MLB could pay MiLB players a living wage, and for their housing, for a relatively paltry sum

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I wanted to expand a bit on my latest Baseball Prospectus article, which focused on the Astros’ decision to provide furnished apartments for all of their minor-league players in 2021, to talk about just how much doing all of this would cost. Per the original report by Brittany Ghiroli, Houston went ahead with this plan due to the multiple restrictions that playing a minor-league season in the midst of a pandemic entailed, so it’s unclear if housing will still be provided for in 2022. Whether that’s the plan or not, it should be.

It just would not cost that much in the grand scheme of things for every single MLB team to provide housing for their minor-league players each season. As I wrote for BP:

…it would cost a team just $5 million per year to pay all of their minor-league players a $50,000 salary. Housing to accommodate all of these players would come in at even less than that figure, especially after the pandemic restrictions lift and more than one or two players can live together. Every team can afford to do what the Astros are doing: only the Astros are doing it. The Giants, as mentioned, are sort of doing a little bit of it, but a stipend to offset housing costs is not the same as paying for furnished apartments. Stipends would be a significant improvement for minor-league players: furnished apartments for all would be life-changing on a scale that, I gotta tell you, has likely never been seen by minor-league players before.

That $5 million per team figure is for the four full-season teams each club has now that the minors have shrunk by a quarter of their size, but it’s not like paying Rookie League players similarly to that — they have an even shorter season than full-season Minor League Baseball clubs, so I imagine there would be some proration in the actual salary for them — would be a costly addition. The Gulf Coast League season is 60 games long, while the Low-A season is 132 games long: let’s say those Rookie League players would get $25,000 while full-season players would get $50,000, for simplicity’s sake.

You’re talking another $625,000 total annually to cover those players, so, $5,625,000 per team to ensure all the full-season players have a $50,000 salary, and the Rookie Leaguers are making a prorated-ish version of that for their much shorter season. I’m aware that players at higher levels would probably get a slightly higher salary, and it would be lovely if short-season players got paid for their time in extended spring training and instructionals and the like, but you can catch all of that sort of stuff in this, roughly, by just rounding up a bit at the end, anyway. We’re not talking about as many minor leaguers as we used to be, thanks to the disaffiliation project.

The average rent for a three-bedroom apartment in the United States, as of earlier in 2021, is $1,284 according to Statista. Sure, that’s not true at all in Boston or New York or San Francisco, but big-league clubs are in those cities, anyway, not minor-league ones, so let’s roll with it. Well, let’s round up a bit here, anyway, just to prove a point. We’ll say rent for a three-bedroom in a minor-league city is going to be $1,500 per month, and each team needs eight of them. So let’s say there’s a studio for the one other guy, too, at $1,000 per month for five months. Add that all up, and it would cost a parent club $65,000 to set up a minor-league team with apartments for the season.

There are four full-season teams per MLB club, so that’s $260,000 for housing for all of them each year, with another $26,000 to house Rookie League players. So we’re at what, roughly $6 million per year to pay all of these players a legitimate living wage, and house them for the entirety of their seasons? More if the apartments are furnished, sure, but $6 million per organization per year is nothing. Change the rental cost to $2,000 for a three-bedroom apartment instead of $1,500 — it’s over $1,900 to rent a three-bedroom in Portland, ME, home of the Double-A Sea Dogs, so that kind of figure is a possibility — and we’re at $85,000 instead of $65,000 per team, so, $340,000 before accounting for Rookie League housing, and another $34,000 with them included. Still right around that $6 million mark to handle all of this!

That’s part of what makes MLB’s treatment of minor-league players so infuriating. It’s not just that they force them to provide for themselves on paltry, sub-poverty-level wages. That they have them renting whatever shitty apartment they and a slew of teammates can stuff themselves into, that they have to buy their own equipment, that they are only paid in-season and not for spring training and so on. It’s also that MLB could so easily fix every problem of their own design for the cost of a rounding error in their budgets. The average salary in MLB right now is $4.17 million: for just a little bit more than that per team, every single minor-league player could be paid well and housed.

Hopefully, as I said at BP, the Astros have started rolling a ball down a hill with this move, and nothing will stop it now that it’s going. Hope is all we’ve got at this point, though, since it remains unclear not just whether other teams will follow suit, but if the Astros will even handle housing in 2022 the same way as they are in 2021. Just because it’s relatively cheap and the right thing to do doesn’t mean MLB’s owners will be whipping out their wallets, you know.

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