IN-DEPTH: After the Rangers, which MLB team is most likely to join the Round Rock Express?

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(KXAN Photo/Todd Bailey)

ROUND ROCK (KXAN) — The Round Rock Express are one of the most popular and successful Minor League Baseball franchises in the country. They are well run, have a beautiful ballpark, and regularly are in the Top 10 in MiLB attendance.

One possible reason for the strong attendance is the tie-in to the state’s two Major League Baseball teams — the Texas Rangers and the Houston Astros. Over the past two decades, the Express have benefitted from being able to field teams using players from either the Rangers or Astros organizations.

But that could change in 2021.

On Sept. 30, the Professional Baseball Agreement expired between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball which superseded all agreements for big league clubs and the minor league farm systems.

“Basically, all of the teams are free agents,” Express President Chris Almendarez told KXAN. “We just sat back and we have just been waiting for the assignment Major League Baseball gives us. We’re kind of at their mercy.”

Round Rock is currently without a contract with a Major League team. These contracts determine which team’s farm system plays in Round Rock.

There will be at least two Minor League teams that will no longer play in Class AAA in 2021 due to the Astros’ purchase of the Sugar Land Skeeters and the Twins’ expected partnership with the St. Paul Saints.

Leaders of the Round Rock Express do not believe they will be one of the Minor League teams without a Triple-A affiliation when the music stops this offseason.

“We look forward to the conclusion of negotiations between Major and Minor League Baseball in the coming weeks and are excited to start our next chapter of Triple-A Baseball in Round Rock with a new affiliate,” Express President Chris Almendarez said in a statement Friday.

KXAN looked at each of the Triple-A teams in Minor League Baseball, their affiliations, ownership, attendance, and geography to put together a list of the Major League Baseball teams that might consider the Round Rock Express an attractive partner.

Not a chance

HOUSTON, TEXAS – JULY 25: Jim Crane, owner of the Houston Astros, talks with players during a game against the Seattle Mariners at Minute Maid Park on July 25, 2020 in Houston, Texas. The 2020 season had been postponed since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

30. Houston Astros — purchased Sugar Land Skeeters and ended affiliation with Express
29. Washington Nationals announced new Triple-A affiliation on Nov. 19 with Rochester Red Wings
28. Boston Red Sox — owns part of Worcester Red Sox that just built new ballpark
27. New York Mets — owns Syracuse Mets
26. Atlanta Braves — owns Gwinnett Stripers
25. New York Yankees — owns 50% of Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders
24. Los Angeles Dodgers — owns part of Oklahoma City Dodgers
23. St. Louis Cardinals — owns part of Memphis Redbirds

Highly unlikely due to geography

Each of these teams has a Triple-A affiliation with a team in their backyard. They might not own that team, but it certainly makes a move to Round Rock highly unlikely.

CINCINNATI, OH – SEPTEMBER 21: Cincinnati Reds mascot Mr. Redlegs watches the game from the stands in the seventh inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Great American Ball Park on September 21, 2020 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Reds won 6-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

22. Minnesota Twins — the Twins ended a nearly two-decade partnership with the Rochester Red Wings and the Star-Tribune reports they are working on a deal with the independent St. Paul Saints
21. Kansas City Royals — affiliated with Omaha Storm Chasers since 1969
20. Seattle Mariners — affiliated with Tacoma Rainiers since 1995
19. Chicago Cubs — affiliated with Iowa Cubs since 1981
18. Toronto Blue Jays — affiliated with Buffalo Bisons since 2013
17. San Francisco Giants — affiliated with Sacramento River Cats since 2015. In 2016, Forbes said the River Cats were the most valuable Minor League Baseball team in the country. (Round Rock came in sixth.)
16. Cincinnati Reds — affiliated with Louisville Bats since 2000
15. Pittsburgh Pirates — affiliated with Indianapolis Indians since 2005
14. Philadelphia Phillies — affiliated with Lehigh Valley IronPigs since 2007
13. Baltimore Orioles — affiliated with Norfolk Tides since 2007
12. Cleveland Indians — affiliated with Columbus Clippers since 2009

Unlikely due to long-standing partnership with successful MiLB team

11. Detroit Tigers — affiliated with Toledo Mud Hens since 1987
10. Tampa Bay Rays — affiliated with Durham Bulls since 1998
9. Chicago White Sox — affiliated with Charlotte Knights since 1999
8. Los Angeles Angels — affiliated with Salt Lake Bees since 2001

Second-tier possibilities

ARLINGTON, TEXAS – OCTOBER 08: Fernando Tatis Jr. #23 of the San Diego Padres tosses the ball to Manny Machado #13 during the ninth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game Three of the National League Division Series at Globe Life Field on October 08, 2020 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Here’s where we start to see teams that are on shakier footing with their Triple-A club and where a change could be possible.

7. Miami Marlins — Miami enters 2021 with an existing Triple-A affiliation but in a city where they’ve never actually played a game. The then-New Orleans Baby Cakes moved to Kansas after the 2019 season and became the Wichita Wind Surge. An April game against the Express was supposed to be their first ever but the game never happened due to COVID-19, which canceled the entire 2020 Minor League Baseball season. Marlins fan site FishStripes.com writes that “the player development partnership between the Marlins and Wichita Wind Surge is likely to end before it really began.” The Marlins own three of their affiliates. It’s a good possibility Miami moves on from Wichita but unlikely they choose Round Rock. They might elevate a Double-A team in Florida to Triple-A status.

