The fallout from the proposed realignment of Minor League Baseball could have an effect on North Adams and Pittsfield.
Major League Baseball and USA Baseball announced a major change for one of the short-season minor leagues that was due to be eliminated in the MLB restructuring of the minors. The 10-team Appalachian League will survive in 2021, but as a league for freshman and sophomore college baseball players. It lines the Appalachian League up as a direct competitor to the NECBL and the Futures League.
"To be honest with you right now, I think the top leagues will likely be impacted. The Cape Cod League, obviously, has a lot of first-team All-Americans, second-team All-Americans and freshman All-Americans," NECBL commissioner Sean McGrath said. "The NECBL is next on that list as far as the quality of players. Certainly there will be some of the players that our rosters would likely be filled with, will have the opportunity to go participate in this league. But keep in mind, that league includes  teams and I don't know what their roster size will be. That will be a small group of players from around the country. There are a lot of great players that come through the NECBL each and every year.
"We anticipate losing some of our players, but it's a small percentage that we think will be playing in that league versus the NECBL."
The 10-team Appalachian League will play a 54-game summer schedule, which will include playoffs and an All-Star Game. The league will be similar to the NECBL, the Futures League, the New York state-based Perfect Game League and the Cape Cod League.
Futures League commissioner Joe Paolucci agrees that the new Appy League will have an impact on summer wood bat college baseball leagues, but he said that the new league will help raise all boats.
"It's definitely the kind of thing we welcome. I think it just shines a brighter light on summer collegiate baseball," Paolucci said. "I think that ultimately, that's going to serve our league well as it will other leagues. It makes you realize that Major League Baseball is thinking about the summer collegiate landscape, and how it is going to be part of Major League Baseball going forward."
According to the release from Major League Baseball, MLB and USA Baseball have already begun the process of identifying and inviting the top 320 players to participate in the 2021 Appalachian League.
"I don't think we're in competition with those other leagues, said Mike Gaski, the president of USA Baseball. "It's kind of a run-up to being a member of the USA National team, and another opportunity to showcase your skill set in another environment."
McGrath, coincidentally, began his professional baseball career playing for the Kingsport (Tenn.) Mets of the Appy League.
"The NECBL has had a long-standing relationship with Major League Baseball," McGrath said, "dating back over 20 years. They have supported the New England Collegiate Baseball League, along with all the other National Alliance of Summer Baseball Leagues. They've always had a good relationship with summer collegiate baseball leagues. They have valued summer collegiate baseball leagues."
In a Zoom Conference Tuesday, Morgan Sword, MLB’s Executive Vice President of Baseball Economics and Operations, praised the proposed new league. But in response to a question, said that the support Major League Baseball has given to the NECBL won't change.
"We plan to continue our support. We support lots of college summer leagues around the country, and we plan on continuing that," Sword said in response to a question from The Eagle. "It's our goal to have as much baseball as possible."
For his part, McGrath said he and the NECBL team owners are ready to vie for those top players, and the commissioner said he doesn't anticipate his league taking a major hit in the level of talent.
"I'm sure we will lose some players, and that's because we're recruiting the top players from around the country. There are still many, many more players out there and available who are high quality and high caliber players," McGrath said, citing former Hoosac Valley and Trinity College standout Matt Koperniak, who came from a Division III program, had a couple of All-Star seasons in the NECBL, and parlayed that into a pro contract with the St. Louis Cardinals organization.
"We'll continue to give those opportunities to our star players."
For his part, Paolucci said he and the Futures League's ownership groups aren't worried about a potential talent drain.
"We're not concerned at all," he said. "We love [the rising freshmen] and we had some good ones this year and they're a big part of our league. They're more local guys than anything else. I feel like some of these top prospects are coming from different parts of the country. It's certainly going to affect us a little bit, but nothing too major, I don't think."