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Here’s why the proposal to eliminate minor league teams is a really bad idea

Teams will lose more than they’ll gain if this proposal goes through.

Four Winds Field, home of the South Bend Cubs
Al Yellon

The adage is to release bad news on Friday. By Monday, when the standard media cycle returns, most of the hostility will have simmered away. With the announcement by Major League Baseball of eliminating up to 42 affiliates over the next 24 months on a Friday, the adage was honored. My frustration lingers. Here is why I'm upset.

Imagine you're in an industry. Any industry. Your goal is to find a market, and get customers to prefer you in that market over other providers. Widgets. Rides in an airplane. Nights away from home. Or baseball. An entire department might be set aside for "What if we do this?"

It used to be that providing one cable channel (above and beyond the three regular networks of the seventies) was brag-worthy among lodging services. Now, everyone does it, with scads of channels. Among the financial balances was "How much does this cost?" versus "How much does this return?"

Many of baseball's decisions over the last 15 years seem to have been "Figure out what makes a team thrive" and then "Ban or severely limit that practice." When spending internationally was deemed an advantage, limits were put in place, to the extent of inverting the supply curve. (So-called small-market teams can spend more annually internationally than big-market clubs.) The draft has been so skewed to "losing sides" that teams, including the Cubs and Astros, were fine with fielding non-competitive teams to gain a competitive edge.

Now, the premise of "having minor league affiliates" is facing the same scrutiny. This battle has already been fought and won. Back in the 1920s through the 1940s, the sixteen teams jockeyed regarding "developing their own talent" and "bird-dogging" non-affiliated teams for more developed talent. Teams like the Cardinals and Yankees that prioritized both were better over the long haul than sides like the Cubs that largely eschewed development. MLB is limiting teams to five affiliates and 130 players on said teams. If you can't beat them, use the Commissioner to whisk away their advantage.

One of the things the Cubs have done well over the last five or six years is to add a second Arizona League squad. While I think a larger benefit could have been added by adding an affiliate at a higher bracket (the Appalachian League, for example), that's splitting hairs. A second team allowed more hitters more chances in-game to get better against opponents with real-time feedback. Pitchers had more chances to work on secondary and tertiary offerings. Players, regardless of their position, had those individual sink-or-swim moments, with reserves ready if they misfired.

Young players out of high school were allowed the low-stress path of practicing more than playing, if that was their speed. Time was rarely a crunch, as players through the draft or international waters had two entire rosters to fill. A player who should play twice a week? That's what he did. Players who justified four or five games a week were given the extra chances.

With this new legislation, the Cubs won't be able to have two teams in the Arizona League. Pick your 30 best, and release the rest. If you wanted to draft extra depth for a few years to upgrade your pitching depth in the pipeline? That option would be gone. It's been deemed too useful.

An industry ought to be about making itself the best it can be, not riddling effective organizations with needless hoops. "Sorry. We won't allow you local insurance agent more than three 'friendly' claims adjusters. It hurts the outfits that aren't interested in doing their job well."

Baseball ought to be about "What if we do this idea nobody else is doing?" That will continue, but anything successful looks to be worth limiting. All as basketball and football are cleaning the floor with baseball in popularity.

Instead of limiting this and banning that (excessive mound visits), how about if draft budgets were the same as they are now, except with $3 million more per year on top? Teams could likely add three or so more quality players to be internally developed. No college coaches to shred their arms in March in 40-degree temperatures for 125 pitches. Ninety or so players across the range of pipelines with upside. May the best developers win.

Naaah. We don't want to do that. The owners would rather poison the developmental well than see the aggressive (Yankees) or efficient (Astros) continue to dominate. Big-market teams will spend more money than passive smaller-market teams (although not all small-market teams are passive). The question is where they can spend it. Maybe the next market to monetize is keeping players healthy. Until New York City bans that.

I'm still angry. Baseball is supposed to be a game to see which competitors are superior. Not all competitors are in uniforms. Friday's ruling puts a stake in the coffin of teams expanding academies beyond the Dominican Republic. I had hopes for three or four DSL teams, to see if the AZL "extra teams edge" could extend to the DSL. Now, only 30 or so players will be able to be merged between international ball and short-season ball. The same trickling makes an academy in Africa or India useless, if the DSL will be limited to two teams.

Music is a joy in my life. Music becomes special when gifted musicians say, "Let's try this." Eighty percent of it is rubbish, but when that one riff gets strung together, it works. Regardless of the genre, failure creates success.

Baseball is limiting the number of affiliated teams. David Bote needed that last roster spot on the last available team more than once. Eliminating roster spots will push teams to make "final decisions" on players that shouldn't be necessary. Two AZL Cubs teams isn't imposing on anyone. Except, it's an edge the Cubs have over short-sighted owners.

This is a shortsighted decision, apparently designed to benefit owners who don't want to invest in baseball. Those owners should sell their teams to people that like baseball: that will pledge to invest revenues added into the team. And uphold those promises. Alas, that battle has been fought and lost. Or, it will have lost in the next three years.