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The Minor League contraction proposal is about power

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Some major league front offices want the power to act unilaterally in their own best interests. But baseball has never worked that way.

Fresno Grizzlies Chukchansi Park Tuna Lasorda
“Tuna Lasorda” at Chukchansi Park in Fresno
Josh Timmers

Al addressed many problems with the current proposal to radically restructure and eliminate 42 minor league teams in yesterday’s article. I’ll try to repeat him too much in this piece.

Let’s stipulate a few things before we get into what this proposal is really about.

First, there probably are too many minor league teams and too many minor league levels than are necessary to produce major league talent. It’s clear to anyone who has watched a Low-A Midwest League game that there are usually (and generously) three or four players on each team with a real shot at playing regularly in the majors and another four or five who could be part-time role players or bullpen pitchers. For the rest of them, well, miracles do happen but they’re called miracles for a reason.

Second, 40 rounds of the draft are too many. Most players taken in rounds 30 to 40 don’t sign anyway. And while we can all point out good-to-great players taken after the 20th round, those players would find their way into organized baseball anyway if they really are any good. Either they’d sign as undrafted free agents after college or they’d go into independent ball where they’d prove themselves and would get snatched up by a major league team pretty quickly. Maybe they’d follow the Robel Garcia path and sign with a foreign league, which would actually be good for the worldwide growth of the sport.

Third, while minor league baseball may be a “way of life” in some of these small communities, it doesn’t seem that too many of them are pursuing it. The Appalachian League may be over 100 years old, but attendance there is (mostly) terrible. The Bristol Pirates drew an average of 586 fans a game in 2019 and a grand total for the season of 18,750. That’s not a viable minor league city in today’s game.

Many communities would be better off spending their tax dollars on something other than maintaining minor league baseball stadiums that few people utilize. It’s almost cruel that Minor League Baseball continues to make demands of some of these smaller cities that really can no longer adequately support a professional club.

And finally, what do the following cities have in common?

New Orleans, LA
Bakersfield, CA
Tucson, AZ
Mobile, AL
Adelanto/Victorville, CA
Ottawa, ON
Calgary, AB
Edmonton, AB
Shreveport, LA
Yakima, WA

Those are just 10 of the 24 cities that I’ve found that have lost minor league franchises (and have not been replaced with other teams) in the 21st Century alone. Six of those cities have populations over 300,000. So unless you were decrying the loss of professional baseball for the kids of Tucson, New Orleans and Bakersfield, let’s not hear the “But the kids . . .” argument here. None of the kids in Bakersfield take solace that the kids in Fayetteville, North Carolina have minor league baseball now.

There are problems in minor league baseball that need to be addressed. Some of those are addressed above. There are also certain affiliates that have been given years to update their facilities and have not done so. When they do upgrade, they upgrade the area the public sees, which brings in more revenue, and not the facilities the players use, which does not.

Having said that, this is different. For over a century now, Major League and Minor League Baseball have been partners in expanding the business of baseball. They’ve never been equal partners — gosh, no — but this proposal would take pretty much all agency away from Minor League Baseball and hand it to the various front offices around Major League Baseball. It also proposes to hand the players more money up front in exchange for taking more money away from them later.

The best place to begin is at the start, and this proposal started with the Houston Astros, along with the Milwaukee Brewers and Baltimore Orioles, two franchises whose front offices are being run by former Astros front office executives. According to the report linked above, the other 27 teams said “Sure” and voted to move the proposal ahead without really looking at it.

The Astros recently decided that minor league baseball and professional scouting are irrelevant. In a trial balloon article in September on FiveThirtyEight, author Travis Sawchik outlined the Astros philosophy, which argued that pro scouting and minor league baseball were a waste of money. This article was clearly designed to prime the public for this proposal, whether Sawchik was aware of it or not. The Astros say that they can better train their players inside their team complex than they can in the Quad Cities or Round Rock.

Is that true? I have no idea. But I do know that this system would force many MLB teams to adopt this method of player development, which would greatly benefit the Astros since they have a head start on it.

The changing of the date of the draft is a huge part of this. The proposal, as outlined in this article on BallparkDigest.com, notes that with the draft in August, players would not play in the minors in the year they were drafted. Instead, they’d be forced to do what the Astros want to do, which is keep their newly-drafted players in their Spring Training complexes where they would work on drills and computer simulations instead of playing in real games.

