First, the reality check. There is almost zero chance any of us will take in a Yard Goats game in 2020.
That's not official, it's just looking at where we are now, and the calendar. If Major League Baseball is able to come to an agreement with the players and execute its plan to play without fans starting in early July, where would it leave minor league teams like Hartford's?
Empty stadiums and TV-only games are not a viable option for minor league baseball, so there would be no point in assembling teams and sending them around the country. Any minor league baseball in 2020 will be played in the controlled environs of spring training complexes in Arizona and Florida. Only if fans are allowed to fill parks by August 1, with a season extended to Sept. 30, could that change, and it seems that would take a miracle.
After that rather disappointing state of affairs sinks in, the larger question: When minor league baseball does return in 2021, what will it look like? You may not recognize it, and not even those deeply entrenched in minor league baseball hazard much of a guess these days.
But those in the know say the coronavirus pandemic tilted the leverage toward MLB in the long, contentious negotiations with the minor league establishment. The good fight was fought, and lost; a new deal is close that will call for eliminating up to 42 minor league franchises, mostly in rookie ball and short-season Class A. That would include the rebranded Norwich Sea Unicorns of the New York-Penn League. There would also be a sweeping, complicated reorganization that changes the way minor league business is done everywhere, in which MLB will match parent clubs and affiliates.
Now, on this you can rely: Opening Day of 2021 will find the Yard Goats ready to flourish, perhaps in an even stronger position. Here is why: Hartford's $70-plus million stadium is one of the best, maybe the best in minor league baseball in the ways that will matter in the new world. The field, and the facilities appeal to major league franchises - so much so, there may be a fight over which team claims Hartford and its oft-filled ballpark.
Most minor league franchises put their money in fan amenities, because that's where the local ownership reaps benefits. In designing Dunkin' Donuts Park, the money spent on batting cages, bullpens and clubhouses may not enhance the fan experience, but could pay off with, wait for it, a move to Triple A. The seating capacity, 6,000, is well short of current Triple A requisites, but where there's a will, there's a waiver.
There's some spit-balling there, yes. A return to Double A and a reconfigured Eastern League is more likely for the Yard Goats, but not as a Rockies affiliate, with the current player development agreements running out after the 2020 season. The reorganization will emphasize reducing travel, which could make Hartford a target for the Yankees or Mets to place one of their top farm clubs, with the Red Sox presumably set with Double A in Portland and Triple A in a new stadium being built in Worcester. The Yankees, in particular, like The Dunk, having sent numerous players to Hartford to rehab injuries in road games.
So the Yard Goats, who have retained their full-time staff this far into this shut-down season, will be OK when minor league baseball comes out the other side, though they will need to recover from a year's lost revenue. Many other franchises, though, may not be OK.
The foundation for a streamlined version of the minor leagues, which will operate at immense savings with more revenue for MLB, has already been poured. The Draft, which has been 40 or more rounds, will be cut to five rounds next month, and in the coming years will probably be capped at 20. With modern analytics, teams believe the days of the "inexact science" and sifting through more than a thousand new prospects every year should disappear. They will focus on developing a much smaller number of prospects with a more realistic chance and the rest, the undrafted masses, will get on with life or go into "Dream Leagues," in which MLB will have some control. Look for many of the 40 or so de-franchised towns, maybe Norwich, to be part of this experiment and land one of these semi-independent teams. Don't put that Sea Unicorns cap on eBay just yet.