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Minor league baseball: the self-destruct option

What happens if MLB gets its way in its dispute with the minor leagues?

Four Winds Field, home of the South Bend Cubs
Melqui Rodriguez/South Bend Cubs

We’ve discussed here a number of times Commissioner Rob Manfred's plan to eliminate a number of minor league affiliates. It wouldn't be helpful for the communities losing their squads. Many players in minor league ball will fall far short of MLB tenures, but to know which ones would suffer is best determined by letting their careers play out. Here is my view on what happens if MLB and MiLB don't reach a resolution.

Through the discussions of realignment, a few people mentioned that the current system "isn't how it would be set up now" if developing talent were just becoming in vogue. Minor league teams were already in existence in the 1920s when the Cardinals, under Branch Rickey, began using affiliates in a system similar to the types we have now. Some teams took to developing their own talent. Others, including the Cubs, tended to sign players out of minor leagues when they looked polished enough to help the parent club.

If you head out to Mesa this spring, or visit any MLB spring training site, I recommend you go for a walk through the whole complex. These facilities are amazing. Batting cages, numerous diamonds, edifices with computer banks, screens, kitchens, and all the creature comforts. They're self-contained baseball villas. And everyone that matters in the discussion knows it.

A number of years back, I began a personal campaign to get the Cubs to add another minor league affiliate, adding to their Northwest League squad and their sole Mesa team. My thought was, some of the college veterans would probably be better challenged by competition at the Appalachian League level, and might develop better as players. Two such opportunities arose. The Cubs chose neither, but did decide to "double down," adding a second squad in Mesa.

Why would a team prefer weaker competition on the Mesa compound? Because of the Mesa compound. Rightly or wrongly, the brass thought the improvement from a controlled facility would be more conducive to growth than with marginally better opposition, elsewhere. It would be a fun deep-dive discussion topic. As numerous teams have also added a second Arizona League/Gulf Coast League squad, my side would likely lose the discussion.

Among my recent talking points has been Cost Accountancy Baseball. Ownership of all 30 teams selects a number. Perhaps $120 million, or $175 million. The front office's job is to field the best squad possible at, or below, that amount. That Tom Ricketts' number of choice is below last season's total has hamstrung the off-season. Nonetheless, for whatever reasons, $205-210 seems about the apex, regardless. That players like Kris Bryant might get traded because of it? A part of doing business.

Baseball ownership is a business, first and foremost, for owners. Winning is great. Parades are forever. But the bottom line never goes away. The venues in Arizona and Florida are often under-utilized. From April through mid-June, about all that goes on at the Sloan Park complex is extended spring training. That's where 60-80 players are jockeying for spots on the Eugene, Mesa, or Dominican League sides. That entire facility is being used by fewer than 100 players after the MLB spring season ends. During spring training, the facility services 200, easily.

If minor league baseball doesn't cave in to MLB's demands? What's to stop the 30 clubs from moving their A-Ball and Short Season squads to the compounds? It wouldn't be ideal, but instead of a 37-degree first pitch in Eastlake, Ohio after a four-hour busride, some Cubs players would ride a bus to Maryvale to play the Brewers, with another charter or two making the reverse trip. The same games are played. The same youngsters are playing. The primary difference is location, and that no programs or popcorn is sold.

MLB needs development more than they need games in environments they don't control. My hunch is, Double-A and Triple-A games would be similar to now. Players are likely best-served having road trips before reaching MLB, but bus trips from Eugene, Oregon to Boise, Idaho might not be required.

Don't get me wrong. I still am bullish on maximizing baseball development. That ship has sailed. MLB doesn't want academies in Africa and Brazil. That costs money that at least 23 of the 30 owners don't want to spend. I'm not the first to recommend four DSL teams for one side, but "talk to the hand" has been the response. Baseball would rather lose a first-round pick to college football (or the NFL, in Kyler Murray's case) than pay more in bonuses. There are reasons Mark Cuban never was invited to be an MLB owner.

Owners want to make money. They want to adjust rules so it's easier to do so. If your local carrier doesn't pick up the Cubs TV network, the team still gets paid, just like the Dodgers do in Los Angeles. Minor league owners can galvanize and push back at Manfred's plan. However, MLB no longer needs minor league games in cold-weather cities, or towns with middling team amenities.

As cool as it is that minor league players are going to get paid more, that will mean that spots in systems will be whisked away. It will make for a more "streamlined" set-up. Normally, when I hear streamlined mentioned, it implies some opportunities are being removed. Whichever way the minor leagues get altered soon, it won't be for the better. Or equivalent. On the other hand, the owners will keep much of their money, so there's that.