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Colorado scores a Pioneer League team as the league goes independent

Colorado Rockies news and links for Tuesday, December 1, 2020

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After months of rumored cutbacks, the rookie-level Pioneer League will transition to independent baseball. The league has been rebranded as an MLB “Partner League,” but not all is lost for Colorado minor league fans.

All could have been lost. Instead, the teams remain—and Northern Colorado has scored a seat at the table.

On Monday, MLB released a full statement on the Pioneer League’s new status. As part of the Partner League designation, MLB will offer support for a handful of league operating expenses. MLB will also implement technology to aid with player scouting, as participating players will look to sign on with a big league club.

It may not be the outcome the Grand Junction Rockies preferred, but it is more favorable than Grand Junction losing their team altogether. The team will reportedly keep the ‘Rockies’ name (at least for now), despite losing their affiliation with the big league club. Instead of seeing club-controlled prospects make their way through the Western Slope, the Rockies will face a reconstruction of their minor league affiliates. A deal with a new Single-A affiliate in Fresno, California could be looming, despite pushback from city and team officials in Fresno.

After 16 seasons in Orem, Utah, the Orem Owlz have officially been rebranded the “Northern Colorado Owlz.” They will play their home games at the new Future Legends Complex in Windsor. The complex will have a feature stadium the Owlz will call home; the venue will reportedly feature “sporting event seating of 2,800.” Former Rockie and AT&T SportsNet analyst Ryan Spilborghs is an investor for the project.

After previously sharing a home ballpark in Orem with Utah Valley University, the Owlz proved a venue could double at the collegiate level. The facility in Windsor may be too distant to share with either the University of Colorado or Colorado State University, however: Windsor is about 25 minutes from the Colorado State campus and about an hour from Boulder. The Rams are one of three Mountain West teams without an NCAA-sanctioned baseball program, while the Buffaloes are the only school in the PAC-12 without a team. It could still be challenging to add baseball during a pandemic, particularly since college baseball is far from the moneymaker college football is.

In addition to the Owlz and Grand Junction Rockies, the Rocky Mountain Vibes will remain in the Pioneer League as the third such team in the state. The team rebranded themselves the Vibes prior to the 2019 season, abandoning the Colorado Springs Sky Sox name that was featured from 1950-1958 and from 1988-2018. Colorado Springs has already seen drastic minor league cutbacks; a Pioneer League re-designation could be a walk in the park compared to a previous demotion.

The Sky Sox were the Rockies’ Triple-A affiliate from 1993 through 2014 until the Rockies signed with the Albuquerque Isotopes. The switch came during the same 2014 offseason in which the Brewers lost their Nashville-based Triple-A affiliate to the Oakland Athletics. Milwaukee took a Triple-A vacancy in the aging Security Service Fieldperhaps by default—and the Brewers unveiled a new Triple-A plan in San Antonio almost as quickly as they arrived in Colorado Springs.

(Milwaukee’s San Antonio affiliate was recently demoted from Triple-A to Double-A, for any salty Colorado Springs fans out there.)

The switch to an ‘unaffiliated’ Pioneer League can be lamented, but the most important headline is that fans in devout baseball communities will still have their beloved teams. Colorado just so happens to be on the receiving end of the deal.

Northern Colorado can separate itself as a devout baseball community, too.

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