EVERETT — The Everett AquaSox are officially making the jump to the High-A level of the minor leagues.
The team signed an agreement with the Seattle Mariners to remain one of the franchise’s affiliates and will move to High-A as part of Major League Baseball’s consolidated minor league system announced Friday.
That means a significantly longer season for the AquaSox and a higher caliber of baseball at Funko Field.
“It’s an exciting day for the AquaSox,” Danny Tetzlaff, the team’s general manager, told The Daily Herald. “… Fans can be pretty confident and rest assured that the future of baseball here in Snohomish County is very strong.”
The AquaSox were a Short Season-A team under the previous system, which meant they were five steps from the majors on the minor league ladder. As a full-season High-A team in the new setup, Everett will be just three steps from the big leagues.
The move to full-season ball is expected to add 56 games to the AquaSox’s regular-season schedule in normal years. Previously, the team started in mid-June and played a 76-game slate. Now, in a normal season, the club will start in April and play 132 games.
The climb to High-A also means higher-caliber players for the AquaSox and their opponents. Elite prospects will be less likely to bypass Everett on their ascension through the Mariners’ farm system, as players like Taijuan Walker, Edwin Diaz and Julio Rodriguez did in recent years. This increases the chance AquaSox fans will get to watch future big-league stars at Funko Field.
“It’s two steps closer to the big leagues, so you are going to see guys that are much more polished and further into their career,” Tetzlaff said. “You’re not going to have kids that are straight out of high school come in and playing here. It’s gonna be guys that have spent a couple of years in the system and (are) a lot more polished, a lot more developed.”
In addition, the move comes with the Mariners’ farm system on a major upswing. Rated as the worst in baseball prior to the 2018 season, Seattle’s minor-league system was recently ranked No. 2 by Baseball America after a rebuilding process years in the making.
“We’re proud to be a part of the Mariners’ system and (to) continue to be a part of that,” Tetzlaff said. “… We can focus on what we do best and making sure the fans have a great time. We can help develop future big-leaguers and continue to support the community.”
MLB officially announced its restructured 120-team minor-league format Friday after each of the teams accepted 10-year licenses to be part of the new alignment.
The changes are part of MLB’s massive overhaul of the minor leagues. In a contentious process that’s been in the works for over a year, MLB is taking greater control of the feeder system and has cut the number of affiliated minor league teams from 160 to 120. MLB cites better working conditions, higher facility standards and reduced travel as some of the leading reasons for the new setup.
Under the new system, each major league franchise will have four full-season farm teams. The Mariners’ affiliates will be the Tacoma Rainiers (Triple-A), Arkansas Travelers (Double-A), AquaSox (High-A) and Modesto Nuts (Low-A). All four teams were initially extended invitations by the Mariners in December.
“We’re excited we’re locked in for the next 10 years with the Mariners and Major League Baseball, so we can’t wait to get started,” Tetzlaff said.
No start date has been announced yet for this season, because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“That’s still being hatched out,” Tetzlaff said. “We expect to hear something real soon.”
According to a January report from Baseball America, MLB will hold a staggered spring training this year. In order to limit the number of players at facilities, Double-A and Class-A players won’t begin their spring training until MLB and Triple-A players have finished theirs.
As a result, the Double-A and Class-A seasons will be delayed. According to a report from The Associated Press on Friday, the current plan is for High-A teams to open a 132-game regular-season slate in early May.
In normal years, an April start to the season figures to pose logistical challenges for the AquaSox. Funko Field, which is part of the Everett Memorial Stadium complex owned by the Everett School District, is used by high school baseball teams and the Everett Community College baseball team during the spring. That wasn’t an issue when the AquaSox opened their season in mid-June. But with an April start, there will be overlap between the seasons and potential scheduling conflicts.
“We’re kind of working through it,” Tetzlaff said. “We’re waiting on a schedule for this year, so we can kind of iron everything out with the Everett School District. They’ve been great partners forever.
“We might have to adjust some game times and things like that,” he added, “but we should be able to make it work. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. But they’ve been great to work with. … We’ll all find a way to work together and make it as comfortable for everyone.”
In addition, there are obvious weather-related challenges to playing baseball in the Pacific Northwest during the typically cooler and wetter months of April and May. Turf was installed at Funko Field in 2018, so field conditions shouldn’t be an issue. But bad weather could have a significant impact on attendance.
The AquaSox will be part of the six-team High-A West league. The High-A West will include six of the eight teams from the previous Northwest League, which Everett had been part of since its inaugural season in 1984.
The other five teams in the High-A West will be the Eugene Emeralds (San Francisco Giants), Hillsboro Hops (Arizona Diamondbacks), Spokane Indians (Colorado Rockies), Tri-City Dust Devils (Los Angeles Angels) and Vancouver Canadians (Toronto Blue Jays). Eugene, Spokane and Tri-City each had their major league affiliations changed under the new setup.
Two teams from the Northwest League — the Boise Hawks and Salem-Keizer Volcanoes — were among the minor league franchises that lost their MLB affiliations as part of the contraction.
Everett’s minor league franchise spent its first 11 seasons as the Everett Giants while playing as an affiliate of the San Francisco Giants. Everett changed its name to the AquaSox when it became a Mariners affiliate in 1995 and has remained in Seattle’s farm system ever since.
Last September, the minor league system as it had existed for decades ended with the expiration of the Professional Baseball Agreement between MLB and the minors.
Under the new setup, minor league clubs will receive licenses from MLB that entitle them to operate in its player development system. MLB said in Friday’s news release that this ensures “a new set of standards in terms of facilities and player working conditions.”
According to the release, minor league players will see salary increases ranging from 38% to 72% for the 2021 season. Minor league teams also will have “modernized facility standards better suited for professional athletes.” MLB also said Triple-A affiliates, on average, will be over 200 miles closer to their major league clubs under the new alignment.
Friday’s announcement from MLB also means the AquaSox coaching staff for this season is finalized. The Mariners announced the coaching staffs for each level of their minor-league system last month.
Louis Boyd, who briefly played for the AquaSox in 2017, will return as Everett’s manager. Boyd was selected by the Mariners in the 2017 MLB draft and spent two seasons in the club’s farm system before transitioning to coaching. He took over as the AquaSox manager midway through the 2019 season at the age of 25, which made him one of the youngest managers in professional baseball. He was to be Everett’s manager last season before it was canceled because of the pandemic.
Boyd’s coaching staff will consist of hitting coach Shawn O’Malley, pitching coach Sean McGrath and assistant coach Jose Umbria. O’Malley, a Tri-Cities native, appeared in 113 games as a utility player for the Mariners during the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
Cameron Van Til: 425-339-3470; email@example.com. Twitter: @CameronVanTil.