14 September 2014

Orioles Renew With Full-Season Affiliates

To the surprise of almost no one, the Orioles announced that they have renewed affiliations with AAA Norfolk, AA Bowie, High-A Frederick, and Low-A Delmarva. From the Orioles perspective, Bowie, Frederick, and Delmarva are an ideal set; they're close to each other and close to Baltimore. And Bowie, Frederick, and Delmarva have a long history with the Orioles. Bowie has been an Orioles affiliate since its creation; Frederick has been an Orioles affiliate since its creation; Delmarva has been an Orioles affiliate since its second season (it was an Expos affiliate for one season after it moved from Albany, GA.) There's no obvious advantage to either the Orioles or the teams separating.

In contrast, Norfolk entered into its first affiliation with the Orioles in 2007, eight years ago. Norfolk had been an affiliate of the New York Mets for thirty-eight years, ever since it had become an AAA team in 1969. Many observers and local fans were stunned when the Tides left the Mets. These past eight seasons - two four-year affiliation agreements - were a test; would the Orioles and Tides prove to be mutually-beneficial partners?

It may be hard to remember, but nine seasons ago the Orioles were not considered a desirable partner for an AAA team. After the 2002 season, their long-time AAA affiliate, Rochester, informed the Orioles that Rochester no longer wanted to affiliate with the Orioles. The Orioles ended up settling for the lame-duck Ottawa Lynx, considered at the time to be the least-desirable AAA affiliate. When Norfolk became so frustrated with their affiliation with the Mets that they made themselves available, the Orioles put the all-out press to become the Tides' partner. Three franchises vied for the Norfolk affiliation - the Orioles, the Mets, and the Nationals. The Mets had completely alienated the Tides; the Nationals then had an uncertain ownership; so the Tides agreed to affiliate with the Orioles. It's safe to say that if the Orioles had blown this opportunity, they'd now be affiliated with Las Vegas. And in a positive sign for the Orioles front office, they haven't blown it. Both the Tides and the Orioles were eager to continue their affiliation because it's mutually beneficial.

The biggest advantage to the Orioles is that Norfolk is currently the third-closest AAA team, behind Lehigh Valley and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Lehigh Valley is so closely tied to the Phillies that they won't become available, and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre until recently had ownership and facility issues made it a less-desirable affiliation. Keeping Norfolk as their AAA affiliate is important because the alternatives are much worse. MASN, on which Orioles games are televised, is available on Hampton Roads-area cable systems. This helps the Orioles as well because fans attending Tides games are reminded that they can see former Tides playing for the Orioles on MASN. Finally, Norfolk has a good reputation among minor-league teams; owner Ken Young (who also owns Bowie and Frederick) is very well-respected and the front office is experienced and skilled.

From the Tides' standpoint, while there have been some negatives with the Orioles' affiliation, there have been more positives. The biggest negative is that the Tides have been generally uncompetitive with the players the Orioles provide; they have not qualified for the postseason in any of the seasons of their affiliation. The Orioles, especially in the Showalter Era, have called up players from Norfolk for even the smallest possible potential advantage. While this may mean that the Tides may get an attendance boost if a temporarily-optioned major leaguer plays for them (Miguel Gonzalez made a start around the all-star break when he was sent down briefly), it also means that a key player may be unavailable when he's held back for a potential callup. Second, when signing minor league free agents, the Orioles have preferred potential role players to players with more diversified skills. Third, the Orioles have been willing to give chances to once-good major league veterans such as Miguel Tejada, Jamie Moyer, Randy Wolf, and Joe Saunders. Those players are assigned to Norfolk, which forces Norfolk to adjust its roster. And those players must play, which is fine if they have something left but not so good if they don't. And, perhaps most significantly, the Orioles minor-league system hasn't been very deep, especially in position players.

On the other hand, the Orioles have communicated well with the Tides; gone are the days (as with the tail end of the Mets' affiliation) when the Tides' staff found out about player moves by reading about them in the newspaper. Orioles telecasts on MASN gives the team some indirect publicity and occasional mentions by the broadcasters. By far the biggest advantage is that the Orioles have played four exhibition games in Norfolk in the eight years. These games are a bonus for season-ticket holders and are a good payday for the team. And the Orioles showed their appreciation for Norfolk in 2014, playing the exhibition game even though the weather wasn't good.

There are still some Hampton Roads residents who want Norfolk to re-affiliate with the Mets. Some prefer ational League (no DH) rules; others are native New Yorkers; Still others became Mets fans while the Tides were the Mets AAA affiliate. When the Tides' affiliation became open, I personally was hoping they'd affiliate with the Nationals, because I thought it would be interesting to watch the Nationals organization develop from the beginning and because, frankly, I thought the Orioles were a badly-run team. However, in these eight years, I've watched the Orioles improve and even grown to appreciate the DH.

And, if the Tides hadn't affiliated with the Orioles, I wouldn't be writing here now.

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