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The Cubs should give prospects annual bonuses

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This would be a good thing for the players and the organization.

Danny Rockett

One of the standard comments of minor league baseball observers is that minor league players don’t get paid enough. That isn’t a socio-economic rant, and the players involved knew the stakes walking in the door. Owners would, in general, prefer to do other things with their money than gratis it to players who might never graduate past the Midwest League. My case is that the Chicago Cubs, and their owners, would be financially benefited from giving an annual bonus to most of their minor league players.

One of the reasons wealthy people get that way is by being relatively frugal with their money. Whether you or I consider that a positive for society is a bit beside the point. This article isn’t about whether it would be “moral” or “respectful” to pay a larger amount annually to minor league players. It’s largely about a few specified baseball-related angles. Would the Chicago Cubs likely have more parades if they paid minor league players more? Would the owners likely recoup the money if they were to pay “seasonal workers” more? If yes and yes, what would be the most beneficial way to spread said money about?

Per legal jargon, minor league players are considered seasonal workers. They are paid a rather low sum annually. Normally, a great many of them receive less than $10,000 annually. While some sign for seven-figure signing bonuses, those are the rarities. Most players get a five- or low-six figure bonus. For some, the figure is less than $10,000.

The player that signs on the third day of the 40-round June draft as a college senior is prone to getting a $5,000-ish signing bonus or less, and plane flight to the club’s spring training home in mid-June. While the draft is a convenient way to spread the talent through the league, it isn’t a generous way of seeing to it that the later-round talent types are well-financed for their chosen career.

Again, the athlete knows what he’s getting into. Their plight is often beyond the concern of the fan who tunes in 162 times a year to watch the big-league team play, and certainly lands as a fringe concern. The question for the day is, would paying the players more be a beneficial practice, as opposed to merely a “nice thing to do”?

Years ago, as memory serves, Mike Hargrove had a curious payout structure with his managerial contract with he Cleveland Indians. His guarantee, after a while, was that he would be paid for a year after he was fired, whenever that would be. He had a degree of certainty. As such, he was interested in still giving it his best to win, aiming to have the “evergreen contract” stay valid as long as possible. My idea borrows liberally from this idea.

All 30 teams in MLB lean toward treating their players “the same” regarding finances. A youngster in the Double-A Southern League for his first go-around is paid the same as a player similarly in the Double-A Texas League or Double-A Eastern League. It’s normally a bit pointless looking at other organizations, as prospects have no realistic way to leverage their way into other organizations, anyway.

All 30 systems have almost airtight controls on their talent pools. With the exception of the recently completed Rule 5 Draft or trades, players are largely stuck into the system that initially selected them, anyway. The Orioles and Padres pay their prospects the same as the Mets or Cubs, and ownership likes that arrangement.

My idea is to assess whether paying more would recruit talent in a better enough fashion to create a better environment regarding winning and player development. Instead of the often tossed off “prospects should be paid more,” this codifies one way to do it. It codifies it in a fashion that any team can choose to follow, should they want.

In my method, any player that completes a full calendar year with the major league organization (in this instance, the Cubs) would earn, at minimum, a specified bonus. While I wouldn’t object to he numbers being higher than stated, to have any credibility, I have to list some specifics. For any player who spent no days on the 40-man roster or the suspended list (think 80 days for Stanozolol, for instance), they would receive bonuses to this extent.

Played in full-season ball Receive $20,000
Played in short-season ball in USA Receive $15,000
Played in the Dominican League only Receive $10,000
Played in a league that feeds the DSL Receive $5,000 (doesn’t currently exist)

This isn’t to rule out any possible bonuses (think more in the $5,000 range) for any player added during or after the June draft, in regard to the draft. (For instance, Taylor Davis was an undrafted free agent, signed after the draft in 2011.) Bonuses can also be provided for players participating “on a league championship team,” “being named an in-season or post-season All-Star,” or for certain statistical achievements (“100 strikeouts recorded,” “100 hits recorded,” “80 runs batted in,” “50 walks drawn,” “20 home runs hit,” or “10 saves recorded,” for instance).

The payouts would be paid every season until cancelled, with a 16-month evergreen clause. As such, if they aren’t officially cancelled by the time one minor league season ends, they will be paid through the next campaign.

Not only would the Cubs be ahead of the curve on limiting the need for players to work as pizza delivery drivers in the off-season, the team is doing it of its own free will, and not at the behest of any civic or political body. They’re doing it as an enticement for athletes to want to choose to play for the Cubs.

