Everett can expect major changes for Minor League baseball

The Mariners have invited the AquaSox to play more games in a longer season, with better players.

EVERETT — The next step in the Everett AquaSox’s evolution as a minor-league baseball organization has begun.

The AquaSox received an official invitation from the Seattle Mariners to remain one of the major-league club’s affiliates, the Mariners announced Wednesday.

Everett was one of four minor-league teams extended invitations by the Mariners on Wednesday as part of Minor League Baseball’s restructuring. Major League Baseball (MLB) is assuming administration of the minors and is reducing the number of affiliated teams from 160 to 120.

The invitation, if accepted, would see the AquaSox switch from being a Short Season-A team to being a High-A team, beginning with the 2021 season. That would mean a higher-caliber of baseball being played in Everett, as well as a substantial increase in the length of the schedule.

“This news is a home run for Everett!” Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin said in a Mariners news release. “We are thrilled to continue our partnership with the Seattle Mariners and for a longer season of rooting for the AquaSox at Funko Field.”

The invitation does not make the agreement official. The AquaSox still need to sign a professional development license with the Mariners, so this is merely the first step in the process.

“We’re excited that the Mariners have extended this invitation and we really look forward to working with them for years to come,” AquaSox general manager Danny Tetzlaff said, noting that an agreement has yet to be reached and that documents are still being reviewed. Tetzlaff said he didn’t know when the Sox and Mariners would need to have their license agreement signed.

Everett has been a member of the Northwest League since joining the Short Season-A circuit as the Giants in 1984. The team changed its name to the AquaSox in 1995 when it became a Mariners affiliate, and the Sox have been part of the Seattle organization since.

But life will be changing for the AquaSox, should they accept the Mariners’ invitation. The Northwest League, which has been a Short Season-A league since 1966, always had its season begin in mid-June, with the teams’ rosters filled primarily by a combination of college players just selected in the amateur draft and younger players signed in previous years, either out of high school or Latin America.

By moving to High-A, the Northwest League advances two rungs on the minor-league ladder. The schedule, which had been 76 games, is now expected to start in April and be in the range of 132 games. And Everett would now feature players further along in their development, thus bringing higher-caliber prospects to town and improving the quality of play.

However, the switch comes with complications for Everett. The AquaSox play at Funko Field, which is part of the Everett Memorial Stadium complex owned by the Everett School District. Funko Field is used by high school teams and Everett Community College during the spring. That wasn’t an issue when the Sox began their season in mid-June, as there was no overlap between the seasons. However, an April start date for the Sox season creates potential scheduling conflicts.

“We’ve had a very good relationship for years with the Everett School District, and we know they will work with us to make this all work out,” Tetzlaff said.

The Northwest League is also shrinking from eight to six teams. Two of the league’s franchises were part of minor-league contraction. Everett, the Vancouver Canadians (affiliated with MLB’s Toronto) and the Hillsboro Hops (Arizona) received invitations to remain affiliates with their previous major-league teams, while the Eugene Emeralds (San Francisco instead of the Chicago Cubs), the Spokane Indians (Colorado instead of Texas) and the Tri-City Dust Devils (Los Angeles Angels instead of San Diego) received new affiliation offers.

The two Northwest League teams that were contracted were the Boise Hawks and the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes. Boise was not on the original contraction list but ended up being contracted instead of Tri-City, which had been on the chopping block. The Hawks announced Wednesday they were joining the Pioneer League, which lost its affiliated status, but is remaining an MLB “partner league” with an emphasis on undrafted prospects. There was no word on Salem-Keizer’s plans.

MLB is taking over administration of the minors with the stated goal of improving working conditions for minor-league players, citing the desire to maintain higher facility standards and reduce travel. Contraction will also reduce the number of minor-league players in each organization.

Funko Field at Memorial Stadium in Everett. (Chuck Taylor / The Herald) 20200528