6. Colorado Rockies — the Rockies extended their Triple-A affiliation with the Albuquerque Isotopes through the 2022 season back in March 2019. Colorado has been affiliated with Albuquerque for six years. A change seems unlikely unless the Arizona Diamondbacks leave Reno for Albuquerque. Then all bets are off amid the cascading dominoes.

5. San Diego Padres — the Padres have been the Triple-A affiliate of the El Paso Chihuahuas ever since El Paso got a Triple-A team in 2014. El Paso has consistently done well in terms of attendance since then and won BallParkDigest.com’s 2019 Continued Excellence Award. Last year, San Diego extended its Player Development Contract with El Paso, and it now runs through 2022. Central Texas though offers better flight options out of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. And the impact of COVID-19 could play a role as El Paso has been one of the worst hotspots for the coronavirus disease in the country.

4. Oakland Athletics — the Las Vegas Aviators led the Pacific Coast League in attendance in 2019. Vegas also has a good airport, nice hotels and easy access. I don’t see Oakland looking to end this partnership. But I could potentially see the Arizona Diamondbacks leaving Reno. If they do, Las Vegas might be one of their first phone calls, and Phoenix is only a 4.5-hour drive from Vegas.

Top three contenders

CINCINNATI, OH – SEPTEMBER 21: Christian Yelich #22 of the Milwaukee Brewers looks on before the game against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on September 21, 2020 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

3. Arizona Diamondbacks — if the Diamondbacks choose to leave Reno and can’t persuade Las Vegas to abandon the A’s or Albuquerque to ditch the Rockies, Round Rock makes a lot of sense. Reno finished the 2019 season with the second worst attendance in the Pacific Coast League. The only team that was worse was the New Orleans Baby Cakes, and they no longer exist. The Player Development Contract also expired in 2020, so Arizona can leave Reno if they’d like.

2. Milwaukee Brewers — the Brewers are looking for a new Triple-A affiliate after their partnership with the San Antonio Missions expired this season, according to a report from BrewCrewBall.com. If San Antonio made sense for Milwaukee, so should Round Rock. The Express have a nicer stadium and in 2019 drew nearly twice as many fans every single game as the Missions.

Most likely candidate

ARLINGTON, TEXAS – SEPTEMBER 08: Ronald Guzman #11 of the Texas Rangers hits a rbi single against the Los Angeles Angels in the sixth inning at Globe Life Field on September 08, 2020 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

1. Texas Rangers — a reunion with the Rangers makes the most sense for Round Rock and would be a great opportunity for Texas. It would likely please both Express and Rangers fans alike — especially those who pull for both teams. It’s also the most likely scenario.

For eight years, the Texas Rangers enjoyed having their Triple-A team just 2.5 hours down Interstate 35. Now it takes a flight to Nashville.

Likely the only reason the Express partnership ended in 2018 was because of the relationship Round Rock owners Nolan Ryan and son Reid Ryan had at the time with the Houston Astros. But Astros owner Jim Crane then ousted Reid Ryan as team president in 2019, replacing him with his son, Jared Crane. Nolan Ryan ended his advisory role with the team after Reid was demoted, and Reid Ryan’s diminished role came to an official end three weeks ago.

Texas signed a four-year Player Development Contract with the Nashville Sounds in 2018, which ends in 2022. Nashville is a great city and had the second-highest attendance in the Pacific Coast League in 2019. They are highly likely to remain a Triple-A team in 2021 — just maybe not with the Rangers.

This move simply comes down to location, location, location.

Currently, Major League Baseball is looking to restructure Minor League Baseball and eliminate as many as 42 teams. It says regional proximity will play a key role in the restructuring process. You can already see that with the aforementioned moves by the Astros and Twins.

The Rangers’ contract with the Sounds might not end until 2022, but then again, the Astros’ contract with the Express wasn’t supposed to end until 2022 either. All signs point toward a Rangers-Express reunion.

Is Round Rock in danger of not being a Triple-A team?

Round Rock losing its Triple-A status even for the 2021 baseball season seems highly unlikely at this point. And long-term it seems virtually impossible.

It’s much more likely less profitable teams like the San Antonio Missions or Wichita Wind Surge get demoted to Double-A, while teams like Round Rock and Nashville keep their Triple-A status even if they change team affiliations.

When will an announcement happen?

Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball continue to work out what the future of Minor League Baseball will look like. Major League Baseball has nearly all of the power, and Baseball America reports “MLB’s proposal would turn minor league teams into franchisees in an MLB-governed system.”

Contraction seems highly likely. Only about 120 Minor League Baseball teams would survive under MLB’s proposal. As many as 42 teams would be cut. No new Player Development Contracts can be inked until after MLB finalizes the structure of the new Minor Leagues.

What makes the most sense?

In terms of educated guesses, I think the Texas Rangers return to Round Rock, as well as the following moves:

  • Nashville Sounds, after losing the Rangers, become the Triple-A home of the Milwaukee Brewers
  • At least three teams lose Triple-A status, including the San Antonio Missions, Wichita Wind Surge, and Fresno Grizzlies, (although the Oakland A’s make a lot of sense for Fresno.)
  • Arizona Diamondbacks don’t gamble and stay in Reno due to location
(KXAN Photo/Todd Bailey)

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