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Expand chart
Data: MILB, MLB; Logos: SportsLogos.Net; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

When Minor League Baseball begins its 2021 season, there will be 25% fewer teams than there were at this time last year.

The state of play: The realignment removes a net of 40 teams from 2020, for a total of 120 teams across 39 states.

  • 43 teams lost MLB affiliation. Two were Double-A clubs, while the other 41 were Single-A or lower.
  • Three independent teams — the Somerset Patriots, St. Paul Saints and Sugar Land Skeeters — gained MLB affiliation.

Why it matters: The reshaping of the minors is a push toward modernizing MLB's development pipeline, but the changes will leave pockets of the country without access to high level baseball.

What they're saying: In a letter sent to Congress in 2019, MLB cited poor facilities, geographic inefficiency, and "too many players" as key challenges within the minor league system. So that's what this restructuring plan addresses.

  • Higher wages: Due in part to fewer roster spots, player salaries will increase between 38 and 72%.
  • Less travel: Big league teams will be an average of 200 miles closer to their Triple-A affiliates, and most will be within driving distance.
  • Better conditions: Under the new structure, MLB will modernize facility standards and improve amenities and working conditions.

The other side: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has vocally opposed MLB's plan since 2019, suggesting that it has "nothing to do with what is good for baseball" and "everything to do with greed."

  • Sanders' local team, the Vermont Lake Monsters, were eliminated, leaving them without a big league club after 27 seasons with the Athletics (2011–2020), Nationals (2005–2010) and Expos (1994–2004).
  • "Closing down Minor League teams ... is a disaster for baseball fans, workers, and communities across the country. I will do all I can to fight it," Sanders tweeted last week.

Between the lines: The 40 eliminated teams aren't all going away. Some will join independent leagues, while others will join the newly formed MLB Draft League, which focuses on draft-eligible prospects.

Data: MILB, MLB; Note: Calculated using the median distance from the center of each state’s counties to their closest current Minor League team; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Notes:

  • The Mountain West states of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Idaho were most affected by contraction. Losing seven teams hurt the largely rural states, whose best bet for baseball in 2021 are independent teams.
  • Tennessee lost six teams, but the median distance to the closest team averaged across its counties only increased by 11 miles. The density of teams in the Carolinas and surrounding Southern states offset the losses.
  • Vermont and West Virginia lost their only teams. The Lake Monsters' future is unclear, while the West Virginia Black Bears will join the MLB Draft League.
  • The Twins' Triple-A affiliate shifted from Rochester, New York, to St. Paul, Minnesota, decreasing the state's median distance to a team by 135 miles.

Go deeper

FBI, Homeland Security warn of increasing threat to Capitol

Photo: Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security predict violent domestic extremists attacks will increase in 2021, according to a report reviewed by Axios.

Driving the news: The joint report says an unidentified group of extremists discussed plans to take control of the Capitol and "remove Democratic lawmakers" on or about March 4. The House canceled its plans for Thursday votes as word of the possible threats spread.

24 mins ago - World

Pope Francis set to make first papal visit to Iraq amid possible turmoil

Data: Vatican News; Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Pope Francis is forging ahead with the first papal trip to Iraq despite new coronavirus outbreaks and fears of instability.

The big picture: The March 5–8 visit is intended to reassure Christians in Iraq who were violently persecuted under the Islamic State. Francis also hopes to further ties with Shiite Muslims, AP notes.

"Neanderthal thinking": Biden slams states lifting mask mandates

States that are relaxing coronavirus restrictions are making "a big mistake," President Biden told reporters on Wednesday, adding: "The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking."

Driving the news: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Wednesday he will end all coronavirus restrictions via executive order, although some businesses are continuing to ask patrons to wear face masks. Mississippi is lifting its mask mandate for all counties Wednesday, per Gov. Tate Reeves (R).