Minor league-major league affiliations are a tricky business.
With few exceptions, mostly at the lower levels, major league teams do not own the minor league affiliates. They have agreements with them, which last a minimum of two years. Sometimes the relationship between the big club and the ownership group of the farm club is great and they extend the affiliations for years on end. Sometimes these relationships are short-lived and are entered into simply because there are few other options as teams scramble to match up with affiliates.
The Washington Nationals’ deal with their Triple-A club for the next two years falls into that latter category:
There’s no reason why a big league club can’t have a Triple-A affiliate that is literally across a continent from the home ballpark, but there’s not a lot to recommend that situation either. If a big league guy wakes up with a bad back one Sunday morning, you can’t exactly rush someone to the ballpark from the minors before a 1PM first pitch. If the GM or his aides want to go see someone play down on the farm, they can’t really do it impulsively. There are likewise few marketing synergies to be had between a big league club in D.C. and a Triple-A club in Fresno, California.
But such is life when the Astros leave Fresno to affiliate with Round Rock, which is owned by Nolan Ryan. That relationship ended, primarily, because Ryan’s relationship ended with the Rangers a few years back, so the Rangers are now moving on to Nashville. Nashville had the A’s, but the A’s are moving on to Las Vegas. Las Vegas had the Mets but the Mets are now Syracuse which . . . used to be the Nats’ affiliation. And round and round it goes.
Oh, and the Brewers are leaving Colorado Springs to go to San Antonio, which was in the Texas League and is now moving up. Milwaukee was in Colorado Springs, which will no longer be a Triple-A team.
It’s a weird process — there’s a strong musical chairs vibe to all of this, and the big league clubs actually have less power in it than they are accustomed to having in their business relationships — but such is life when you outsource the overhead for your development pipeline.
We’ve had a couple of notable incidents of sign stealing in Major League Baseball over the past couple of years. Most famously, the Red Sox were found to be using Apple Watches of all things to relay signs spied via video feed. Sports Illustrated reported yesterday that there have been other less-publicized and unpublicized incidents as well, mostly with in-house TV cameras — as opposed to network TV cameras — stationed in the outfield and trained on catchers, for the specific purpose of stealing signs.
As such, SI reports, Major League Baseball is cracking down beginning this year. Within the next couple weeks an already-drafted and circulated rule will take effect which will (a) ban in-house outfield cameras from foul pole to foul pole; (b) will limit live broadcasts available to teams to the team’s replay official only, and the replay official will be watched by a league official to keep them from relaying signs to the team; and (c) other TV monitors that are available to the clubs will be on an eight-second delay to prevent real-time sign stealing. There will likewise be limits on TV monitors showing the game feed in certain places like tunnels and clubhouses.
Penalties for violation of the rules will include the forfeiting of draft picks and/or international spending money. General managers will have to sign a document in which they swear they know of know sign-stealing schemes.
As was the case when the Apple Watch incident came up, there will not be any new rules regarding old fashioned sign stealing by runners on second base or what have you, as that is viewed as part of the game. Only the technology-aided sign stealing that has become more prominent in recent years — but which has, of course, existed in other forms for a very, very long time — is subject to the crackdown.
While gamesmanship of one form or another has always been part of baseball, the current wave of sign-stealing is seen as a pace-of-play issue just as much as a fairness issue. Because of the actual sign-stealing — and because of paranoia that any opponent could be stealing signs — clubs have gone to far more elaborate and constantly changing sign protocols. This requires mound meetings and pitchers coming off the rubber in order to re-start the increasingly complex series of signs from dugout to catcher and from catcher to pitcher.
Now, presumably, with these new rules coming online, teams will figure out a new way to cheat. It’s baseball, after all. It’s in their DNA.