GREAT FALLS -- After months of uncertainty, there are finally some answers regarding the future of professional baseball in Montana.
Major League Baseball and the Pioneer League jointly announced Monday in a release that the Pioneer League has been designated a “Partner League” of MLB. Starting in 2021, the Pioneer League will transition from affiliated status to an independent professional MLB Partner League.
So what does that mean for the Great Falls Voyagers? First, a sigh of relief that pro baseball in Montana is not going anywhere.
“We're not going anywhere and we're still working towards that goal, but to be able to make it official and let people know that professional baseball is going to be in Great Falls for the foreseeable future is certainly a relief, not just for us, but for the entire community,” Voyagers general manager Scott Reasoner said. “And to be able to pass that on is something we've been excited to do for a long time.”
Second of all, it means a lot of changes to the current structure of the Pioneer League.
“We’re not going to have direct affiliations for the first time in 60, 70 years,” Reasoner said. “But to keep that partnership with Major League Baseball and have that professional aspect was really important to us. We'll still be working with MLB and they will be directly helping us find players and do different things like that.”
With MLB teams shedding minor league affiliates and slashing the number of rounds in the annual draft, many young prospects who would normally be under contract with MLB clubs playing low-level minor league ball will still need a place to play to try to advance their careers.
That’s where the “Partner Leagues” come in.
“The level of competition (in the new league) will be the same if not better from a baseball standpoint,” Reasoner said. “And you'll see a lot of our players going from our independent league to Major League Baseball. That's the purpose of the league and that's the goal.”
There are still a lot of details that will need to be worked out. There’s no process in place yet for how teams in the “Partner Leagues” will acquire players or assemble coaching staffs. But MLB will provide guidance on that front, as well as stadium upgrades for scouting purposes.
“MLB will provide initial funding for the league’s operating expenses, as well as install scouting technology in Pioneer League ballparks to provide MLB Clubs with first-class scouting information on Pioneer League players,” a league spokesperson said in a release. “The agreement will also include a procedure for player transfers to MLB Clubs. The Leagues also will explore joint marketing, ticketing and fan engagement opportunities.”
One major change that fans can prepare for is longer seasons. The current 76-game schedule will be replaced by a 92-game slate, including 46 home games.
“More opportunities for fans to come out and enjoy a nice night with their family, and we should be seeing a schedule hopefully soon,” Reasoner said. “Obviously everything here is dependent on the COVID-19 situation like everything else in the country and our community right now, but we are certainly thrilled to have more games, more opportunities for people to come watch professional baseball day in and day out here in Montana in the summer.”