MLB threatens to shut down MiLB teams, and they aren’t bluffing. Just greedy.

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If you’ve been paying attention, you knew this was coming: MLB is finally threatening to shut down a number of Minor League Baseball teams, because overhauling stadiums, clubhouses, equipment, and paying players costs money they do not want to spend. They have the money, of course, being a $10 billion per year industry, but MLB’s owners would prefer that MiLB’s owners pick up the tab instead: that way, MLB can modernize the minors and improve pay for minor-league players, but not at their own expense. So, more of the same from them, really.

This conversation is happening because the Professional Baseball Agreement between MLB and MiLB is close to expiring: the 2020 season is the last that will be played under the current agreement. With horrid minor-league pay a more public concern than it’s ever been following MLB’s lobbying of Congress to restrict it, MLB has tried to public relations their way into being in favor of better pay for those players despite all of the evidence to the contrary. While teams could just, you know, do that — paying every single minor-league player in an organization $50,000 per year instead of poverty-level wages would cost every MLB team something like $7.5 million annually — they are instead now threatening MiLB’s owners to do more of the spending in the future, or else be cut out of this joint product.

J.J. Cooper at Baseball America has the pertinent details:

The MLB proposal is just one idea at the start of what will likely be a lengthy negotiation, but the two sides are further apart than they have been in any PBA negotiation since 1990. At the core of the negotiations, MLB is looking to dramatically improve Minor League Baseball’s stadium facilities as well as take control over how the minor leagues are organized as far as affiliations and the geography of leagues. Those areas have been under the control of MiLB for the past 100-plus years and would lead to a dramatic restructuring of how MiLB is governed and operates.

MLB has offered a proposal that, if adopted, would reduce Minor League Baseball from 160 teams—not counting the complex league teams that are wholly MLB-owned—to 120 beginning in 2021.

And MLB wants MiLB to share in the increased costs that are going to come with increased player pay. In MLB’s view, there may be several ways to reach these goals, but their initial proposal is one path to those goals.

Now, MLB’s desire to improve the facilities their future players pay in is completely understandable: better facilities and equipment in the minors means better prepared players in the majors. On the other hand, improving the quality of life of the players by improving pay, their per diems, their living situations, and so on fits into the same conceptual bucket, and yet, MLB has shown little desire to do any of that, and has even actively fought against it with their lobbying of federal and state governments. So, it’s hard to take MLB at their word in any of this. Especially when one of the solutions to disaffiliating clubs is to form a “Dream League” separate from the rest of the minors that you can imagine will treat its players as poorly, if not worse, than current MiLB players. Its premise reads like an MiLB player internship program.

This doesn’t make MiLB owners the good guys in this story, though: those owners are still wealthy, even if they aren’t MLB-levels of wealthy, and they’re concerned that their comparatively free ride is coming to an end. They haven’t been paying salaries, they now get cities to pay for new stadiums and upgrades the same as big-league clubs, and they get to reap the profits of owning a sports team that they don’t have to put much money into since the most significant costs are covered by the parent clubs. This is a battle between two different levels of rich folks, neither of whom wants to spend money on their own product, and the ones who are going to be hit the hardest are the players who will lose their jobs and the chance at fulfilling a dream when this all goes down. The ones who don’t have a seat at the table, because they still aren’t unionized.

My suspicion is that this is mostly a threat from MLB to get MiLB owners to start spending more money: if you don’t want to reach into your pockets to pay for stadium upgrades and better facilities when MLB is under pressure to pay players more and is likely aware they’ll have to eventually do just that, then you don’t get to own an affiliated club anymore. It is a threat they’ll carry out, though: do not think for a second that the army of cutthroat rich assholes are making an empty threat when following through on it would result in even less spending for them. This is the kind of situation that helped make all of them as rich as they are now, and they’ll be glad to pull the trigger to keep that going.

