The Red Sox decided to cut ties with the Lowell Spinners for the upcoming season, but the door has not been slammed shut for Lowell to regain Red Sox affiliation as early as 2022.
With a new MLB-led minor league model forcing each of the 30 major league teams to reduce their affiliates to four, the Red Sox opted on Wednesday to keep their Single A team, the Salem Red Sox — based 670 miles away in Salem, Va. — over the short-season Single A Spinners, whose LeLacheur Park is a 40-minute drive (with no traffic) from Fenway Park.
With the Worcester (Triple A) and Portland (Double A) Red Sox affiliates keeping their status, the Red Sox could have kept three affiliates nearby but now will have half of them — Salem and High A Greenville (S.C.) — at a considerable distance.
The Red Sox are working with the City of Lowell, US Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.), US Senators Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Gov. Charlie Baker, and Spinners owner Dave Heller on a long-term strategy to make Lowell’s exile from the Red Sox family a short one.
The controlling interest that the Red Sox’ parent company, Fenway Sports Group, holds in Salem, approximately 30 percent, forced the Red Sox to stick with Salem for at least the 2021 season, according to an industry source.
Besides Lowell, the two other New England-based teams from the now defunct New York-Penn League also lost their affiliations. The Vermont (Burlington) Lake Monsters are no longer tied to the Oakland Athletics, and the Detroit Tigers terminated their pact with the Norwich (Conn.) Sea Unicorns.
Uncertainty over how much baseball will be played in 2021 because of the pandemic — this year’s season was canceled — as well as concern for the viability of a potential new Single A Mid-Atlantic League heightens the tentative nature of Wednesday’s news.
For 2021, the Spinners and Heller face the possibility of becoming a team in MLB’s new “Draft League” featuring top prospects or for an independent team to take residence at LeLacheur.
In citing how the Red Sox examined “every option that would keep baseball in the City of Lowell,” Red Sox president and CEO Sam Kennedy alluded to the shifting landscape in a press release.
“We are exploring what form that could take in 2021, and are committed to maintaining the 24-year-long tradition of baseball in the Lowell community,” he said.
Other elected officials struck a supportive tone while emphasizing there is unfinished business.
“Like everyone in our community, we know how important the Red Sox are to our city and how valuable Lowell is to the Red Sox,” said Trahan. “We are proud to be working closely with [the Red Sox] to not only keep baseball in Lowell, but to also keep the Red Sox in Lowell, and we look forward to announcing our plans once finalized.”
Warren said she was “deeply grateful for Congresswoman Trahan’s tireless advocacy to keep baseball and the Red Sox in Lowell and I will continue to fight alongside her and Senator Markey until these plans are finalized.”
Since last fall, Major League Baseball has engaged in a power struggle with Minor League Baseball over control of the farm system responsible for grooming the game’s prospects. MLB won that battle this past summer. Since then, the winnowing of 40-plus affiliated teams from more than 160 clubs spread across the country has taken place behind the scenes, with affiliates jockeying to survive the cut.
‘“We are exploring what form that could take in 2021, and are committed to maintaining the 24-year-long tradition of baseball in the Lowell community.”’
Red Sox CEO Sam Kennedy
On Wednesday, MLB allowed the 30 clubs to reveal their four affiliate choices. Those affiliates have been extended an invitation to sign a license to join their redesigned 120-team minor league system. Invited clubs will likely need weeks, if not months, to review terms of their new arrangement with MLB, so closure on the affiliate announcements is not official.
Since word leaked last October that the Spinners were one of the teams that could be contracted, the team has been in a state of existential and economic limbo.
The Spinners were not one of the 13 teams targeted for complete elimination, but were one of 11 slated for an MLB-supported but unaffiliated wood-bat “Dream League,” similar to the Showcase League. (The “Dream League” moniker did not survive long after it was introduced, given the ridicule that greeted it.)
Fearful that losing their Red Sox affiliation would mean losing their relevance among their Greater Boston fan base, the Spinners joined in a public campaign to save their team and Minor League Baseball. A bipartisan “Save Minor League Baseball” task force, co-founded by Trahan — whose 3rd Congressional District encompasses Lowell — brought attention to the costs of losing minor league baseball in communities across the country.
MLB and MiLB engaged in a series of contentious exchanges, with each side deriding the other’s scruples and intent as talks on a new Professional Baseball Agreement fizzled out. MLB has maintained that the 42-team “hit list” was part of an initial proposal from the spring of 2019 and that the composition of the original list had changed.
Late last January the tenor of the talks cooled and for reasons still not entirely made public, MiLB began to accept the reality that it would not escape losing roughly a quarter of its membership.
With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, the talks took a back seat as MLB grappled with mounting an abbreviated season. The entire minor league season was scrapped.
By this autumn, MLB had consolidated its positions and sealed its wish to take over MiLB operations.
Michael Silverman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.