28 May 2009

Whither the SJ Giants?

When discussing an A's move south, it can be easy to ignore the fact that a professional baseball team already lives down there. Plenty of people from outside the region don't know the team exists, yet the San Jose Giants have been an institution at venerable Municipal Stadium that goes back over two decades. They have been undoubtedly the most stable franchise in the patchwork history of pro baseball in San Jose.

MLB and MiLB rules dictate that when a major league team enters a territory occupied by a minor league team, the MLB franchise has the right to kick the little guy out, with the proviso that the little guy is duly compensated. Imagine my surprise when Lew Wolff indicated to me that his ownership group would have to buy the SJ Giants. Should this be an eventuality, the SF Giants will have made an incredibly shrewd investment in the High-A club, one that could pay off big when taken in combination with MLB territorial rights compensation.

What then, is to be done with the San Jose Giants? The A's can't exactly buy them and operate them as the SJ Giants. Let's take a look at a few possibilities, and you can chime in with your own ideas as well.

A's swap Stockton for San Jose, sell SJ franchise to a new owner
This would keep the High-A's a short drive from the MLB A's. While this could be compelling for certain local fans who are really into tracking player development, it's not without issues. Both teams could play to the finite - yes, I said finite - South Bay baseball market to some extent, causing cannibalization. The 21-year relationship forged by the SJ Giants and local fans would be broken and not easily mended, especially by the archrival organization. Long term, there remain questions about Municipal Stadium, which for all its charm lags severely behind its much newer Stockton counterpart in terms of amenities. The ballpark situation combined with the market saturation dilemma could contribute to a dilution of the future value of the minor league franchise, which means Wolff/Fisher could fetch only a fraction of the a price they paid to facilitate the swap.

A's swap Stockton for San Jose, move SJ franchise to North/East Bay and sell
Market saturation is not an issue in this situation, but finding a viable new market for Single-A baseball is. Assuming that the other existing Cal League markets are well served by their existing franchises, there are few places to turn to in the end. The best and perhaps only options are markets that are either unproven or have failed to significantly back teams in the past. The North Bay appears to be ripe for a franchise, but there are no clear options. Petaluma has been talked up especially since the demise of the Sonoma County Crushers, but it would require public money that simply isn't there. Same goes for Napa. Vacaville's stadium at the old Nut Tree was dismantled and shipped up to Redding, where it will be used by Simpson University. (Trivia: former A's reliever Greg Cadaret was recently an assistant coach on the Simpson University baseball team, and he helped broker the move. He's now the manager of the GBL's Chico Outlaws.) There may be options in the East Bay, though it's hard to say where. Oakland? Richmond? Concord?

A's swap Stockton for San Jose, move SJ franchise south or east and sell
The Quakes have for the moment halted plans to build a training center near the Morgan Hill Sports Center, citing economic concerns. There is ample space for both the Quakes' facility and a small ballpark, though the latter is not in Morgan Hill's immediate plans. Population for the combined Morgan Hill-San Martin-Gilroy area is less than 100,000, making it way too small to support Single-A baseball on its own. A better option may be to explore Salinas, which still has the bones of an old ballpark which used to be home to the Single-A Salinas Spurs. Central Valley communities are largely spoken for, and cities further south along 101 are too spread out to yield sufficient population to support a team. Reno is having fun with its new AAA franchise and ballpark.

San Jose allows Giants' lease to expire, forcing them to move elsewhere
The SJ Giants are signed to play at Muni through the 2013 season, which makes for interesting timing considering 2013/2014 is a likely start date for A's. Could the City of San Jose, whose pols (some of them at least) have expressed displeasure at the SF Giants "investment" in the SJ team, simply allow the lease to expire and then leave the Giants to fend for themselves? While that would work from a legal standpoint, I'm pretty sure that it wouldn't preclude the A's from having to compensate the SJ Giants. The Giants would still be a legacy team and its business would be harmed by the move. The San Jose Arena Authority may be faced with conflicting interests, since it oversees Muni and would presumably do the same with an A's ballpark.

Whatever ends up happening, it promises not to be clean or simple. However, it's not big enough to derail the deal. Minor league franchises move with far greater frequency than we're used to with MLB teams. As I write this post, Richmond, VA interests are looking to buy the SF Giants' AA affiliate in Connecticut, with the intent to move them south to Richmond and a future ballpark. They're doing this to replace the recently departed AAA Braves, who moved to Gwinnett County, GA to be closer to the parent club. (More trivia: Robert Bobb was recently involved in a Richmond ballpark plan.) Moving, at least in the minor league world, is very much the rule, not the exception.

Note: The poll was removed/revised to reflect an edit to the post. The "North Bay" option is now "North/East Bay."