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Rob Manfred proposes massive changes to the minor leagues

MLB’s plan to reduce minor league franchises could hurt players and cities who have teams.

Al Yellon

Major League Baseball has been under pressure to pay minor leaguers more of a living wage. I posted about MLB’s proposal to do so here last March.

The key paragraph in that article appears to have been this one:

ESPN’s Jeff Passan posted an article in which he states that sources told him that MLB owners had been meeting with representatives of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the group that operates the minors, and that “sweeping changes” could be coming to the way those clubs are operated, including salaries and better working conditions.

Over the weekend, we learned what some of those “sweeping changes” are going to be if Rob Manfred and the owners have their way. Sure, MLB is likely going to pay minor leaguers more — because under this plan, there will be far fewer of them. In the New York Daily News, Bill Madden writes that 42 minor-league teams are being proposed for elimination, among other “sweeping changes”:

1. Forty-two of the 160 minor league teams (26%) guaranteed under the present, expiring Professional Baseball Agreement between the majors and minors will be eliminated, most of them from the four short season Rookie Leagues — the New York-Penn, Appalachian, Northwest and Pioneer.

2. The baseball draft will be moved from June to August, and reduced to 20 rounds, with the stipulation that the drafted players will sign contracts for the following season. In the interim, the players would then go into what has been described as the “Houston Plan” in which, instead of playing games, they will report to the major league team complexes and undergo analytics indoctrination — i.e. the analyzation of the hitters’ bat speeds, launch angles etc., and the pitchers’ spin rates, arm strengths and grips.

3. With the elimination of the four Rookie Leagues, there will be a limit of 150 players each organization can have in its minor league system among teams at Triple-A, Double-A, High A, Low A and their minor league “complex” teams. (Presently, there is no limit. The Yankees, with nine minor league teams, have well over 200.) It was the contention of the Astros and most of the smaller market clubs, that there is too much money being wasted on players who will never come close to reaching the majors. They may have a point, but between the reduction of the draft and the limit on the number of players in an organization, who knows how many Mike Piazzas, Luke Voits or John Gants, will ever be signed.

Kyle Lesniewski, who runs our SB Nation Brewers site Brew Crew Ball, has the list of teams slated for elimination:

The way the Astros have been run lately, I don’t think I’d trust any scheme they came up with. But here we are.

Let’s be honest. There probably are too many minor-league teams. Some MLB teams have seven affiliates (including the Cubs, who have run two teams in the Arizona Rookie League for the last two seasons), and the truth is that most of the players in the lower levels of farm systems aren’t really MLB prospects. On the other hand, you have to have some players like that (“organizational guys,” they are often called) simply to have enough to fill out a team so you can actually play games. Eliminating some of these teams might be a good idea, but not 42 of them.

Further, some of what’s in the proposal noted above are good ideas, particularly having drafted players go to complexes and help their games using analytics.

But in this proposal, entire affiliated leagues are slated for elimination and a “Dream League,” a large independent league loosely connected with MLB, will be formed. Here’s the problem with that, per Bill Madden:

In addition to stadium maintenance and taxes which they’re already paying, the cost of players, managers, coaches, trainers and equipment people’s salaries and workers comp insurance would now all fall on the owners — between $350,000-$450,000 per year. When it was pointed out by the minor league negotiators there was no way these minor league owners, after losing all the equity in their teams, could then afford to own a “Dream League” team, the MLB response was: “Well they didn’t pay all that much for their teams in the first place so it’s only paper money.”

That’s not really a good response, and beyond that, MLB has in many cases pushed minor-league teams to make improvements in their facilities and pay for them, as noted in this New York Times article:

One example: Officials in Elizabethton, Tenn., population 14,000, faced a choice a couple of years ago. They could either renovate the police station or meet a condition of the Minnesota Twins: to spend more than $1 million modernizing the clubhouse at the city-owned ballpark, home to its beloved minor league affiliate.

They deferred the police station renovation, and now the Elizabethton Twins have a huge locker room, an upgraded kitchen, a training room, and space to relax and study game video.

Sue Martinelli Shea and Andy Shea, of the Lexington Legends, tell a similar story. The Kansas City Royals suggested that the infield at Whitaker Bank Park needed improvement, so the team spent $140,000. The Royals wanted a new bat rack in the dugout, so the team spent $1,200.

“If they wanted something better, I did it,” Andy Shea said.

Let me repeat this. A town of 14,000 spent $1 million on a baseball team instead of renovating its police station, at the direct request of Major League Baseball, and they did it — and now MLB wants to just eliminate that team?

Despicable is one word I can use to describe that. Many other descriptive words for that are not appropriate for this site.

Here’s another “have your cake and eat it too” statement from Manfred, from the NY Daily News article:

Last month, in response to Major League Baseball attendance being down for the fourth straight year, Manfred said: “We’re going to draw 68 million people at the big league level and another 41 million at the minor league level. I’ll take 110 million people seeing the game live. That’s really an awesome number.” Except that he’s about to “contract” about at least four million of that attendance. Guess he feels they don’t really need it.

That’s a valid point. Minor League Baseball is a source of community pride and inexpensive family entertainment in many small cities. If MLB wants to grow fandom, taking baseball away from minor-league towns is exactly the way not to do it. Does anyone in Major League Baseball understand anything about marketing, optics or public relations? Seems not, based on this.

Here’s one possible way this could all be stopped:

“I don’t see any way we can do something like this,” a major league official told me. “My God, we’ll be sued all over the place from these cities that have built or refurbished ballparks with taxpayer money, and this will really put our anti-trust exemption in jeopardy. It’s crazy.”

This official is right. If this MLB proposal is implemented — and as noted above, this is supposed to begin for the 2021 season — lawsuits to block it will follow, and this could be tied up in court for years. Or MLB might back off of contracting some of the 42 proposed teams, or it might actually sit down with officials of MiLB and work out a deal best for everyone. On the other hand, from a MiLB official:

“I cannot believe the arrogance of these people,” he said. “They don’t care about lawsuits or anything. They think they’re bullet proof. They’ve told us, ‘We’re doing this and there’s no discussion about it, and if you don’t like it, we’ll form our own minor leagues.’”

That’s the sense I get about the attitude of MLB officials these days. They don’t really seem to care about anyone but themselves and how much money they can squeeze out of TV networks, sponsors and fans. It’s pure greed.

Let’s hope Minor League Baseball has the guts to fight back.