International players would seem more likely to take a $35,000 signing bonus from the Cubs than $40,000 from another side if they expect to receive $10,000 annually by signing with the Cubs. This would help to stretch the value of the Cubs international spending pool.

College players on the third day of the draft will often receive a $125,000 bonus from a club, to prevent them from returning to school. Some players will barter for “a bit more” knowing they won’t get anything much more later. A player expecting an annual bonus might be less willing to demand extra, which cuts into the amount that can be spent, elsewhere.

The Cubs have about 70 players in the Dominican League. Those bonuses would cost around $700,000 per season. They have around 100 in short season ball. That would equate to roughly $1,500,000. Full-season ball houses about 130, considering injured lists. Place that around $2,600,000. The entire bonus system wouldn’t likely cost much more than $5 million per season, even with bonuses being given. Or an uncapped cost of a mid-level free-agent relief pitcher. For that cost, being “with the Cubs” would be the envy of every minor league baseball player.

The prospects could afford better food and housing. While they might still be interested in having an off-season occupation, it might be more along the lines of “living a different dream” instead of “being able to afford fresh fruit in the winter.”

In 2012-2014, tracking the Cubs pipeline was quite enjoyable. Not only because of the players, but the perception the Cubs were doing things other teams weren’t. Now, every team seems to have a Mental Skills Department. The Mexican loophole (by which the Cubs were recruiting talent legally from the Mexican League more often than other teams) has been closed.

The Cubs, as much as I like following them, are becoming a “more ordinary” organization. Their methods have been copied. I’d be rather hard-pressed to display any difference between the Cubs and Twins or Pirates, for example. By paying players bonuses, the Cubs could become a “destination location.” if only for prospects.

If, over the long haul, a player develops one “win above” better in the pipeline per season over the length of the program, the Cubs are a better organization. If they add one post-season game every three years or so, due to being better at initially adding talent, it pays off.

Initially, this method would be a financial loss for the Cubs. However, it could lead to a mild advantage in the future. One of the few things I learned from 2018 is that there will always be a few teams looking to add non-elite minor league prospects to fill in their pipeline.

In 2018, Texas was one of those. The Cubs kept sending the Rangers useful, rather than top-end, minor league talent. Ricky Tyler Thomas brought back Jesse Chavez. A key piece in adding Cole Hamels was third-day choice Rollie Lacy, with Dominican League player Alexander Ovalles being the player to be named later.

If you believe, as I do, that a number of teams each summer will be drawn to “lesser lights” in trade, having more players along those lines could create a comparative advantage. It’s possible to create a culture of drafting a player for the $125,000 third day limit, and trading him in 13-25 months after he is signed for “the next Jesse Chavez-type. Or signing a player like Ovalles for $300,000 to trade him later.

This isn’t to say major trades should be avoided. Far from it. If college players begin to “lean Cubs” due to annual bonuses, preps could become a more logical early target. Instead of signing 25 every June, expect to sign 30 or 33. After that, aim to trade four-to-eight of those extra eight the next summer. Parlay that with a few more risky prep options in the recipe, and more major trades or prospects could follow.

Paying minor league players more than they currently make would be the right thing to do. Proper-ness aside, I think I’ve made a case for the team benefiting in the middle- and long-term from doing so. Two questions remain. When should the payouts be made? When should the plan be launched?

I’d roll with the payments just after the first of the year for any player on-board the entire calendar year. This would place the “jump-in point” just after the Winter Meetings. That would maximize the benefit for a player choosing the Cubs after the Winter Meetings for their own self-interest. Wanting the player to do what you would want them to do is the entire idea in a nutshell. It merely uses money as a lever.

As to when to start the premise? It would be very tempting to say “Today.” However, with the rancor upcoming for the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement, I’d hold off until the next agreement is signed. I have no idea how teams would respond to this idea, but I doubt it would be kind. As soon as the new labor deal is signed, I would announce the evergreen bonus idea for Cubs prospects.

I welcome your suggestions, questions, and requests for clarifications. Sometimes, it’s best to treat people properly for the betterment of all. Guaranteeing Cubs prospects annual bonuses would put the Cubs on the moral high-ground, where I prefer them. If it were to happen, other organizations would have two primary responses. Complain or mimic. I wouldn’t fear either, after the CBA is signed.