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MLB’s proposal to reduce minor league reserve lists is a really bad idea

If implemented, it would reduce the number of young players getting a chance at a big league dream.

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Frank Schwindel was fun to watch with the Cubs in 2021, and hopefully will be in 2022. But would he even get a chance under MLB’s proposed reduction of minor league reserve lists?
Rhona Wise-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last couple of days, you have probably read about a MLB proposal to the MLBPA which would limit the number of times a player could be optioned to the minor leagues. On its face this sounds good — players would potentially make more money if they couldn’t be jerked up and down on the so-called “Iowa Shuttle” more than five times a year, the number in the proposal.

But as Jeff Passan of ESPN wrote, that wasn’t all that was in MLB’s proposal, and it was tied to another one, as BCB’s Sara Sanchez noted here yesterday:

MLB is willing to limit the number of times a player can be optioned. They just have some conditions. Conditions like the MLBPA signing off on a potential 16.7 percent decrease in the number of non-unionized Minor League Baseball players in the league in 2023, according to Passan’s reporting:

Currently, the Domestic Reserve List — which governs the number of minor league players a team can roster at any time — is at 180. The league proposed keeping the number at 180 for 2022 but allowing the commissioner’s office to reduce the maximum number of players “below 150” over the rest of the collective-bargaining agreement, sources said. The proposal says the league could adjust the reserve list’s size “up or down.”

Ah, ha. So what MLB really wants to do, in the long run, is reduce the number of minor leaguers. There has been a lot of pressure put on MLB owners lately to pay minor leaguers more. The league seems to be willing to do this, up to a point — but only if there are fewer minor leaguers to pay.

This article by Brittany Ghiroli in The Athletic, in which she interviewed 20 current minor leaguers, details the dire conditions in which many minor league players live. You might remember former overall No. 1 draft pick Mark Appel, who never made the big leagues. He posted this thoughtful thread yesterday on how MLB teams could pay all their minor leaguers a living wage:

Read the whole thread. If you don’t want to scroll through a couple dozen tweets, click here for the entire thread in one place. Appel might have not gotten to the major leagues, but he's got some really good thoughts about the current minor league situation.

If MLB gets its way here — and I don’t think it will — there will be many, many players similar to guys now actually playing in the major leagues who will never get the chance at all.

I went through the current 40-man rosters of all 30 MLB teams, 1,200 players in all. With the lockout in place, these rosters are frozen, so this is a good snapshot of “Who is a MLB player right now?” What I did was check to see which players currently on those 40-man rosters were drafted after the 15th round, signed their first pro contracts as non-drafted free agents or were signed by MLB organizations out of indy ball. Caveat: Not included in this are any current free agents or any players signed as international free agents (for the latter, it’s too difficult to determine a relative talent level equivalent to below the 15th round of the draft). Thus the number I am about to give you is probably smaller than the reality MLB might create.

Most, though not all, of those 1,200 players have played in the major leagues. For those who haven’t, their organizations clearly think highly enough of them to keep them protected on 40-man rosters. Of the 1,200, 119 of them were either drafted after the 15th round, signed as non-drafted free agents or signed with their first MLB organization out of indy ball. That’s 10 percent, and that seems to me to be a significant number.

Why did I pick the 15th round? Well, there has to be a cutoff somewhere. The current draft goes 20 rounds; it would not surprise me to see MLB also try to reduce that at some future time.

Here goes. These are all 119 of the players I noted above, listed by team. The round they were drafted is in parentheses, or (ND) for non-drafted or (INDY) for indy-ball signings.

