way. Pitching, particularly, climbs a notch at High A. Players who can make the cut at Single A’s top spot shift in most cases to Double A, which often is where a prospect gets his big-league diploma.

Players who shine at West Michigan are within shouting distance of Comerica Park. It makes for a timelier, more revealing, glimpse at a team’s best farm talent. And that’s not only true for West Michigan’s crowd, but also for a Tigers audience that can take a peek at more seasoned up-and-coming stars minus a trip to Lakeland or to Erie, Pennsylvania, where Detroit’s Double A partner remains, at least for now, situated.

West Michigan’s crowd will see a more polished game, with bigger names, as hotshots from rival teams arrive as part of what is expected to be a markedly different Midwest League.

It isn’t only the Midwest League’s farm-siblings in Florida who will be flip-flopping High and Low A clubs. The Midwest League’s big-league attachments have Low A teams spread across America. Not only is the Midwest expected to shed a couple of Iowa clubs (Burlington and Clinton), the Midwest League could potentially be spun into a bigger, wider sphere of more than two divisions as plans draw closer to a final unveiling by Manfred’s office.

Already, the expected contraction to 120 has been felt, hard, with casualties mounting. Those moves will affect the Tigers, as well as other clubs, as the New York-Penn League dissolves into a summer-stock Independent League, something Baseball America has been reporting for a year now. 

The Tigers had an attachment to the New York-Penn’s six-week, “short-season” Single-A group, the Connecticut Tigers, who a year ago were re-christened the Norwich Sea Unicorns. For that team name, alone, it would have been nice maintaining ties, but the loss is more significant and more personal, especially for the New York-Penn’s towns.

These teams have long minor-league histories. Communities prosper from the fabric minor-league teams and ownership bring to these eastern towns and hamlets. The Tigers had what amounted to a nice head-start program going at Connecticut, where kids just drafted from college, or youngsters who had passed early classes at the Gulf Coast League rookie boot-camp, could get their bearings before moving on to West Michigan.

But with Manfred’s office bent on contraction, leagues such as the New York Penn, and the Appalachian, and Pioneer, were in trouble. All of the fears are all but final as MLB moves closer to rolling out its new 120-team farm constellation.

Cuts are coming

Reasons for all the secrecy as a year-plus of re-packaging wraps up, while irksome and sad, is also understood. There will be pain when these cuts are official — in similar fashion, to use a church analogy, when parishes shut down and merge. The feeling of losing something lifelong and enduring can be traumatic, especially if jobs are involved.

It should be remembered, too, that New York-Penn’s teams and the Appalachian and Pioneer clubs won’t be alone as these trims play out.

Some owners have multiple investments in minor-league teams. Some have kept minor-league ball alive in places where it might have vanished. Now, in more than three-dozen instances, they’re going to be told there is no room for their team at Manfred’s new inn.

Some could also find it a relief. This is not a business known for its profit margins, owning a minor-league team. The numbers get tougher when MLB is telling its new 120-member club that certain requirements — stadium and clubhouse facilities, weight-training and conditioning rooms, kitchen areas, etc. — must meet a new and tougher code of conduct for amenities and structures.

The latter reality is what, a year ago, had Double-A Erie in some peril. It, in fact, was listed last autumn by Baseball America as one of the probable chops in Manfred’s minor-league master plan. But the town and state got working on a $12-million facelift that has, for now, improved the field, lighting, ballpark, and, most important for MLB and the Tigers, has led to plans for a new clubhouse, food areas, and strength-and-conditioning quarters.

The situation at Triple-A Toledo is unaffected and never was in doubt, at least as far as the Tigers are concerned. They’re happy to have their top minor-league partner an hour’s drive from Comerica Park. The Lakeland-West Michigan swap now allows for a tic-tac-toe trio of their highest-level farm affiliates being situated in three connecting states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.

Lakeland won’t be there any longer as a kind of distant colony, forcing a north-south, back-and-forth commute between Low A and Double A.

That’s the upside, anyway. For the Tigers and for the folks at West Michigan, the news expected soon from Manfred’s quarters is good, indeed.

For those towns and teams losing a long partnership that was more like a romance, the break-up is tough, on hearts, on jobs, and on the deep mutual love between baseball towns and their minor-league mates.

Lynn Henning, a retired Detroit News sportswriter, is a freelance writer.

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