The Arizona Fall League has recently come to a close and it brings back the yearly question of whether the league should expand. Currently, there are six teams, made up of representatives from all 30 Major League teams. Players in the league generally fall in one of three categories. Either they are recent draft picks or players who were injured during the season and didn't get enough playing time during the regular MiLB season or they are looking to learn a new position. There are likely many more minor leaguers who would be willing to play in the league to impress their parent clubs, but there simply isn't enough room. Teams are limited to just five to ten players on each AFL team as they have to split the roster among five teams.
The AFL is unique in this regard as every other supplemental league is either not affiliated at all with Major League Baseball, like the Venezuelan and Dominican winter leagues, or has specific teams designated for individual Major League franchises, like the fall development teams. There seems to be room, at least for some expansion since there are more players interested in playing and other venues available as well.
Currently, the AFL makes use of the Spring Training stadiums in Surprise (Royals and Rangers), Peoria (Padres and Mariners), Glendale (White Sox and Dodgers), Mesa (Cubs), Talking Stick in Scottsdale (Diamondbacks and Rockies) and Scottsdale (Giants). For those not familiar with Cactus League Spring Training, these are essentially the most Northern stadiums, split into two divisions. This means for divisional games, teams never have more than 20 minutes drive between stadiums. There are only 10 stadiums in Arizona for the 15 teams that play in the Cactus League, but only six are being used for the AFL (actually only five this year as Peoria played their home games in Surprise).
This leaves four professional sized stadiums sitting idle during the fall season, including the home of the Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds in Goodyear, Arizona. It would be easy for the league to expand, adding two more teams in either Goodyear or Maryvale (Phoenix) for the West and Tempe Diablo in the East. While the math wouldn't work out quite as evenly, this would allow each MLB team to send more players to the league as each Fall League team would then be split between three and four systems.
If the AFL did expand to Goodyear, it would allow the Indians and Reds to play on the same team and could help the local populace to develop some loyalty for their "local" teams as has happened in Glendale with the White Sox and Dodgers. There are 15 Grapefruit League organizations to be split among the prospective eight teams, so it would be easy to make sure each team had representatives from at least three MLB organizations.
While the AFL is not 100% about development (unlike the Arizona Summer League), it isn't a big money maker, pulling in less fans than single A baseball despite playing in bigger stadiums. This is what makes the decision for expansion more difficult. Players can already work out at their team's Spring Training facilities all year round if they would like, so it will be up to the teams to decide if it is worth the extra cost to have their prospects face live, competitive opponents.
There may be a profit incentive, as well, however. The Phoenix valley has essentially become a giant retirement community, especially considering large areas of the West Valley (Surprise, Sun City, Goodyear, etc). With this, there are many people in the area that are transplants and still root for the teams they followed in their original home towns. If the AFL teams were made up of a larger percent of players from each team, these baseball fans may be more inclined to go to games (and buy shirts, hats, etc) to support their team. For example, a Brewers fan in Phoenix may not want to drive to Surprise to see one or two Brewers minor leaguers play a few innings, but may be willing to go to Maryvale to see six Brewers play. The same is true of the many former Ohioans in the Goodyear/Buckeye area who are still fans of the Reds and Indians.
While in the end it may not be profitable, the experience is essential for young players like Tony Wolters, who are switching positions or anyone else trying to get a leg up on the stiff minor league competition. More teams would mean more players getting more opportunities and, hopefully, more fans in the stands.
Could the Spring Training home of the Indians & Reds become the newest host to an AFL team? Things look pretty lonely once Spring Training ends.