MLB’s planned pay raise for MiLB players is severely lacking

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One of MLB’s excuses for attempting to disaffiliate 42 minor-league teams following the 2020 season has been the need to increase pay for minor-league players. Obviously, players need to be paid more, but MLB tying these two events together is disingenuous: MLB’s owners can afford to keep every team in Minor League Baseball going and pay every minor-league player far more than they do now, and it would still be a drop in the proverbial bucket for them.

As has been said before, the average minor-league salary could be $50,000 per year, and it would cost each team about $7.5 million. That’s it! MLB is tying the disaffiliation of teams together with increasing pay as a threat to the thousands of minor-league players who will remain: this is what could happen to you and your team if you make too much noise about your pay.

We need to keep this in mind now that MLB is opening up about what kind of pay increase they’ve committed to. Forbes’ Maury Brown recently asked Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem about the pay increase:

Halem said to me separately that players will see a “substantial increase” in pay. Pressed as to what “substantial” would be, he said 50% above what is currently set in the various levels in the Minors. As to why MLB and MilB pressed for classifying Minor League players as “salaried” and therefore not subject to minimum wage requirements, Halem said the issue was around how to implement it, not looking to increase pay. The issue has been framed as not being able to clock in and out as with a standard hourly job. Concerns about players wanting to take extra development time in the batting cage or other forms would have clubs trying to monitor who could get that time, or not.

Yes, a 50 percent increase in pay is a positive. However, bumping poverty-level wages up by 50 percent means you’re still dealing with poverty-level wages. Consider, too, that a 50 percent jump in pay does not compensate for the fact that these players are still capped at 40 hours per week and aren’t paid overtime, even though they’re working more like 60-plus hours. They still wouldn’t be paid during spring training, or the postseason, or the offseason. For players in the lower levels, a 50 percent bump in pay is a 50 percent bump on a salary that, before taxes, is paying them $1,160 per month. Jumping to $1,740 per month is a plus, but that’s still $8,700 for the season.

That’s $8,700 these players are using for a place to live, food to eat, their own equipment — it’s not much, and it doesn’t go far, not even as minor-league players share an apartment with five teammates, buy dollar menu fast food items, or, say, work to train themselves in the offseason so they better their chances of reaching the majors, or, at least, the high-minors, where the pay is better but still unfair.

Players make about $15,000 for the season at Triple-A… assuming it’s their third year at the level. The current pay for first-year Triple-A players is $2,150 for the month, which is about $3,000 less over the course of a season than what a third-year can make. A 50 percent jump makes that monthly pay $3,225, which means a first-time Triple-A player would still be below the federal poverty line of $16,910 by season’s end. At least players repeating the level will have nudged above that threshold: congrats, everyone, we did it!

This is as good a spot as any to remind you that Major League Baseball had a(nother) record year for revenue in 2019, making $10.7 billion-with-a-b on the season. The increase in revenue from 2018 to 2019 alone was $400 million, and also marked the 17th consecutive year that MLB’s end-of-year figures constituted a record. That $400 million, by the way, is $175 million more than would be necessary to pay every MiLB player that average salary of $50,000 mentioned earlier. Maybe they could use that little extra bit of cash to upgrade the facilities they’re also using as an excuse to shut down dozens of minor-league teams.

Given how these things have gone of late, MLB is probably going to eclipse the $11 billion mark in 2020. It’ll be the 18th year in a row with record revenue, another with massive television earnings, merchandising deals, and so on, and yet, all they can manage is a 50 percent increase in pay for their minor-league players. To be blunt, 50 percent of shit is still shit, just more of it. And minor-league players are a key cog in this ridiculously profitable venture that makes a small number of people unfathomably wealthy. They should be paid commensurate with that idea.

None of this is something new in this space: it’s not simply an automatic antagonistic stance to whatever MLB is doing. Back in March of 2019, the Blue Jays raised their salaries along these 50 percent lines, and it wasn’t enough. It was helpful, for sure, as it made the lives of their players significantly better, but that doesn’t mean it was enough. When Congress pretended to flirt with the idea of raising the federal minimum wage to $15 — it’s currently $7.25, and has been that way for over a decade now despite inflation — I wrote about how even that wouldn’t be enough of a jump had it somehow passed:

Of course, then these players would still only be making $2,400 per month for five months — that’s just $12,000 per season — and they still wouldn’t have overtime, or their housing taken care of, or a higher per diem, or their equipment acquired by the team. That’s how horrific the current pay conditions are for these players, that more than doubling their salaries would still leave them in a horrible place where they’re overworked, underpaid, and forced to pick up secondary jobs while still keeping themselves in shape for baseball and honing their skills outside of the season.

If more than doubling their salaries wasn’t going to cut it, then a 50 percent increase in pay absolutely isn’t going to. That’s the kind of math that even I can figure out in my head. MLB, though, will be applauded for this pay increase, and that’s the other goal here: besides terrifying players into quietly submitting to the low salaries offered them, MLB wants the PR boost that would come from raising salaries.

A 50 percent increase sounds impressive on the surface, and that’s what will go in the headlines. Many people won’t read the articles themselves, just the headlines and the tweets, and many journalists writing those unread articles won’t dig far enough into how it’s still not a living wage, nor in line with the players’ labor or MLB’s revenue. Then, if any player dares to speak up again about money despite the threat to their job, they’ll likely be reminded that they just got a raise, a 50 percent one! And the greedy player narrative will continue unabated, even though that guy is just trying to avoid having to decide if buying a sandwich at the deli instead of a value menu item from McDonalds means he won’t be able to afford that cockroach spray for his disgusting apartment.

Minor-league players need a union, and they need it yesterday. That’s the only way they’re going to be able to win what they’re owed against this wealth-hoarding juggernaut. Otherwise, they’re totally at the discretion of what MLB wants, and what MLB wants is a stop to the talk of low wages without having to actually pay out high wages.

  • Hey, let’s have some good news for a second. Voting is open for this year’s crop of SABR award finalists, a list that includes me. I’d appreciate a vote for me, but if you prefer someone else, I get it: that’s a solid list of heavy hitters I’m proud to be included with, and being nominated by itself rules.

  • Back to depressing shit: This from Nick Martin at The New Republic on why Americans really love their racist, native mascots is as excellent as it is sobering.

  • R.J. Anderson wrote about MLB’s credibility issues, and how they sure aren’t being helped by commissioner Rob Manfred.

  • There could be a drop in the salary cap threshold after the NBA didn’t get revenue they expected to. It would still, reportedly, be higher than this season’s figure, however.

  • J.J. Cooper doesn’t believe MiLB wants antitrust issues to be brought up in their fight with MLB, since they’ve arguably benefited even more from the exemption.

  • This isn’t sports, but I still want to share it: Puerto Rico is crumbling, and the United States is as responsible for it as the natural disasters striking the island.

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