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Nationals have a new Class AAA affiliate in Rochester Red Wings

The Rochester Red Wings had been with the Minnesota Twins since 2003. (Mike Janes/Four Seam Images/Associated Press)

No longer part of the Washington Nationals’ minor league experience: red-eye flights from the West Coast, lost luggage in Michigan, layovers in Utah that left one pitcher — at least one pitcher — napping in a dark room before an afternoon game. Those were the hazards of having a Class AAA affiliate on the other side of the country. But now that affiliate is the Rochester Red Wings, as of Thursday, meaning each of the Nationals’ minor league teams will play in the same time zone.

The Red Wings agreement was officially announced in a tweet by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). The Class AAA club had been with the Minnesota Twins since 2003, then lost the Twins this week in an industry-wide reshuffling of affiliates. The Nationals, on the other hand, were looking for an East Coast partner after finishing a two-year contract with the Fresno Grizzlies. It made Washington and Rochester a perfect fit. The length of the Nationals and Red Wings’ deal has not yet been determined, with MLB still working out its minor league baseball plans.

The Nationals wound up with Fresno after 10 seasons with the Syracuse Chiefs as their Class AAA affiliate. This arrangement with Rochester, which is also part of the International League, should feel very similar to that. Nationals Park is about 385 miles from Frontier Field, the Red Wings’ park since 1997. Nationals Park was almost the same distance to Syracuse, which is just east of Rochester in central New York. Before the move to Fresno, players could drive from Syracuse to Washington in a pinch. Now that ability is restored.

“We are very excited to partner with the Rochester Red Wings and to have our Triple-A affiliate back in the region,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said in a statement. “The Red Wings are a well-built, well-run organization that will be an asset to our player development system and we are proud to be a part of Rochester, New York’s rich baseball tradition that dates back to the late 1800’s.”

The switch comes amid an expected minor league contraction that will affect every organization. MLB is expected to cut around 40 affiliates in 2021. The Nationals are expected to cut ties with the Auburn Doubledays, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, who had been their short-season Class A affiliate in the New York-Penn League. MLB, which seized control of all minor league decisions, reportedly sent a stern email asking teams to wait to make announcements. That was after some small affiliates learned of their fate via social media.

Then Schumer blasted the news out to his followers.

“For Spikes, Mittsy, Milo, and all members of the Red Wing’s world-class organization, especially Naomi Silver and Dan Mason, I’m excited we can add the next great chapter of Red Wings baseball to our ‘things to be thankful for’ list this Thanksgiving,” Schumer said in a statement to the Democrat & Chronicle, which first reported the new pairing. Silver is the Red Wings’ president. Mason is their general manager. Spikes and Mittsy are mascots and Milo is a team dog.

The Nationals had expressed interest in shifting from Fresno to a partnership with the Richmond Flying Squirrels. But once the Flying Squirrels were retained by the San Francisco Giants, it was Rochester or bust for Washington. The Nationals spent just one season with Fresno because the coronavirus wiped out minor league baseball in 2020. The experience, though, filled with frequent travel complications, made it necessary for the Class AAA affiliate to relocate.

Richmond would have been less than a two-hour drive to Nationals Park. The trek from Rochester will take around seven hours, but there are nonstop flights from Rochester to the Washington area. Buffalo’s airport, which is bigger, is also just an hour away. In 2019, the Nationals got in the habit of keeping their regular swing players with their Class AA affiliate in Harrisburg, Pa., instead of in Fresno. Moving forward, they will rarely have to factor distance into those decisions.

Next the Nationals have to untangle the rest of their affiliates. With four total slots, one configuration is to have Rochester in Class AAA, keep the Harrisburg Senators in Class AA, have the Fredericksburg Nationals in Class A and continue with the Hagerstown Suns, their current low-A affiliate. But the Suns have an old facility and are likely to be swapped out. That could be for another regional affiliate that is dropped by another club. Or the Nationals could position the final team at their spring training complex in West Palm Beach, Fla., setting it up to play in the Florida State League.

There are a few ways for the Nationals to finish the puzzle. But the most important piece — the Rochester Red Wings — has found its place.

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