The Mets Buy the Chiefs

From 1969 through 2006, the Mets triple A farm club was located in Norfolk Virginia.  Originally known as the Tidewater Tides, then the Norfolk Tides, the 38 year affiliation was the longest running minor league club in franchise history.  But following a disagreement with Mets ownership, the Norfolk Tides bid adieu to the Mets, signing a deal with the Baltimore Orioles for the 2007 season.  Since then the Mets have been the foil in a game of AAA musical chairs.

Because there are only thirty AAA teams, MLB parent clubs sometimes do not have a choice as to where their AAA affiliate will be.  The only open seat available in 2007 was the New Orleans Zephyrs, a Pacific Coast League club.  This posed a series of problems for the Mets because none of the Zephyrs’ games took place in the Eastern Time zone with many played on the west coast.  The distance to shuttle players back and forth, to and from Flushing was often problematic.  Ideally a team would want their AAA and AA clubs as close as possible for the simply reason of retrieving players as quickly as possible, especially in the case of emergencies.

Following the two years in New Orleans, the Mets were able to grab a seat back in the International League table as they landed in Buffalo New York.  This was a much more desirable location for the Mets since International League clubs are no further west than Indianapolis and further south than Gwinnett Georgia.  However, two things hurt the Mets while in Buffalo.  One, the Mets farm system was not very good with the AAA Bisons finishing in last place twice, the highest being third place, their second year in Buffalo.  Two, with the Toronto Blue Jays just 100 miles away from Buffalo, there are lots of Blue Jays fans in the western part of New York State.  The Buffalo ownership wanted a more competitive team with closer fan ties to a major league affiliate.  A deal was struck between the Bisons and Toronto leaving the Mets out in the cold once again.

The only franchise left available at the time was the Las Vegas 51s, a place where pitchers go to die.  The Pacific Coast League is a notorious hitter’s league.  It’s worse in Vegas with the high altitude and dry air.  Simply put, Vegas is not a great place for young pitchers to hone their skills in an organization trying to build around pitching.  Plus the ballpark in Vegas, Cashman Field, is considered one of the worst in triple A.  Because of the hot dry conditions, the field is like concrete making infield play a daunting task.  But the Mets had no choice except to wait for an opportunity to hopefully get back to the International League.  Minor league affiliate deals are typically two to four years in length.  After two seasons in Vegas, with no opportunities available again, the Mets had no choice but to stay.  In an announcement in 2016, the Mets said that the relationship between the major league club and 51s was beneficial to both.  Of course this was nothing more than PR.  The Mets desperately wanted out of Las Vegas but with nowhere to go they had to suck it up and make it sound like they were glad to be staying put.

During the last couple of seasons of so many injuries, moving players from Las Vegas or another Pacific Coast League city, when the 51s were on the road, required a lot more travel time, cost, and logistics.  But more importantly evaluating players was more difficult when playing in conditions so alien compared to where the home team play their games.

Citi Field is at sea level where conditions are often cold, wet, hot and humid (let’s hope it’s not below sea level in the coming warming years).  Air pressure and climate affect the way a ball is thrown and hit.  Prospects with good stuff are often pounded playing in desert conditions.  Breaking balls do not behave the way they are supposed to when at high elevations in dry conditions.  Just ask any Colorado Rockies’ pitchers.  On the contrary, not so talented hitters benefit from desert conditions.  Quite simply, it makes the evaluation of talent by the front office difficult.  Ultimately an MLB club wants their prospects growing up and playing in conditions similar if not exactly like those they will experience at the major league lever for 81 plus games.

In order to create a better AAA situation, the Mets would need to be creative and insure a path back to the International League, hopefully as close to the city as possible.  This week the Mets did both of those things and give them credit for taking charge of the problem.

One way to get back into the IL would be to buy a franchise.  A team cannot create a new franchise because there can only be thirty clubs.  Typically MLB clubs sign a deal known as a PDC (player development contract) with a minor league team to develop their players.  The major league club hires the general manager, manager, and coaches and builds the roster with players that mostly come through the MLB and International amateur drafts.  A MLB club also subsidizes the expense of running team operations making the relationship desirable.  The benefit owners have of affiliated teams over independent minor league teams is that major league clubs defray the cost.  PDCs are typically two to four years in length.  When the contract expires, ownership of the minor league club is free to negotiate a new deal with the same club or another major league team.  An MLB club not owning the affiliate makes themselves vulnerable to being moved out by another team.  That was the case when the Mets were forced to New Orleans then to Nevada.

The Mets took care of business this week by purchasing the Syracuse Chiefs, the longtime AAA team that has made the upstate New York town home since 1961*.  This is a great move for many reasons.  It puts future AAA Mets players in close proximity, playing in identical climate conditions to that of Queens.  Mets players need to experience playing in cold wet Aprils in the northeast as opposed to comfortable warm conditions in the desert.  Plus, the Mets AAA team moves from a dilapidated run down ballpark in Nevada to one of the finest facilities in all of AAA baseball.  NBT Bank Stadium, opened in 1997, is a double deck ballpark modeled after the modern retro ballparks of the modern era.  It’s been well manicured over the years and is a first class baseball stadium.  And surely now that the Mets own the club, they will certainly want to help the city of Syracuse keep the ballpark pristine.**  Most importantly of course is the distance between Citi Field and Syracuse.  It’s just 260 miles, a mere one hour and five minute flight.  That’s quite a difference compared to the 2500 miles to Vegas, a five and a half hour plane ride.  Once in Syracuse, the furthest a AAA Mets player will be from New York is when the Chiefs play in Gwinnett, Georgia, a two hour flight away.

Another benefit to being in Syracuse is that it puts front office personal in a position to easily visit their triple A club and see firsthand who may be ready to come up.  It also places a third Mets minor league club in the state of New York.  The Binghamton (AA) Rumble Ponies are only one and a half hours away from Syracuse by car.  When the Mets want to see a double A starter try out triple A hitters, it’s going to be a much simpler logistic.  The Mets also have their short season A club in Brooklyn.  They are building their brand throughout the state of New York with their top two farm clubs in upstate New York and their low level A club a borough away from Citi Field.  Come 2019, all Mets farm clubs will play home games in the Eastern Time Zone with away games no further than the Central.

This is a win-win for the Mets.  Frankly I’m rather shocked they were able to pull off a deal like this considering the often confused state of affairs within Mets ownership.  Now if they can just incorporate that kind of thinking into the roster and health conditioning, we’ll have something to cheer for.

Of course the move to Syracuse does not happen until after next season.  In 2018 the Mets will still be in Vegas playing out their final season in the desert.

*The Chiefs actually began in the 1930s but eventually moved.  In 1961 the franchise was re-established with the ’62 Mets being affiliated with them.

**I’ve read that the Mets will be at NBT Bank Stadium through 2025 which leads me to believe they do not own the stadium, just the franchise.  This just means that the Mets will renegotiate a new lease with the city at that time.  Of course since the Mets own the team, they could always opt to move it elsewhere but that would seem doubtful.

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