Manassas Journal Messenger | Reds quit talks with Cannons

Major League Baseball has yet to announce a decision regarding the Montreal Expos’ possible move to the Washington, D.C., area, but for the Potomac Cannons the process of switching affiliations to the Expos has begun.

Cincinnati Reds farm director Tim Naehring said Tuesday that his organization has stopped negotiating with the Cannons on a new two-year player-development contract. Therefore, Prince William’s high Class A Carolina League franchise will assuredly start its sixth different relationship in just its 22nd season of existence.

This time, though, the affiliation could make geographical sense as a team in Washington or in Northern Virginia (where a stadium has been proposed in Loudoun County) would bring more fan interest toward the Cannons. Should MLB choose to move the wayward Expos, who have been run by the majors’ 29 owners for the past three seasons, Potomac owner Art Silber’s franchise could thrive.

If all the moves fall into place, a Cannons’ player could be three promotions — from Potomac to Double-A to Triple-A to the potential Washington franchise — from playing within 30 miles as a major leaguer.

“Yes, it’s unfortunate we have to go in another direction, but Art has his reasons for wanting to pursue the Montreal organization, obviously with the hopes of D.C. aligning with his team,” Naehring said.

Major and minor league teams have until Friday to align with one another, or Major and Minor League Baseball will pair up the remaining teams Saturday. Each minor-league city is guaranteed to keep its team — the Cannons will exist as a Carolina League club no matter what happens — but affiliations change in two-year incremements.

Ten high Class A teams, including two in the Carolina League (Potomac and the Wilmington Blue Rocks, who announced a new affiliation with the Boston Red Sox Tuesday), were on the list of available clubs this year. Since early September, major- and minor-league officials have been allowed to seek new contracts, with some clubs re-turning to their original affiliates.

Silber and Cannons general manager Jay Richardson declined to comment Monday or Tuesday on the affiliation process, but Silber said last week, “From our point of view, it would make tremendous sense [to align with a major league team that could move to Washington.] Geographically, we could have a situation like the [Baltimore] Orioles do with their four teams in Maryland. With either Northern Virginia or D.C., we’d be about as close to them as Bowie is to Baltimore.”

In a trend mirrored throughout the country, the Double-A Bowie Baysox, high Class A Frederick Keys, low Class A Delmarva Shorebirds and short-season Class A Aberdeen IronBirds have all prospered in part because of their Orioles’ affiliations.

In two seasons at Potomac, the Reds’ teams went 62-77 for manager Jayhawk Owens in 2003 and 67-72 for manager Edgar Caceres this year. The 2004 team gave the franchise its first playoff series since 1995 and first vic-tory in a postseason game since winning the 1989 Carolina League championship. The Cannons lost two games to one to Wilmington in the Northern Division Championship Series.

“We’re going to have to target [the Florida State League],” Naehring said. “Hopefully we can get in there and be aligned with the Sarasota complex. I believe we can work it out with Boston, but right now that’s all behind the scenes between our upper-level management and theirs.”

Wilmington’s deal with the Red Sox might allow the Reds to switch their high Class A franchise to Sarasota, where the Red Sox had been since leaving the Carolina League after the 1994 season. Cincinnati’s major and minor leaguers use Sarasota’s complex for spring training, so the Reds’ logical move would be to the Florida State League.

The Boston Red Sox own the Sarasota club, but they are expected to sell the franchise. Similarly, the Expos own a Florida State League team, the Brevard County Manatees, but their affiliation has ended there. They also could sell their FSL franchise.

The Blue Rocks, who made 10 playoff appearances in their forst 12 seasons of existence (all as a Kansas City Roy-als affiliate), opted to go with a more recognizable major-league affiliate to fans in Delaware.

“The history and the excitement involving the Red Sox speaks for itself,” Blue Rocks president Matt Minker said in a prepared statement.

The Red Sox were last in the Carolina League in 1994 in Lynchburg. They also announced a switch in their low Class A affiliaton Tuesday, changing from Augusta, Ga., to Columbia, S.C., within the South Atlantic League.

Montreal, which joined the National League as an expansion team in 1969, has had only a one-year foray in the Carolina League — with the 1974 Kinston (N.C.) Expos.

Since moving from Alexandria to Pfitzner Stadium prior to the 1984 season, Prince William County’s team has been affiliated with the Pittsburgh Pirates (1984-86), New York Yankees (1987-93), Chicago White Sox (1994-96), St. Louis Cardinals (1997-2002) and Cincinnati Reds (2003-04).

Silber attempted to align with the Expos two years ago when the Cardinals’ affiliation ended, but he said Major League Baseball officials stood in the way of the move. He said earlier this month that MLB would not block a move this time, allowing him and Expos’ minor-league officials to work one-on-one.

The Expos farm system, rated last among the majors’ 30 clubs by Baseball America last winter, has taken several hits in recent years as MLB has reduced the scouting budget for the organization. The system was seventh in Baseball America’s Talent Rankings in 1999, 15th in 2000, 21st in 2001, 16th in 2002 and 29th in 2003.

Montreal’s minor-league organization, run by farm director Adam Wogan, received more bad news this month: Current No. 1 prospect Clint Everts, the fifth overall pick in the 2002 draft and a pitcher who might have been in high Class A next season, is expected to miss most of the 2005 season after having Tommy John elbow surgery. As a low Class A right-hander opposing a Double-A hitter, Everts struck out former Cannon first base-man/outfielder Tony Blanco in the minor-league all-star Futures Game in Houston this July.

The Reds, 26th in Baseball America’s rankings last offseason, saw improvement among several prospects who played for the Cannons the past two seasons. Cincinnati officials are exicted by the progress of players such as Blanco, catcher Miguel Perez; first baseman Joey Votto; second baseman William Bergolla; third baseman Edwin Encarnacion; and pitchers Rich Gardner and Thomas Pauly.

A new $10.7-million stadium for the Cannons — funded equally by Silber and the Prince William County Authoirty — was approved in 2002 to open in 2004. Plans still have not been finalized on the ballpark, as Silber hopes to find a site near Interstate 95 or Interstate 66 within Prince William County. Though a new ballpark was not erected during the Reds’ two-year stay, Nahering was pleased with his dealings with Cannons officials.

“We liked working with Art and with Jay,” Naehring said of the Cannons’ owner and general manager. “Unfortunately it didn’t work out to stay with them, but we’ll realign with someone. Overall we’re disappointed, but we look forward to potentially starting a new situation in the Florida State League.”

Meanwhile, the Cannons continue to work on what might be a long-term solution to find an affiliation that excites local fans.

“I’ve talked to Art, and he sounds like he’s pretty confident it will work out [with the Expos],” Naehring said.

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