It was just over a month ago that I was writing about how Travis Sawchik’s article suggesting that MLB didn’t really need the minors anymore was laying the groundwork for future discussions like this one:

So, MLB’s billionaire owners might punish their lesser cousins in the minors should they fail to adequately finance MLB’s own future, forcing them to shut down, which would mean multiple stories about the greedy players and their demand for pay taking baseball away from Medium-Sized City, USA, making this gross quest for ultra-efficiency the fault of the players who are its targets even at this early stage, when it’s just a dream. Cool!

It’s tempting to dream about Minor League Baseball going independent again, and not being in the thrall of Major League Baseball like it has been for nearly a century now in order to escape this culling, but it’s likely the former is far too gone at this point. Minor League Baseball could bail on their agreement with MLB, sure, but as Passan noted in the previously linked article, they are “the beneficiary of free labor,” and that means they’re doing whatever MLB wants, even if it’s done begrudgingly. If they split from MLB in some capacity, they would suddenly be responsible for all of the costs. While they would also see all of the revenue pass through their hands in this scenario, they would no longer have MLB’s backing, financial or otherwise, in future labor disputes, the flexing of muscles against city councils, and so on. They aren’t about to give that up, even if it means a few current minor-league owners become former minor-league owners in the process, even if it means a worse version of Minor League Baseball that isn’t played in front of as many people, even though everyone in power could ensure it’s everywhere at once with dollar figures that, to them, are rounding errors.

MiLB owners are going to either start spending their own money, or they’re going to see their numbers shrink. And Cooper doesn’t think this is a one time thing, either. As he tweeted while sharing his initial story, “One thing that kept coming up in my reporting on this. MLB’s initial proposal is for a new 5-year PBA (usually they have been 7 or 10-year terms in past). Heard concerns from several that 120 teams in 2021 could become 90 in 2026.” MLB will shrink and shrink MiLB until they’re at the level of efficiency they want, whether that’s enough to avoid raising costs while paying players more, or by creating Sawchik’s dystopian minors-less future. As I’ve said before, they only have 6,000 minor-league players and all of these affiliates under the MLB umbrella because they can. They’ll start cutting them down if it’s going to cost them more to operate them all. And since MiLB has no real power here, they’re going to eventually acquiesce, especially since the 2021 Minor League season can’t even begin until a deal is agreed to or ratified, and MLB is much more capable of holding out in the long run than MiLB is when their games will still be played and profits pulled in.

MiLB might not agree to the 2021 restructuring, but when the next PBA ends, maybe MLB decides 40 teams do need to go no matter what, and they won’t budge on that. And what will MiLB’s owners do then? They have no real power here, as connected to and reliant on MLB as their entire venture is, and that’s before MLB’s present attempts to cut even further into MiLB’s leverage in this partnership.

I don’t care much what happens to the owners — MiLB or MLB — or their profits, but the arguments of the wealthy over just who is going to have to foot these bills that improve players’ lives and careers are going to harm those very players and the fans who want to see them play, whether it’s because Minor League Baseball is more affordable or just more realistic to attend for geographical purposes. MLB doesn’t care one bit, as evidenced by these threats they’ll absolutely carry out should MiLB’s owners refuse to increase their own spending just because MLB told them to. This story is far from over, but we already know who the winner is going to be.

  • I wrote SB Nation’s World Series preview as a freelance writer, which is pretty funny for a number of reasons, but mostly because I didn’t write a World Series preview for them while I worked there full-time for most of this decade. Anyway, it focuses more on the Astros-Nationals relationship to the juiced ball and luxury tax than on the actual match-up, which means it should be up your collective alleys.

  • David Roth wrote that what’s wrong with the baseballs is what’s wrong with baseball, and I’m recommending it to you for far more reasons than “multiple stories of mine are linked within.” David’s one of the good ones.

  • Speaking of the juiced balls, Justin Verlander told reporters that MLB ghosted him on taking a tour of the factory where the balls are produced.

  • Craig Calcaterra wrote a reported editorial on opioid use in baseball, following the reveal of last week that the Angels knew about Tyler Skaggs’ opioid use.

  • Here’s Craig Goldstein on how the discourse surrounding the Gleyber Torres trade that helped the Cubs win a World Series and powers the Yankees today sucks.

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