What’s wrong with this? For one, like all players in Extended Spring Training today, these players would not get paid, beyond their draft signing bonuses. The proposal also states that the contracts for the players would not start until the season after they were drafted. In other words, teams would get an extra year of control of their new draftees. They would all be one year farther away from being eligible for the Rule 5 draft and one year farther away from minor league free agency. Sure, the MLB Players Association could negotiate a change in those rules, but then the owners would demand something back for the concession on their part.

On top of that, moving the draft back to August would wreak havoc with college baseball. Most drafted players would lose most of the leverage of going to school if they couldn’t make a decision until August. College coaches would be forced to give what meager scholarships and roster spots they did have to players that they knew would be on campus and not hope that some prize recruit might not sign a professional contract.

So the players would earn at least minimum wage for playing baseball, but they’d lose leverage, play a lot less baseball and they’d be farther away from a real payday and union membership. All of this would increase the power that management has over these players.

Moving to the minor league owners, this proposal refuses to spell out exactly what the standards for stadium facilities should be. The reason for that is clear—they want to power to eliminate whatever teams they want and to pit cities against each other.

The Ballpark Digest article explains. Two franchises with clear stadium issues with no resolution on the horizon, the Modesto Nuts and the Carolina Mudcats, are spared from contraction. Not coincidentally, those two affiliates are owned by their parent clubs, the Mariners and Brewers. The Mets own the Brooklyn Cyclones and that franchise gets bumped up from the short-season NY-Penn League to the full-season Double-A Eastern League. The independently-owned Fresno Grizzlies, who play in a modern and recently-upgraded Triple-A stadium that can seat 16,000 when you count the lawn seating, gets dumped down to the High-A California League, where most other stadiums have a capacity of 5,000 to 6,000. The two teams in the Florida State League targeted for destruction are also two teams that don’t currently play in a major league Spring Training complex.

If the proposal were purely about facilities and player development, affiliates like the Mudcats would be on the contraction list. If it were a good idea financially for the minor league owners to take a buyout, the Brewers would be insisting to be bought out of the Mudcats, rather than continuing their existence. But it’s not. This proposal is about taking aim at the last remaining vestiges of Minor League independence.

Eliminating teams also gives the power to pit one city against another for the continued existence of their sports franchise, a tactic we’ve seen before in North American major league sports leagues. Moving Fresno down to High-A would then mean there was a Triple-A quality stadium available to threaten to move to if another Triple-A city didn’t agree to demands for a stadium upgrade. Of course, this would be also be a benefit to the Triple-A owners, but many of them are also MLB owners these days as well.

The Dream League, the quasi-independent league that MLB proposes to replace the contracted teams, is a joke. In fact, the Ballpark Digest article says the running joke among both Minor and Major League executives is that it’s called the “Dream League” because MLB is dreaming if they think it would work. There are no serious proposals as to how this league would operate. There is a vague promise of a Major and Minor League “partnership,” but no clear offer of what MLB would pay for. The whole proposal looks like someone with the Astros looked at this proposal and said “We need to do something to make us look less like jerks” and tossed it in at the last moment so they could claim that they are not really eliminating baseball in these communities, which they totally are.

This proposal is about making baseball more about the bottom line and less about the game or the people in it. Baseball is a business, yes, and the owners deserve to make a profit. But this is the quest for short-term profits, over long-term growth that benefits everyone, that is all too common these days.

It’s also yet another example of the small-market teams (and the Astros) trying to cripple the large-market teams by limiting what they can do with their money. We’ve seen this path in MLB since at least the 1970s and it has led to some of the darkest days the sport has ever seen.

Fortunately, this proposal may be DOA. Since it was leaked over the weekend, the outcry against it has been huge and that is even without members of Congress getting involved. (They’ve been otherwise occupied recently.) An anonymous MLB executive (presumably not on the Astros, Brewers or Orioles) was quoted by Bill Madden in that New York Daily News piece:

I don’t see any way we can do something like this. 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.

On the other hand, one Minor League executive in that piece is quoted as saying:

I cannot believe the arrogance of these people. 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.”

Yeah, that sounds like the Astros.

The only solution is to keep up the pressure with articles like this one. The more blowback that MLB gets on this proposal, the more skittish the owners on the other 27 teams will get. When the time comes to get Congress involved, then it will be time to write your representatives.

There is fat to be cut from Minor League Baseball and improvements to be made. But rather than approach the problem with a scalpel, MLB is proposing to take a chainsaw to the game. The Minor Leagues will not survive surgery with a chainsaw, at least not in any recognizable form. This is also likely the first step. The ultimate goal of the people behind this proposal is what was outlined by FiveThirtyEight. We cannot let that happen.