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Part of Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball’s plan to shrink the minor leagues revolves around the concept of “waste.” Per a report by Bill Madden, “waste” was an important reason to agree to this plan to disaffiliate 42 minor-league teams: you can see my reaction to that reveal as well, as it published here in mid-November. This time around, though, the focus is on what minor-league players think of this idea, that any player who doesn’t make it to the bigs was a “waste” of resources for MLB teams.
I spoke with three players — two former, one active but anonymous to protect them from any blowback from MLB — for a feature that published at TalkPoverty earlier this month, titled “Major League Baseball Wants to Crush 42 Minor League Teams — And Their Hometowns.” I asked them a wider range of questions than what was used in that one piece, however, including on the subject of “waste.”
Manfred’s final reason for gutting the minors, out of four publicly stated ones, is that too many players are drafted or signed who have no chance of making the majors, which is why MLB’s plan not only involves shrinking the affiliated minors, but also cutting the annual domestic draft in half. Our anonymous active player explained the problem with this: “Every MLB team has players on the big league roster that, under the new policies, would never have gotten a chance. On the Rays alone, Mike Brosseau (undrafted free agent), Oliver Drake (43rd Round), Nick Anderson (32nd Round), Kevin Kiermaier (31st Round), Trevor Richards (undrafted free agent), and Andrew Kittridge (45th Round) wouldn’t have gotten their chance if the system MLB has just proposed were in place during the beginning of their careers.”
That’s just one team for that many players whose draft round wouldn’t even exist going forward, and one that made it to the postseason in 2019, thanks at least in part to the players listed above. The thing is, developing players in the minors takes time, and there are misses in the early rounds that can be made up for by unearthing gems in the later rounds. Players work hard at their game, and end up being better than anyone imagined. Just this season, we had Randy Dobnak, a non-prospect to begin the year, start a postseason game for the Twins after a strong big-league debut. Brian O’Grady, another non-prospect for much of his minor-league career, ended up on the Reds this summer, and was the subject of a piece written here on MiLB exploitation. These players crop up every season despite not being selected in the early rounds, and yet, MLB is pushing to eliminate those opportunities: that doesn’t seem to be in the best interests of Baseball, as it were.
Or, as Kyle Johnson, former player for three of the teams on the initial list of disaffiliated ones, put it, “Baseball is a game that you can master at any time. One unique thing about Minor League Baseball compared to football or basketball or the other major sports, is that you don’t know when it’s going to click for a player, and the player doesn’t know. It just takes that certain moment where they figure everything out, and the only way they can figure things out is by playing. So if you eliminate teams, you eliminate the amount of players, and Major League Baseball teams’ talent pool is going to diminish.”
Johnson isn’t saying that basketball and football players are fully developed products the moment they suit up: the comparison is to the longer gestation period of MLB players. While the NBA has recently devoted more and more resources to their own developmental league, it’s nothing compared to what MiLB is at this stage. The goal is to get there — though, unlike with MiLB, with paying actual salaries players can live on, ones that acknowledge that being a minor-league player is a career and not an internship. The NFL still relies heavily on the NCAA to develop its players, who will then be slotted into NFL games, not minor-league ones, following the draft. Those are both different than the MLB model, which features teenagers young and “old” being signed and turned into pro ballplayers, and then maybe not seeing the majors for four, five, six, or even more than that years down the road.
Along the way, though, something can click, as Johnson said, and players who were comparative afterthoughts on draft day can become not only big-league players, but real good ones. MLB cutting down the number of teams at their disposal, and the draft length itself, robs them of opportunities to develop those players. This would be a boost to other baseball leagues and the players themselves if MLB’s antitrust exemption didn’t give them an effective monopoly on professional baseball that has kept anything approaching a competitor away for the better part of a century: since there is no game in town besides MLB, both regionally and nationally, this just means fewer jobs and fewer opportunities, despite the money existing to finance both.
There’s also the fact that describing players purely in terms of their potential profit is dehumanizing, and that MLB isn’t just doing that, but is also doing it inaccurately. According to Garrett Broshuis, a former player and current lawyer working on the class-action Senne v. MLB suit, “That’s a terrible way to look at human beings. It goes back to the commoditization of players: players are not just property, they’re human beings, and the work they do has value no matter if you’re pick 25 or pick 900.”
Not only are they human beings, but they’re still helping make the majors what they are today, even if they never step foot there themselves. As Broshuis put it, “Even if you don’t make it to the big leagues, you’re helping other people get to the bigs, that’s what being part of a team means. Every player is needed, and plays a part in the process in developing major leaguers, even if that player doesn’t make it. And you know what? Sometimes that player number 900 does figure it out and make it to the big leagues, and it’d be a shame for that player and that team to miss out on that.”
What all this talk of waste and shrinking drafts comes down to, though, is that teams want to make sure that what they spend to keep the minors running doesn’t increase. Since the general belief is that they will eventually have to increase the poverty-level wages to players, bringing them to a more publicly suitable poverty-level wage, as the Blue Jays have done of their own volition, the teams are threatening to shut down over one-quarter of the minors to make sure the players don’t get any additional ideas about asking for a larger share of the wealth they’ve created. This is an intimidation tactic, a belittling of a core component of the minor-league system, and with any luck, another in a long line of MLB failures against its workers.
This from Daniel Epstein at Beyond the Box Score is worth your time, as it dives into the lies MLB tells you for their own profit, while also shifting seamlessly into what’s going on at Vox Media, where they’re getting rid of their California-based contributors outright instead of finding ways to retain many of them in ways California’s new contractor law allows.
MLB and the MLB Umpires Association came to a tentative five-year agreement, and it’s an odd one I’m dying to get a look at. The umpires are going to let the technology-based umpiring systems come more and more into MLB, but are doing so in exchange for concessions like higher compensation and retirement benefits, as well as earlier retirement. I’m curious to see how much was given up compared to what was gained, especially since it’s possible that, down the road, the umpires just get replaced outright by technology for the most part. Might as well cash out while you can if that’s inevitable, no?
This isn’t me saying robot umps are the right move, by the way, more noting that the umps could be acting like the writing is on the wall with regard to their job security. Which in and of itself would be intriguing.
- Steven Goldman also wrote about the 50th anniversary of Curt Flood’s famous letter to then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn. I say “also” because that was my pre-Christmas topic this week, as well, ICYMI and all that.