The merry-go-round is in motion.
The Columbus Clippers announced last week that they will be seeking a new major league team to affiliate with in 2009. The Triple-A franchise's contract to be a feeder team for the Washington Nationals is expiring at the end of the season and it's an open secret they are hoping to link up with the Cleveland Indians next year. As it turns out, the Indians' contract with the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons is also expiring all part of a shell game that could end with a handful of MLB teams featuring new minor league affiliates next season.
According to the Dispatch article there are several teams with affiliation contracts expiring, but the most important may be in Syracuse, where the Blue Jays' longtime partnership with the Chiefs is up for renewal. There is some speculation that Columbus could partner with the Indians, Buffalo could partner with the Blue Jays and the Mets could partner with the Chiefs - an ideal geographical for for all three clubs.
This, of course, fails to answer one question - will the Nationals then end up being stuck with a Triple-A team in New Orleans? I mean no disrespect to the fine city of New Orleans or to the Zephyrs franchise, but the franchise has been a poor fit for the Mets since their shotgun marriage was consummated two years ago.
The Mets only ended up in New Orleans because longtime Triple-A affiliate Norfolk dropped the club after the 2006 season in an ultimately successful attempt to partner with Baltimore. (Ever wonder how David Wright grew up a Mets fan? That's how.) That put the wheels in motion for several affiliation shifts and left the Mets and New Orleans as the last two teams without partners. It's a marriage of convenience and it's unlikely to have a long shelf life. There is simply too much distance between the two cities to make for a logical fit.
On the rare occasions that the Mets have a Triple-A prospect worthy of a promotion, the player has to fly halfway across the country to make it from Zephyr Field to Shea Stadium. It affects scouting trips and outreach efforts as well; for example, rehabbing Mets always skip New Orleans and end up playing at Single-A Brooklyn or Double-A Binghamton instead. Having a Triple-A team in Syracuse would give the Mets two top farm clubs in central New York - certainly more appealing than the current set-up.
The problem is that New Orleans is a tough city to partner with because its location makes it a logical fit for only a handful of teams. Either of the Texas franchises would work well, but the Rangers (Oklahoma Redhawks) and the Astros (Round Rock Express) seem very happy with their affiliates. The Rangers have been in Oklahoma for 25 years and the Astros enjoy having their Triple-A affiliate (that includes an ownership group headed by former Houston great Nolan Ryan) in the same state.
The Florida Marlins might consider to New Orleans from a geographic standpoint, since their Triple-A team is the Albuquerque Isotopes. But the city of Albuquerque built an entirely new stadium to lure the Isotopes from Calgary five years ago and that relationship seems stable. (Perhaps the best Mets blogger in New Mexico would care to comment on this further?)
You could play this game all day. Maybe Los Angeles goes back to its longtime Triple-A home in Albuquerque? Then the Padres go back to Las Vegas, where they had a team for 18 years in the 80s and 90s? You can shuffle teams all over the place and never come up with an ideal fit. There is only one geographic solution that I can think of, and it involves the New Orleans franchise picking up stakes and moving out of town.
Since the Braves are moving their Triple-A franchise from Richmond to Gwinnett County, GA in 2009, the city being left behind would be an ideal place for the Nationals to put their top farm club. Could the Nationals sign a two-year deal with New Orleans (the shortest allowable length of time for an affiliation contract), buy the club and move it to Richmond for the 2011 season? It's certainly possible, even though there are rumors that a Single-A club could be in Richmond by that time.
It's a complicated process, one that the Mets were unexpectedly sucked into when Norfolk ended the friendship in 2006. It seems a good bet that they will do whatever they can to get themselves out of it before the end of this season.