MLB plans to replace MiLB teams with clubs full of unpaid players

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Major League Baseball still hasn’t unveiled what their plan is for replacing one-quarter of Minor League Baseball’s teams, but there have been enough leaks and reporting on the subject at this point that we’re still pretty clear on what’s next. Minor League Baseball teams that are being pushed out of MLB affiliations will still get to have teams of a sort, but the 1,000 players whose jobs are now on the line? They are being replaced
with a workforce that is somehow paid even less: independent players and college baseball players.

Baseball America has reported for months about how college wood bat leagues were one of the potential replacements for the disaffiliated clubs, and now ESPN is reporting, with a week to go before MLB formally proposes a plan to Minor League Baseball, that this and “encouraging” disaffiliated clubs to go independent with MLB paying the franchise fees for entry is the direction that’ll be taken:

MLB rejects the term “contracted” as it doesn’t control whether the teams stay in business. Teams that lose affiliation will have three options: They can become independent professional teams; they can replace the MiLB players with college amateurs; or they can fold. MLB argues that the teams can still be viable because fans in towns with rookie or short-season Class A baseball go to the ballpark for the experience, not the players.

“Same schedule, same tickets, same age and quality of play,” an MLB official told ESPN. “Literally nothing changes. Instead of low-level minor league players, it’s guys that go to Vanderbilt, etc.”

When Manfred addressed the 120-team plan to the media last year, he said there would still be “professional” baseball in those communities losing affiliated teams. MLB has since added plans to create and operate several summer amateur leagues, similar to the fabled Cape Cod Baseball League, where college players use wood bats. And because they’re college players, no one has to pay them. USA Baseball, which governs amateur play, would help identify potential players.

“Literally nothing changes,” says the MLB official, besides the draw to all of this for MLB, which is the fact that these players do not need to be paid by their parent organization, because (1) there isn’t a parent organization, and (2) college athletes can’t be paid to play their sport of choice, or else they no longer have eligibility in that sport. Yes, Kyler Murray can be paid to play professional baseball and then continue to play college football, but college baseball players under the NCAA banner can’t go out and be paid to play in college wood bat leagues and still have eligibility for NCAA baseball.

This is MLB figuring out how to develop and control the feeder system, to get more and more looks at college players — who will be using wood bats like in the pros instead of metal bats, like in NCAA games —without having to pay to see those players in action. “Without having to pay” being the primary draw, of course. Paying entry fees for teams that enter the independent circuit instead of opting to be part of a college wood bat league is a smal, one-time thing that will save MLB and its owners money in the long run since they will no longer be paying that team to house their players. And yet, those teams will still contain players, and those players can be scouted, and once again, without it being on MLB’s dime.

Fewer spaces to fill in MiLB itself means fewer and less lucrative signing bonuses in addition to fewer paychecks. It lets MLB balance out raising the pay of the minor-league players they do keep by creating an underclass to be scouted and brought in much cheaper. It lets MLB have a ready-made and larger alternative of players to choose from should MiLB players decide to do anything like organize or refuse to play until conditions improve. Should MLB players strike and MLB want to continue playing, they’ll turn to minor-league players as replacements. But as minor-league players become more vocal about their pay and their conditions, MLB needs to have some backups in place for them, too, and this plan will help with that goal.

Combine this with MLB’s desire to limit international spending by instituting an international draft, and you can see how the league’s desire to control more and more while the players themselves have less leverage at every stage shines through. They’ll get a shorter draft to be a permanent thing, eventually. They’ll get an international draft, eventually. They’ve already strong-armed Minor League Baseball into losing one-quarter of its teams to disaffiliation, and if the rumors are true, it’ll happen again during the negotiations for the next Professional Baseball Agreement, too, especially since at that point MLB will be able to point to the continued “existence” of the teams they initially pushed out as a positive.

The amount of money we’re talking about MLB teams “saving” here is so minuscule, too. Minor League Baseball player wages are so awful that, even after the raises coming in 2021, only players repeating the Triple-A level are going to be making better than poverty-level wages. Signing bonuses aren’t capped, in the sense teams can go over the slot valuation of a selection in order to sign them, but there are consequences to this that encourage teams to stick within the pricing model or lose out on future picks. So, generally, they do. International spending is also capped and heavily penalized, with teams losing access to the entire top-end of the market for entire signing periods. There is so little left to squeeze out of the minors and amateurs, but goddammit, MLB is going to keep on squeezing until there’s nothing left at all.

Commissioner Rob Manfred’s vision of “one baseball” is and will continue to be marketed as a good thing for fans, when in reality it’s just a business proposal meant to lengthen and strengthen MLB’s control over a sport they would copyright if they could. It’s MLB flexing their antitrust exemption, it’s MLB giving fans less and less for their dollar and the players no dollars at all when possible. What, exactly, can be done to put a stop to it is unclear, but the league’s intent certainly is.

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