WILLMAR - Northwoods League owners approved an expansion franchise in Hudson, Wisconsin, that will begin play in the 2019 season, chairman Dick Radatz confirmed with Tribune Sports Wednesday.
Expanding to 22 teams was at the forefront of topics at the league's annual offseason meetings, which conclude on Thursday at the Willmar Conference Center.
The league, which will play the next season without any expansion teams after adding franchises in Bismarck, North Dakota, and Fond du Lac, Wisconsin for 2017, has shown interest in the Twin Cities metro market in past years. Hudson, a town of nearly 13,000 people located on the eastern shores of the St. Croix River, is approximately 30 miles away from downtown Minneapolis.
"We've been eyeballing the (Twin Cities) suburbs for years," Radatz said, "but not so much the (Hudson) area, but Blaine, Elk River, Maple Grove, places like that. We didn't see this one coming initially."
A corresponding expansion franchise will be announced in the near future to balance out the league's divisions.
"We'll expand by one more team to even things out, but we don't have anybody that's official yet," Radatz said. "We've got some ideas, but the dominoes have to fall. One will fall eventually."
Reports have previously linked Mitchell, South Dakota, to the league as one of its top targets.
The first-year franchises in Bismarck and Fond du Lac fared respectably in 2017, taking sixth and fourth place in their respective 10-team divisions. Fond du Lac missed out on the playoffs by virtue of the tiebreaker, which gave the final South Division postseason spot to Lakeshore.
Around the league, it's well-known that, come playoff time, teams often look different than they have all season due to players returning to their college programs.
That was the case for the Willmar Stingers this summer, as the team was without its two top starting pitchers and multiple top-of-the-lineup bats in a 9-1 defeat against St. Cloud in the divisional round.
To no surprise, keeping players for the entire season has been a key topic of discussion this week.
"Retention is a big item on the table," Radatz said. "We play more games than any other league. The next-closest is maybe 64 games, so in those last eight games you're in the dog days of summer."
Radatz recommends that teams remain upfront with players and their college coaches, who also have a significant input in the signing process, about commitment expectations.
"I always tell these guys, if they want to play pro ball and they think this is hard, just wait until they get to that point," Radatz said. "If you can gut it out, so to speak, you're going to be that much farther ahead down the road."
While teams hope to retain their top players through the end of the season, there are admittedly still plenty of challenges to that goal.
"It's different every year, your roster composition is," Stingers co-owner Marc Jerzak said. "You can't control going in who your star guys are going to be. Sometimes those guys are the ones whose schools start really early. That's the nature of the Northwoods League. We start early and end late, and that's the way it goes."
The 2018 season will mark the 25th year of Northwoods League baseball, and league executives will look for as much growth and success in its upcoming banner campaign as it had in 2017.
A league record-tying 23 alumni made their Major League Baseball debuts this season, and, overall, 77 former players appeared in the majors at some point in the season.
"It helps everything, having that kind of success with alumni," Radatz said. "We can get more players, more fans, more numbers."
Each team will sport a patch on its jersey sleeve to commemorate the league's silver anniversary.
Owners approved a rule to allow each team to carry four senior-year pitchers on their roster.
The move is partially in response to college programs 'shutting down' pitchers at certain innings limits, thus ending their seasons in the NWL.
"College coaches are shutting down pitchers now, so there's this nationwide shortage with all the upheaval that we've spawned," Radatz said. "A team can have up to 16 pitchers, but four of those slots can now be taken by seniors. That leaves 12 underclassmen pitchers that you can have. That should make those positions more desirable, and in a way should accentuate the talent in the league."