The boys of summer, or at least some of them, will be back in Utah in 2021.
The state’s short-season minor league baseball teams found some stability — and picked up a few more games — when the Pioneer League became a “partner league” with Major League Baseball. Both organizations announced the agreement Monday.
“Our primary focus was figuring it out how to survive,” Dave Baggott, the president of the Ogden Raptors, said. “And we’re going to do that with the help of MLB now.”
While the arrangement guarantees a future for the Pioneer League, a Rookie Advanced circuit that appeared to be on the chopping block when MLB announced a restructuring last year, that stability will be elsewhere for one of the state’s two Pioneer teams.
The Orem Owlz will relocate to Windsor, Colo., and become the Northern Colorado Owlz. The Owlz, an Anaheim Angels affiliate, were founded in Provo in 2001. They have played at Utah Valley University since 2005 and have won four Pioneer League titles in that time.
Owlz owner Jeff Katofsky said the decision to move hinged more on his desire to build a youth baseball complex than on the league’s new structure. He said he has been wanting to build one since moving the team to Orem but has struggled to find a site and get governmental approval.
“We did everything we could to try to make it happen, and it just didn’t,” Katofsky said. “And I think what we are building over in Colorado would have been magnificent in Utah County, would have worked in Utah County. I just couldn’t get the excitement or the approvals that I needed in Utah County to get it done there.”
Pro baseball may not be gone from the county for long, though. Baggott said the Pioneer League remains interested in having a team in Utah County and will begin looking for individuals or companies willing to establish the league’s ninth franchise there.
Meanwhile, the state will retain the Raptors, who have played in the Pioneer League since 1994, as well as the Salt Lake Bees. The Bees are the Triple-A affiliate of the Anaheim Angels and will not be affected by MLB’s arrangement with the Pioneer League.
Team associations will not necessarily carry over in the Pioneer League’s new partnership agreement. That means Ogden may no longer be “Dodgertown, Utah,” as a sign along the outfield fence proclaims. Aside from that, though, Katofsky said the partnership will make little difference in fans’ experience.
“They won’t see a difference,” he said. “Baseball will be great. Baseball might even be a little better, theoretically.”
The Pioneer League has had a player-development agreement with MLB since the 1940s. It had been a Rookie-level short-season affiliate since 1964. Now its teams will play a 92-game schedule spanning roughly from May to September.
The players will mostly be the same level — those who in previous MLB drafts would have gone in the 21st to 40th rounds but will likely be undrafted if future drafts are shortened to 20 rounds, as is expected. They may be joined by former pro players who have been released from a major league club or players under contract with an MLB team. Undrafted standouts from local college teams may also get a roster spot because Pioneer League teams will be responsible for paying player and staff salaries.
“We are completely, 100% responsible for the acquisition of the players,” said Baggott, who added he plans to hold free-agent camps in Ogden and at sites around the country.
The MLB previously assigned players to Pioneer teams and picked up the tab for their salaries and workman’s compensation insurance as well as for those of the coaches and staff. Having to take on those considerable expenses themselves was the greatest worry for the Pioneer League and other minor league clubs as the October expiration of the Professional Baseball Agreement between MiLB and MLB loomed.
Katofsky said some cost savings, such as not having to pay dues, will help offset the additional expenses. Rosters are also expected to be smaller and Baggott said sponsors can help carry some of the financial load. Plus, the MLB has agreed to provide initial funding for the league’s operating expenses, according to the news release. In addition, it plans to install scouting technology in Pioneer League ballparks and create a procedure for transferring players to MLB clubs. The leagues will also “explore joint marketing, ticketing and fan engagement opportunities.”
“This is this is honestly no different than what we were playing,” Katofsky said. “I mean, it is from a business standpoint. It’s not from a from a baseball or experience standpoint.”
All eight Pioneer League teams — located in Montana, Idaho, Colorado and Utah — agreed to the arrangement. In September, three other independent leagues also accepted partner league status: the Atlantic League, the Frontier League and the American Association.
“Over the past year, we have worked closely with Pioneer League owners and elected officials to ensure the continued success of baseball in the Mountain West,” said Morgan Sword, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball economics and operations, in a statement. “We’re excited to support this new initiative and look forward to Pioneer League baseball returning in 2021.”
The MLB also announced Monday that up to six other short-season teams from the East will be founding members of its new Draft League. Primarily a showcase for players hoping to improving their draft prospects, the 68-game season will be played from May to August. An all-star break will be held around the MLB draft, which starting this year has been moved from June to July.
The initial Draft League teams include the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, the State College Spikes, the Trenton Thunder, the West Virginia Black Bears, and the Williamsport Crosscutters. A sixth team is expected to be announced in the coming weeks.
In September it was announced that the Appalachian League, another former short-season Rookie Advanced circuit, will become a collegiate wood-bat league in 2021.