The Binghamton Rumble Ponies, an Eastern League opponent of the Portland Sea Dogs, may be a casualty of minor league contraction after this season. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Eastern League officially canceled its All-Star Game, which was scheduled for July in Binghamton, New York. With the 2020 Eastern League season also in doubt, there may not be another minor league baseball game played in Binghamton.

Negotiations continue about the future of the minor leagues, and the Binghamton Rumble Ponies – who play in the same division as the Portland Sea Dogs – may not survive.

Major League Baseball, which pays the salaries of coaches, players and trainers in the minors, is seeking to reduce the number of minor league teams – reportedly by as much as 25 percent.

Such a reduction would wipe out the short-season and advance rookie leagues, and some underperforming upper-level teams – like Double-A Binghamton.

As for the Sea Dogs …

“I don’t anticipate much of an impact on our operation,” said team president and general manager Geoff Iacuessa. “The Double-A level is an important one for major league teams to develop their prospects, and that will continue to be the case moving forward.”

The move would affect one other Boston Red Sox affiliate – the short-season Lowell Spinners – while changing the landscape of small-town baseball; not to mention the Cinderella stories of unheard of players grinding their way through the minors.

MLB first proposed the reduction last fall, as part of negotiations with the National Association of Professional Baseball League – an organization that governs minor league franchises. The current Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) between the two organizations expires after the 2020 season.

Minor league officials initially criticized any reduction of teams. But the postponement and possible cancellation of the 2020 season – and the economic troubles that come with it – may force such a reduction. And according to reports in Baseball America and elsewhere, MLB may seek to take over minor league operations.

“I’d say I was surprised when the news first came out (about reducing teams),” Iacuessa said. “I don’t have much information or details other than what has been reported in the news, and I am not sure how accurate any of it is … We are awaiting word on what the final plan will be.”

The plan appears to be a reduction from 160 teams to 120 teams. It has been reported that MLB is seeking a reduction of 42 teams, while two independent-league teams – in Sugar Land, Texas, and St. Paul, Minnesota – would become affiliated minor league teams.

LOWEST LEVELS AT RISK

Why would MLB want to reduce minor league teams?

The simple answer is money. A major league team would save money on salaries of coaches and players, not to mention signing bonuses. With fewer minor leaguers, the annual draft would likely be reduced from its current 40 rounds.

The second reason is the perceived notion that MLB organizations don’t need so many lower levels in the minor leagues. Teams have development camps in the Dominican Republic and at their minor league complexes. From there, there are currently six more levels – advance rookie, short-season, Class A, advanced A, Double-A and Triple-A.

Most organizations, like the Red Sox, have either a short-season team or an advanced rookie team. Some, like the Yankees, have both. There are 22 short-season and 18 advanced rookie teams.

Boston uses its short-season team in Lowell as a stop for college players just drafted, or as a level for developing younger players. But Boston often skips its best prospects past Lowell. Of the current homegrown players on the Red Sox roster, pitchers Matt Barnes and Brandon Workman, and infielders Michael Chavis, Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts all skipped Lowell. Outfielders Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi both played in Lowell after being drafted, but both were promoted to Class A Greenville the same year. Pitcher Darwinzon Hernandez and catcher Christian Vazquez both played part of a season in Lowell.

Short-season does help players – Mookie Betts played all of 2012 in Lowell – but the MLB thinking, apparently, is that players could stay in a development camp or be pushed to Class A.

The downside is for the longshot players who may never get a chance to prove themselves.

“I kind of understand where MLB is going (cutting expenses),” Sea Dogs Manager Joe Oliver said of the reduction. “But what happens with those guys who need that extra time, that nurturing at lower levels … you’re going to run those guys out of the game.

“I’m afraid a lot of people will fall through the cracks.”

“And not only the players are losing those job, but now you’re talking about coaches and the manager, trainer and strength coach … all across the board … It’s tough to see.”

ERIE MAY BE ON CHOPPING BLOCK

Not only are jobs being lost, but communities are losing baseball.

“The dynamic of minor league baseball is really cool,” said former Sea Dogs manager Arnie Beyeler, “and I’m a guy who’s been in minor league baseball forever.”

Beyeler, 56, played minor league baseball for six years. Since then, he’s spent most of his career as a minor league manager or coach (with two stints as a first-base coach in the majors, including 2013-15 with the Red Sox).

Former Sea Dogs manager Arnie Beyeler is the new manager of the Erie SeaWolves – one of the minor league teams that might be contracted after this season. John Ewing/Staff Photographer

“There is a luster to the minor leagues, going to a small town, living with a host family, getting acclimated (to pro baseball) and working your way up,” he said. “It’s a big part of development. It would be a shame to see something like (reducing teams) happen.”

Beyeler is in an interesting situation. In January, he was named the manager of the Erie SeaWolves of the Eastern League. Erie was reportedly on the initial list of teams that MLB wanted to eliminate.

“I’ve heard the rumors, but I don’t know enough about it,” Beyeler said.

The initial list of 42 teams, which was reported in November, can change. The SeaWolves’ stadium, UMPC Park, is undergoing a $20 million renovation. Such an upgrade may save the SeaWolves.

No Triple-A teams were on the initial list. There were four Double-A teams, including Binghamton and Erie. Both teams have been consistently at the bottom of the league’s attendance chart. Binghamton has ranked last in the 12-team league in nine of the past 10 years – the team was 10th in 2018 when it had Tim Tebow as a draw. Binghamton drew an average of 3,000 fans last year. The Richmond Flying Squirrels were first at 6,255; the Sea Dogs were fourth at 5,677.

According to the New York Daily News, the Mets would move their Double-A affiliation from Binghamton to Brooklyn, which currently has a short-season team. Last year, the Brooklyn Cyclones averaged 4,848 fans, albeit without playing in the colder months of April and May.

Nothing is certain until a new PBA is agreed upon. But it seems clear that some teams will be gone.

From a baseball standpoint, losing teams is never a positive.

But MLB has always operated on a profit-first basis. So, as disappointing as this is, it’s not surprising.

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