As I continue to oppose baseball's plan to eliminate minor-league ball from 42 cities, many aspects deserve scorn and derision. It's absolutely true that some cities don't have solid financial backing. Some facilities are sub-standard. Many players in lower level affiliates have almost no shot of reaching MLB. However, the proposed Dream League is more of a nightmare that wouldn’t provide opportunity for realistic improvement for much of anyone on the "player" side of the equation.
How to choose a player to pinpoint why the purported future is a willing misfire? David Bote languished for a few years in the pipeline. A few more vintage players could be used to tell the tale. However, for the conclusion I wish to reach, a current Cubs prospect gets at the root of the problem rather well.
In 2018, the Cubs added a second minor league affiliate in Mesa, at the Rookie League level. As such, scouts were likely advised to be more on the hunt for any college players that could contribute right away. After all, with a second team firing up, a player at any position that could produce immediately could be a fast asset.
Among those drafted and signed was Clayton Daniel, who has been more than once confused with Bears reserve QB Chase Daniel. The Cubs version was a four-year infielder in the Ohio Valley Conference, which incorporates Southern Illinois-Edwardsville. While his record has since been eclipsed, Daniel left Jacksonville State as the OVC's all-time hit leader. To me, if a player is a mid-major conference's all-tine hit leader, he warrants a look, barring any red flags. Daniel received a very nominal signing bonus, and went immediately to continue his pro career.
In eleven games and 50 plate appearances for Mesa, Daniel had four extra-base hits, including a triple and a homer. He hit .370, and had an OPS over .900. Daniel was, apparently, much better than the OVC and the Arizona League. He was dispatched to the Northwest League, another loop the Cubs are unlikely to have a representative in with the Rob Manfred vision. (Five affiliates and 150 players. He's living the Chicago Tribune dream. "Do you really need those other affiliates?" on a grander scale.)
Daniel reached the Northwest League, and his stay there was brief. While he only remained for seven games with a .269 batting average, he drew five walks to one strikeout. Off to full season ball. In South Bend, he concluded his debut pro campaign with 36 more games and an OPS of .582. A bit exposed, but better than some much more highly regarded players at the level through the years.
Zoom to 2019, and Daniel had an OPS of .829 in South Bend, and in a call-up to Double-A Tennessee, he represented there, as well, with a .733 mark. Does that mean he will "certainly" play in big league ball? No, but players not underwater in Double-A are more likely to get a look in a MLB game in Mesa than not.
If the Dream League were in play, Daniel might have gotten a look there. He might have played well, there. However, two flies are visible in the proverbial ointment. When a college senior currently signs a contract, as Daniel did, it's with a team with a vision for him. I'd imagine the immediate assessment is "Keep doing what you're doing. We brought you on because of how you played at school."
In the Dream League, presumably, a handful of people will select which players go to which cities. The coaches in those cities might, or might not, be far removed from the selection process. A team manager might, or might not, take a liking to Daniel. He has 25 guys, and they all need an equal look. After a few days to weeks of getting ready, he might get off to a good start, or not. Developing baseball talent can be as much about circumstance as skill. Placed onto a Mesa team, Daniel was given a chance to play almost every day, and was promoted to full-season ball in short order. In a Dream League, if his coach didn't like him, for whatever reason, he would be stalled in less time than it took to jump two levels
The other problem? Any wise MLB organization will be redlining roster limits. If the limit is 150 players off of the 40-man roster, that's what it will be. That sounds an obscenely large number for five squads, but remember that each organization will have injuries. South Bend lost three starting outfielders to the injury list over the course of four days this year. A few years back, a Braves team bus was involved in a "minor" rollover crash. The team didn't play for about a week, and a few players were out longer than that.
Not all players develop at a breakneck rate. When every team is given a number of players they can employ, and the number is smaller than desired, decisions will be more permanent than before. When camp is broken, do they release the kid tossing 94 who has a secondary that might be useful in three weeks? Or the kid with BP power that was five weeks from showing up in games? Perhaps the defensive whiz who was a week from a "10 of 12 game stretch with a hit"?
I can guarantee this, though. If the Cubs sign the next Clayton Daniel from the Dream League, they'll need to release somebody to make space for him.
Who should decide when a player's career is over? Jose Altuve was told to leave the Astros tryout camp, and not come back. He came back. Reluctantly, he was offered a low five figure signing bonus. He persevered. Instead of MLB making the minor leagues a cookie cutter of each other organization, if one owner wants five squads, do that. If an owner wants to be brash enough to field six teams, at a massive additional cost of less than a million per year, be bold. If he wants to completely ride a bicycle without a helmet, and field seven squads (what would Derek Jeter say?), be bold in your development strategy.
A player like Daniel should have a chance at pro ball if a team is willing to sign him. That chance shouldn't be limited by any band of obstructionist owners who want to limit the number of people in minor league ball. I like Commissioner Rob Manfred less than Commissoner Bud Selig. It isn't close. I had thought that impossible.
Owners and general managers should be allowed space to run their systems as they like, largely. Players in pipelines should be paid more. Owners as counter-productive as some in the Cubs history? That should hurt their teams, but not negatively sway other franchises. May the best mouse trap win. Let players like Daniel play for as long as their skills carry them with fewer barriers to entry, not more.