Jim Seip: Atlantic League eyes feeder league…and international expansion?
First an update: We’re still waiting on the release of the Atlantic League postseason awards and all-star teams. We’ll have it for you as soon as it’s out. Also, the 2013 schedule should be made official in a matter of days. We’ll have that covered for you here as well as soon as it’s out.
In the meantime however, York Daily Record Revolution beat reporter Jim Seip penned two significant articles this week, about what could be potential bombshell expansion for the Atlantic League. We wanted to relay them here below and after the jump in case you missed them. While an Atlantic “Minor” League has been rumored in the past, it appears plans for it are moving forward, with perhaps potential to establish teams in the Caribbean as part of a feeder system, or the ALPB itself.
Atlantic League’s Frank Boulton eyes feeder system to fill MLB gap
Unlike prior years, though, he’s moving toward laying out the framework for a short-season league that would feature younger ballplayers than the veteran Atlantic League. And he’s no longer just sitting at the drawing board.
“I’m sharpening my pencil,” Boulton said with a laugh.
The proposed league will be called ALPB2, a tip of the hat to Boulton’s Atlantic League of Professional Baseball.
Boulton would like to see the Northeast-based ALPB2 up and running in 2014, and the new league will be a topic of discussion when Atlantic League officials and owners meet later this month.
“It could be a feeder system for the Atlantic League, but not exclusively,” Boulton said.
Boulton envisions the best players in ALPB2 earning call-ups to the Atlantic League. He also envisions players being signed by major league organizations directly out of ALPB2.
Although linked to the Atlantic League brand, ALPB2 will have a different business model and different rules when it comes to team building. Boulton does not expect the short-season league to go into markets and build Atlantic League-style ballparks. The new league will cater to markets that have recently lost their teams. He expects the league will need to improve ballparks and playing fields, and succeed where other teams have failed.
New Jersey’s Atlantic City will be considered for the new league, The Press of Atlantic City reported last month.
Boulton also expects to implement age restrictions. In this respect, ALPB2 sounds similar to the Frontier League, an independent league that operates largely in the Midwest and includes two teams in western Pennsylvania: the Washington Wild Things and Lake Erie Crushers.
But there is a reason ALPB2 is gathering momentum now: Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement limited the draft to 40 rounds this season.
For some perspective, former York Revolution pitcher Travis Phelps was drafted in the 89th round in 1996. He went on to carve out a 13-year professional career, including three seasons in the major leagues. Players like Phelps could now go undrafted and unnoticed unless independent professional leagues make an effort to sign these types of players.
Boulton watched this season as certain players that he thought would be drafted remain unsigned after the June First-Year Player Draft. He signed one of those players, Matt Fleishman out of Villanova, to play for the Long Island Ducks. Fleishman batted .238 in 17 games.
“He’s a prime example,” Boulton said. “Is he ready for the Atlantic League now? No.”
But he could be in a couple years.
ALPB2 aims to give him, and players like him, an opportunity to break into professional baseball.
Atlantic League baseball in the Caribbean? Peter Kirk eyes growth
“There’s so much interest in baseball in Latin America, and quite frankly Major League Baseball is not doing a great job down there,” Kirk said.
Kirk, the chairman of Opening Day Partners, owns league franchises in York, Lancaster, Southern Maryland and Sugar Land.
For a league willing to travel by air if the market in question is the right size, some type of presence in the Dominican and Puerto Rico could seem unusual but at least plausible. The communist nation of Cuba, however, is another matter.
Kirk knows it might sound unlikely, but he believes the league could have some type of Caribbean connection — perhaps in the near future. That might not necessarily mean adding a 140-game team, Kirk noted: It could be an exhibition game in Cuba involving Atlantic League All-Stars.
Travel regulations from the United States to Cuba changed to “increase purposeful travel” in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of State website. And Kirk hopes that might open the door for some type of connection in Cuba.
“We want to be able to do it openly and have a goodwill exchange,” he said.
Kirk has visited Cuba once before, in connection with the Baltimore Orioles exhibition series in 1999. During that trip, he saw a Cuban parade led through the streets by a tractor the Orioles grounds crew brought to the island. Kirk also was a member of the Eastern League’s trip to the Soviet Union in 1989, when about 20 players and future Yankees manager Stump Merrill traveled to Moscow.
He has seen international trips that have succeeded in bringing goodwill, but he knows there are larger factors at play than just the business of baseball.
“There are factors — like politics — that we can’t control,” Kirk said.
Interest in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico doesn’t come as a major shock. Longtime Atlantic League player development scout Ellie Rodriguez and other league employees have scouted the Dominican to find players before. More than one player procurement official in the league has expressed the belief in recent years that the league could field an entire roster with just Dominican talent, and the league’s Latin connections now include coaches Enohel Polanco (York Revolution) and Victor Gutierrez (Sugar Land Skeeters). Recently retired from playing, the two have been instrumental in helping their respective teams find talented players outside the U.S.
“We looked at Puerto Rico years ago,” Atlantic League founder and CEO Frank Boulton confirmed earlier this week.
But he stressed he wants to concentrate on “smart growth” in the league, and looking to add a Caribbean connection to the Atlantic League might not fit into that philosophy. At least not in the next year or two.
“It’s not on our immediate screen, but it is on the radar,” Boulton said. “It’s fun to think forward, and that’s what Peter does better than anyone.”
The league explored the idea of placing its league-run Road Warriors squad in Puerto Rico as recently as two seasons ago, Kirk said. It’s an idea that had merit. Instead of having one road-weary team driving around the Northeast, the league thought placing a team in baseball-rich Puerto Rico — with its undeniably large market — might work better.
The plan was scrapped, but the league pursued a similar business model this year when it welcomed the Sugar Land Skeeters. Visiting teams needed to make two trips to the Houston suburbs in 2012, and the Skeeters drew a league-high 465,111 fans this season. The 19th biggest draw in all of minor league baseball, Sugar Land signed Houston-area resident Roger Clemens, perhaps the highest profile player to ever play independent baseball.
But no one in a high position in the league thinks Sugar Land’s presence is sustainable if only one Atlantic League team remains in Texas. The league has long said it wants three more Texas-area teams to allow visiting teams to spend a week or more in the Texas area, playing more than just one team.
Longtime minor league baseball executive and team owner Miles Wolff expressed doubt years ago over the intelligence of planting an Atlantic League team in Sugar Land, noting the league would likely run into major issues in flying and travel. So far, there have not been any issues.
Both Kirk and Boulton said the first season with Sugar Land has been a success.
“Listen, I didn’t have to get on a bus at 5 a.m., and when I fly I go direct,” Boulton said in reference to some of the less-than-ideal travel conditions for players in the league.
But Boulton said the attendance figures and the financial numbers of flying to Texas still make sense for team owners and league leadership.
“Oh, absolutely,” Boulton said. “Sugar Land crushed every record there was. The Atlantic League had a big year.”
So while developing some type of connection in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic or Cuba might sound far-fetched now, it could be in the league’s future. The league has had other ideas — criticized when first broached — pan out in a big way.