Angels: Janson Junk (22), Kyle Tyler (20), Jack Mayfield (ND), Jose Rojas (36), Jared Walsh (39)
Athletics: Chris Bassitt (16), Jonah Bride (23), Seth Brown (19)
Astros: Jonathan Bermudez (23), Josh James (34), Seth Martinez (17), Phil Maton (20), Taylor Jones (19), Chas McCormick (21)
Braves: Tucker Davidson (19), Jacob Webb (18), William Woods (23), Kirby Yates (26)
Brewers: Jake Cousins (20), Dylan File (21), Josh Hader (19), Brent Suter (31), Justin Topa (17), Brett Sullivan (17), Mike Brosseau (ND), Rowdy Tellez (30), Lorenzo Cain (17)
Blue Jays: Trevor Richards (INDY), Tayler Saucedo (21), Danny Jansen (16)
Cardinals: Jake Walsh (30), Kodi Whitley (27)
Cubs: Alec Mills (22), Tommy Nance (INDY), David Bote (18), Frank Schwindel (18)
Diamondbacks: Joe Mantiply (27), Matt Peacock (23), Sean Poppen (19), Cooper Hummel (18), Josh Rojas (26)
Dodgers: Justin Bruihl (ND), Caleb Ferguson (38), Evan Phillips (17), Alex Vesia (17), Zach McKinstry (33)
Giants: John Brebbia (30), Dominic Leone (16), Sammy Long (18), Mauricio Dubon (26), Jason Vosler (16), Jaylin Davis (24), Darin Ruf (20)
Guardians: George Valera (ND)
Mariners: Anthony Misiewicz (18), Casey Sadler (25), Ty France (34)
Marlins: Anthony Bender (20), Paul Campbell (21), Daniel Castano (19), Louis Head (18), Jon Berti (18)
Mets: Seth Lugo (34), Adam Oller (20)
Nationals: Gabe Klobosits (36), Donovan Casey (20)
Orioles: Paul Fry (17), Logan Gillaspie (ND), Isaac Mattson (19), Cole Sulser (25)
Padres: Tim Hill (32), Ray Kerr (ND), Reiss Knehr (20)
Phillies: Damon Jones (18), Ryan Sherriff (28)
Pirates: David Bednar (35), Nick Mears (ND), Roberto Perez (ND)
Rangers: Demarcus Evans (25), Spencer Patton (24), Nick Snyder (19)
Rays: Nick Anderson (22), J.P. Feyereisen (16), Andrew Kittredge (45), Jeffrey Springs (30), Ryan Thompson (23), Kevin Kiermaier (31)
Reds: Amir Garrett (22), Art Warren (23), Alejo Lopez (27), TJ Friedl (ND)
Red Sox: Kutter Crawford (16), Josh Taylor (ND), Garrett Whitlock (18), J.D. Martinez (20)
Rockies: Ashton Goudeau (27), Tyler Kinley (16), Alan Trejo (16)
Royals: Gabe Speier (19), Nathan Webb (34), Emmanuel Rivera (19)
Tigers: Jason Foley (ND), Joe Jimenez (ND), Dustin Garneau (19), Zack Short (17)
Twins: Jharel Cotton (20), Randy Dobnak (INDY), Ralph Garza Jr. (26), Caleb Thielbar (18)
White Sox: Aaron Bummer (19), Matt Foster (20), Romy Gonzalez (18), Danny Mendick (22), Adam Engel (19)
Yankees: Nestor Cortes (36), Lucas Luetge (21), Ron Marinaccio (19), Luke Voit (22)

There are some pretty good players on that list — a handful of All-Stars, a few who have played in the World Series, a guy who’s thrown a no-hitter and several solid contributors to MLB teams. While the list is a bit short on starting pitchers, you could still probably put together a pretty good 26-man roster from it.

If that MLB proposal made its way into the CBA, most if not all of these players would wind up not drafted. In that case, they’d have to go play indy ball — or in what MLB has termed the “Dream Leagues” — to get a chance to join the affiliated minors. Let’s say some guy like this tears up whatever league he’s in, dominates it, wins a league MVP award. Is he going to get a big-time bonus to join affiliated ball? No, most likely a MLB team would pay a pittance to the indy league club for his contract, not pay the player much, and then expect him to start at the bottom of the ladder in affiliated ball to “prove himself.” Someone like Frank Schwindel — an 18th-round pick who never really dominated any minor-league level — might never get the chance to play at all under a system like this.

Is that the kind of future baseball should aspire to? A future where the dreams of young men should be squashed before they even get a real chance? All the players above came basically from out of nowhere to become MLB players, in some cases really good MLB players. That might not exist under the ownership proposal we’re talking about here.

You’ve come a long way through this article to get to my conclusion, and I thank you for your patience. Essentially, what MLB is doing here is trying to run the sport like it’s a hedge fund, cutting corners everywhere they can when in fact, this is a proverbial pennywise and pound-foolish type of situation. You can see in Brittany Ghiroli’s article and Mark Appel’s Twitter thread that the costs to pay minor leaguers a living wage are a pittance in the overall financial structure of the sport and in the end, would benefit everyone — players who would be paid, housed and fed better would perform better, and the teams that do this would reap the reward of better play at the MLB level.

Instead, MLB owners want to cut-cut-cut. If you live in Chicago and are a reader of the Tribune, you have seen this happen recently when the paper was bought by a hedge fund. They’ve cut the paper to the bone; longtime columnists took buyouts or otherwise departed and coverage beyond a few local reporters is all from national wire services. At this moment the only real columnist the Tribune has left is Paul Sullivan.

That’s the sort of future MLB owners are proposing to MLB players. It’s no wonder players don’t seem inclined to accept it. As such, we are a long, long way from seeing a deal that will get the 2022 MLB season started.