MLB thinks paying MiLB players is a “waste”

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We now know the identity of the 42 minor-league teams MLB plans to shut down as part of a major restructuring of Minor League Baseball. The New York Times published the list this weekend, and there are some threads to pull on within it that reveal some of MLB’s intent: we’ll focus on the idea of “waste” today.

Just 14 of the shuttered teams are full-season, out of 120 that exist right now. However, 28 of the 40 short-season teams out there would be disaffiliated: those are inherently lower on the attendance spectrum, considering they are short-season leagues, in smaller parks, often in smaller cities that maybe couldn’t support something the size and scope of a Triple-A team and its park. That doesn’t mean they failed to, say, pay for the stadium they do have to be built, or that the people within those cities aren’t enjoying having a team in town. As Neil deMause writes:

And what would all of this mean for the cities that have supported minor league baseball by erecting stadiums, partly or entirely at public cost, to ensure the presence of a team? Just as a small sampling: New York City spent $71 million to build a ballpark for the Staten Island Yankees in 2001; Jackson spent $8 million on a stadium for the Generals in 1998, and has additionally chipped in $500,000 a year in operating subsidies since then; the SeaWolves just got $12 million in state money and the Rumble Ponies just received $5 million in state and city funds for upgrades to their ballparks. Chattanooga, meanwhile, has been discussing a new stadium to replace the Lookouts’ current one, which will turn an ancient 20 years old next year; that’ll presumably be off the agenda if there’s no team, but who’s to say that MLB won’t allow new applicants to the slimmed-down minor league register, if they come with snazzy enough stadium plans and a lucrative enough fee? [Bill] Madden reports that “for over a year now, MLB has been asking Minor League teams to lobby their state governors and legislatures to enact legislation allotting ‘integrity fees’ — a percentage of the baseball gambling revenue in their states — that would generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for MLB,” and suggests that local officials won’t take too kindly to that if teams are being eliminated, but who’s to say if they’ll consider them if it would remove their teams from the hit list?

MLB is extremely concerned about “wasting” their money on minor-league players, according to the report of Bill Madden as well as my own digging on the issue at hand, but as you can tell from the above, they don’t care a bit if the money wasn’t their own. On the same subject, Bill Madden reports that, “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.”

The point of view that requires teams and MLB to say that this money is “wasted” involves believing that the only money that isn’t a waste is what is paid to the future big-league players in the minors. However, those future big-league players face off against minor-league players who aren’t necessarily making it to the show: that’s the competition for the future big-league players, the ones who help get them into the position where they can be big-league players. How is that a waste of money, and not just what it costs to operate Minor League Baseball?

We consider the minors to be the “farm system” of MLB, where the seeds of players are planted, grown, cultivated, and eventually harvested by the big-league teams. You could say that the players without a big-league future are the compost that helps nourish the soil in this analogy, as they aren’t the crop themselves but are vital to the growing process, and because MLB treats them like shit.

To that point, we should mention the kind of money is being “wasted” on minor-league players. Major League Baseball lobbied the federal government for two years, spending multiple millions of dollars in the process, to make sure that MiLB players wouldn’t have overtime, or have to be paid during spring training, or to make anything more than just the federal minimum wage. That results in a minimum salary of $290 per 40 hours worked, which over a month’s time is $1,160, and over a full five-month season is $5,800. It’s even less for the short-season leagues that play far fewer games and months, and even at the highest level of the minors, the salary tends to be about $10,000 per month. That’s livable, though, with the money those players are helping to generate for Triple-A teams and the MLB clubs, too, it’s also well below what they should be getting, never mind that they’re still working 70-80 hours per week and only being paid for 40.

It’s been said before by myself and others, but to pay every minor-league player in an organization $50,000 would cost teams all of about $7.5 million annually. That’s a proverbial drop in the bucket for the 30 clubs in the $10-billion-per-year industry, even for the teams that cry poor the loudest. There is no money being wasted on minor-league players: there are only cheap owners who hate that they have to pay players at all.

Which is, of course, one of the reasons we’re having this discussion at all. MLB hopes to disaffiliate a number of clubs, cutting their costs with one hand while building the “Dream League” with the other. This Dream League — named so, presumably, to even less subtly prey on the hopes and dreams of would be big-leaguers — would be operated and financed by whichever disaffiliated MiLB owners swallow their pride and decide they want to watch interns play baseball. The cost, per Madden, would be between $350,000-450,000 annually to operate one of these Dream League teams, and that’s to pay for everything: players, coaches, trainers, insurance, you name it. Those Dream League players wouldn’t have a direct MLB affiliation, but they would be available to sign with one of those 30 teams if they proved themselves worthy of a shot in the minors or even the majors. It’s basically an independent league setup, except run by Major League Baseball, for Major League Baseball. I’d imagine, too, that the Dream League owners would be the ones paid as compensation for the loss of a player, in order to give them additional money to keep the farm going: the players would now just be worthy of traditional, awful minor-league pay as a reward.

This, in conjunction with shrinking the number of affiliates per team, is MLB’s way of returning to one of the classic versions of the minors. Before Hall of Fame executive Branch Rickey collected minor-league affiliates in a much more formal relationship with those teams that made all of the players on those clubs his players, too, the minors were just a place you sent your scouts to check out players their teams might want to sign for themselves. Eventually, relationships like Rickey’s became the norm, the draft was instituted, teams filled out the rosters of affiliate clubs with their prospects, and now we’re in 2019 trying to undo the parts of that MLB owners are annoyed by the most. The reason is to once again put the costs back onto “independent” minor-league clubs like they were early last century, while maintaining a modern version of the system Rickey’s actions built. The difference is that, this time around, there would be a cap on the number of affiliates, so teams that don’t want to keep adding affiliates and rosters of players to them just to keep up with the Yankees and the Dodgers — just like in Rickey’s day! — and their ability to continually add on affiliate costs in case more prospects can be housed within.

The Astros don’t want to “waste” money on affiliates, but they don’t want other teams that don’t care as much about those costs to have an advantage over them. So, Houston and their acolytes around the league have convinced the rest of MLB that this is worth doing, for one reason or another, and now we have MLB on the cusp of eliminating over one-quarter of MiLB teams in order to save a relative pittance, or as insurance against eventually having to pay MiLB players more than the current poverty-level wages most receive. It’ll cost players with no say in the matter their jobs, breed significant resentment from fans in minor-league cities, and maybe even open MLB up to a challenge (or challenges) of their antitrust exemption, but you’d be amazed at what MLB owners would do or risk to save a buck. Assuming you still have the capacity to be surprised by them, anyway.

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