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Cutters, Spikes to be part of new MLB Draft League

It’s been an anxiety-ridden year for Williamsport Crosscutters general manager Doug Estes. It’s a feeling he’s shared with the rest of the baseball team’s front office personnel, but they all breathed a little easier Monday when the Cutters were named one of the five founding members of the Major League Baseball Draft League.

Williamsport joins former New York-Penn League opponents Mahoning Valley, West Virginia and State College, as well as former Eastern League member Trenton as the first five members of a college wood bat league for draft-eligible players run by Major League Baseball. A sixth team is currently in negotiations with Major League baseball to join the league.

“Having a path that we now know is a huge relief,” Estes said. “Much like 3 and 4 years ago when the stadium was re-done, this is going to have changes and challenge, but they have been positive. We’re excited with the changes that are forthcoming. I’m sure there’s some new anxiety on the operations front now, but we’ll roll with it.”

With the dissolution of the New York-Penn League as MLB reorganizes its farm system from top to bottom, the Cutters were left looking for a home. Major League Baseball also mandated each organization could have just four licensed minor league affiliates along with a complex team in either the Gulf Coast League or the Arizona League. Because the Philadelphia Phillies own, either outright or partially, the Jersey Shore BlueClaws, the Clearwater Threshers, the Reading Fightin’ Phils and the Lehigh Valley Ironpigs, the Crosscutters were left on the outside looking in of minor league baseball.

And while Williamsport will no longer be solely affiliated with the Philadelphia Phillies, it will be part of a league which will provide high-level playing opportunities for college baseball players who are eligible for that year’s MLB draft. The goal of the league is to attract the top draft-eligible college players along with select elite high school prospects to provide them an opportunity to continue playing baseball between the end of their school seasons and the draft.

“Our goal was to remain viable in the Major League Baseball pipeline,” Crosscutters principal owner Peter Freund said during a virtual press conference Monday morning. “I don’t believe that what you will see on the field is going to be that different. There’s an argument to be made that the caliber of prospects showcased in this league might be of a higher caliber than what you’ve seen in the past. The way I look at this, our pipeline is going to be driven by Major League Baseball and all 30 clubs as opposed to just the Phillies.”

While the league is run by Major League Baseball, Prep Baseball Report, which is one of the nation’s top independent scouting services will manage which players who join the league are assigned to which league to keep the competitiveness as level as possible. Coaching staffs will also be selected by MLB, and each stadium in the league will be outfitted with technology by MLB to assist coaches and players in scouting an advanced analytics of the game.

MLB Draft League president Kerrick Jackson said with the MLB Draft being moved from early June to the MLB All-Star break in early July, Major League Baseball wanted to provide a centralized place draft-eligible players could go to either enhance their draft status or get in front of pro scouts more than they had been during the regular season.

“With the draft being moved to July, you can take a layoff from the game like that and be able to produce,” Jackson said during a State College Spikes press conference Monday. “Now we’ve created a window of a month and a half to get prepared for the draft while playing high-level baseball.”

For the last 368 days, fans and employees of the Williamsport Crosscutters have been on pins and needles regarding the future of the team after a Baseball America report last November listed the Cutters as one of the 42 teams Major League Baseball was planning to cut from its minor league system. Freund has been insistent since that article there would be baseball in Williamsport in 2021, but he never knew in what iteration that baseball would be.

He said Monday he was insistent there would be baseball because he and the ownership group, Trinity Sports Holdings, had committed to bringing baseball back to Williamsport. But of all the options which were possible for the Crosscutters, this option is by far the best and the one most likely to keep the Crosscutters viable financially for years to come.

Freund said the Crosscutters’ only other option would have been to join an independent league baseball team, like the Atlantic League or the Frontier League. But as an independent league team, the Cutters would be responsible for paying players and coaches, which is not a sound long-term financial plan in one of the smallest markets in the country which hosts minor league baseball.

“Remaining affiliated with Major League Baseball was everything to us,” Freund said. “The fact that Major League Baseball and Prep Baseball Report will provide us players and a coaching staff like the Phillies always have is a critical aspect to make sure we can remain part of MLB and its family. Beyond that, we’re a very special spot. We’ve got the Little League Classic and the home of Little League. Williamsport is very important to Major League Baseball. In many senses, I would say this was built around Williamsport, so I’m pretty proud of it.”

Crosscutters vice president for marketing and public relations Gabe Sinicropi said the gameday experience for fans won’t change with Monday’s announcement. In fact, he said ticket prices will remain the same. The Cutters are planning to host a Facebook Live event on Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. to answer fans’ questions.

The only thing changing for the Cutters is how players are assigned to the team. Previously, the Phillies would assign players to the team not long after they were drafted or after they spent the first couple month of the season in extended spring training in Florida.

Now, players will be assigned to Williamsport by Prep Baseball Report just before being drafted. The league is planning a 68-game schedule running from late May until early August. The league will take its own All-Star break at the same time as MLB’s All-Star break in order to turn the draft into a celebration of the MLB Draft League players who are selected in the 20-round process.

Jackson’s hope is with the elimination of rookie leagues and short-season leagues, teams will allow players it drafts to remain with their Draft League teams to close out the season. Its why coaching staffs assigned to each team will have focuses of both draft preparation and prospect development.

The league will also have a backlog of players to fill out rosters once players are selected in the MLB Draft should players leave to join their parent clubs. As of now, there has been no plan put into place for a potential postseason for the MLB Draft League, but some issues are still being worked out, according to State College Spikes owner Chuck Greenberg.

“Another thing to keep in mind is this league has been formed by Major League Baseball and it is incredibly important to Major League Baseball that it works and it succeeds,” Sinicropi said. “It’s part of their whole outlook on their world of a baseball pipeline. They have a huge vested interest in the MLB Draft League working in a way that they want it to. It’s an important part of the whole stepping stone and ladder of the future pipeline.”

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