If you follow the Tennessee Smokies on Twitter, then you may have seen this last month and wondered what it was about:
EXCITING NEWS IS COMING THIS NOVEMBER, SMOKIES FANS! In anticipation, we're offering 50% OFF all alternate & BP hats! Come by & see us! pic.twitter.com/aX7Rhmku3j
— Tennessee Smokies (@smokiesbaseball) October 5, 2016
Often these announcements are meaningful only to the local market of the minor league team (new park advertisers, new mascot, new special events on the schedule, and so forth), and I want to be quite clear up front that this could be that kind of thing. Entirely possible.
But it’s also possible that this one could be different. It could be big.
It is possible that the Smokies are going to announce that they will host a new Cubs’ affiliated Appalachian League short season team starting as soon as the 2017 season.
The story here begins in early September when rumors began to leak that the Smokies, currently in Kodak, could be considering a return to Knoxville. Later in the month, email exchanges that were discussed in the local media indicated that the Smokies could also be looking at adding a short season team that would be affiliated with the Cubs. For a few seasons both teams would share Smokies Stadium; if the Smokies did move in a few seasons, then the Appalachian League team would remain in Kodak.
There is a lot to unpack here. For our purposes, I’m going to mostly ignore the local politics side of things. There are relevant questions to be asked about conflicts of interest, breach of contract, and the wisdom of publicly funded stadiums among other topics, and depending on how these events play out,f we may take a closer at those topics later on. For now, though, let’s take a look how this could work out for the Smokies and the Cubs.
Moving to Knoxville would mean that the Smokies would be moving back to one of the largest cities in that region, but they would also be moving away from one of the largest tourism destinations in the country. In their current location, the Smokies are very convenient both for the Knoxville crowd as well as the Smokey Mountains and Gatlinburg tourist crowds. Moving back into Knoxville would undoubtedly be good for the fans in Knoxville, but it would also result in an hour or more drive to the stadium for much of the tourist market. That would probably reduce the size of the tourist turnout.
And that is where the Appalachian League team makes sense for the Smokies. The peak tourist season, like the short-season baseball season, is roughly June to early September. For a lot of fans, a Cubs’ minor league team is a Cubs’ minor league team, regardless of level. Even if the Smokies were in Knoxville, an Appalachian League team playing in the current stadium (which, by the way, is a very good stadium) would probably draw much of the tourist crowd that the Smokies would miss out on. Baseball fans will come regardless, and the huge national Cubs fanbase will still be attracted by the affiliation. For the Smokies, then, this would be a net win. They would be able to tap into their current fanbase while cultivating a larger one in Knoxville.
And if the move to Knoxville never happened, it still makes sense. Presuming the Smokies could provide sufficient training facilities around the stadium to accommodate two teams (and I think there is a enough space in the area to add those facilities, if necessary), hosting both teams would mean an increase from 70 home games a year to 104 (the Appalachian League plays a 68-game schedule).
For the Cubs, this makes a lot of sense. There have been rumors that the Cubs have been looking into adding another short season league team for a few seasons now, and the Appalachian League is a good candidate. Adding another low level league would make it a little easier on the Cubs to find innings for the large number of very young pitchers they have been adding via the draft and international free agency lately, and would probably open the door to the Cubs taking a few more shots on undrafted free agents. Talent on a potential Appalachian League roster would be pulled from the same pool of players that we would otherwise expect on the Arizona and Eugene rosters, and probably more from Arizona than Eugene.
Even though they are all short season leagues, the Northwest League (where Eugene plays) is considered to be Short Season Low A, a tougher level than the Rookie Level Appalachian League. My sense of it is that the Appalachian League is a little tougher than the Arizona Rookie League, but not significantly so. Adding a second team in Tennessee, then, would be similar to adding a second team in Arizona. At last check, seven MLB organizations had more than one rookie-level affiliate (Yankees, Astros, Cardinals, Diamondbacks, Mets, Pirates and Rays).
Regardless, I do not expect this possibility to affect the Cubs’ current affiliations. The Cubs just extended their contract with Eugene through the 2018 season, and Eugene is really the only team that could potentially be impacted. I would be very surprised if the Cubs would give up their Short Season Low A affiliate, let alone one with very good training facilities, to double up in a rookie league. If anything comes of this, I think the Cubs will just be adding a new affiliate, not replacing a current one.
So, will anything come of it? We’ll find out soon. I like the Smokies’ current stadium, so I’m not exactly a fan of them moving out of it. But I can’t argue with the logic of adding an Appalachian League team in that same ballpark (provided the training facilities can accommodate two teams). An extra rookie level squad should only mean good things for the Cubs’ player development operation.