This article is free for anyone to read, but please consider becoming a Patreon subscriber to allow me to keep writing posts like this one. Sign up to receive articles like this one in your inbox here.
In reaction to the news that Major League Baseball has already been found to owe damages to minor-league players thanks to the class action Senne v. MLB suit, Maury Brown reported that we could see more MiLB clubs “dissolve” as a result of these increased costs:
In total, the increased cost with the minor leagues has raised concerns – both within MLB, and with some minor league owners – that additional contraction of minor league teams might take place when the current agreement between MLB and MiLB expires.
In speaking to several minor league owners, and sources within Major League Baseball, the idea that the number of affiliated teams could drop further is not being denied. When pressed in a meeting between minor league owners and MLB as to whether the number of teams could drop when the current agreement expires in 2030, Major League Baseball would not commit to it.
I do not doubt Brown’s reporting or his sources on this, but I do want to point something out: this lawsuit — as well as whatever future lawsuits spring forth from it, and whatever increased day-to-day, season-to-season costs putting on a Minor League Baseball season the league sees as the fallout from Senne v. MLB — are surely to be blamed for the next wave of disaffiliated clubs. That’s all it would be, though, is an excuse, because the fear that MLB was going to shut down more minor-league clubs when the current agreement put into place just last year expires is not a new one. In fact, it was an ongoing concern even before the dozens of teams were disaffiliated here.
In much the same way disaffiliation was painted as a response to MLB improving the working and living conditions of minor-league baseball players — cutting the total costs so that money could be spread around to fewer players — the truth of things is that it was a threat and a message to players. Stop making so much noise about how little money you make, or else there might not be a job for you the next time around. MLB would love for a similar message to go out as they’re in the midst of a lawsuit they’re likely to lose when it goes to trial in June: thinking of hitting us with another lawsuit? You won’t like what happens next.
In October of 2019, when Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper was first reporting on the plan to disaffiliate 40 teams, he tweeted out that there was a concern that the next move would be to reduce the number of teams to 90 in 2026. The current agreement makes that difficult in terms of the timeline — they agreed to a 10-year contract in 2020 — but whether it’s 2026 or 2030, cutting another 30 teams remains a realistic possibility.
MLB has already formally reduced the domestic amateur entry draft to 20 rounds from 40, and there is still the possibility that an international draft could be agreed to by the MLBPA this year An international draft would not just reduce the costs of signing international players thanks to the lessened negotiating power they would have in this stricter environment, but it would also further regulate just how much international talent could enter into MLB’s ecosystem in a given year. MLB can very easily direct things in such a way that the shift down to 90 teams will just make sense, from an efficiency-obsessed point of view, at least. They already tried to get the union to agree to reduce the domestic reserve list, which would have made eventually cutting down on additional teams an even easier move for MLB.
Despite the fact that the minor-league system produces far more than just future big-league players, but also big-league and minor-league coaches and ambassadors to the game that keep it growing in communities across the world, and lifelong fans in cities that otherwise would not be able to see pro ball live, all MLB can consider is that all these teams and players aren’t worth the investment. They do not see the big picture, because all they care about is short-term profit: long-term investments make The Line go up, but not in the short-term. So no, the lawsuit would not be the reason MLB cuts down on the number of affiliated clubs in the future. That this has been the plan all along is why they would do so.
Here’s the potential good news, though. Since MLB has to wait some time before they can start rearranging the minors like they did for 2020 again, there is also time to make it so they cannot do that again. Senator Bernie Sanders is already working on submitting legislation to remove MLB’s antitrust exemption, which they need in order to carry out their monopolistic practices like, say, unilaterally deciding that Minor League Baseball is too big. The reason I’m not particularly optimistic about the current antitrust suits against MLB for disaffiliation is because they need to go through the Supreme Court, which has a history of going, “you’re right, but our hands are tied” due to the rules of retroactivity that surround SCOTUS’ decisions. If Congress removes the antitrust exemption before MLB can go through with another round of disaffiliation, though, well… they won’t be able to go through with another round of disaffiliation, at least, not an unchallenged one.
MiLB players are seemingly starting to organize a bit, too, which could be another deterrent. If a minor-league union eventually emerges from the kind of organizing that groups like Advocates for Minor Leaguers are doing, they could step in to challenge MLB’s ability to disaffiliate clubs like they did in 2021. Good luck finding enough replacement players to fill minor-league rosters if all the minor leaguers go on strike in response to you threatening to get rid of another 1,000 of their jobs, or if it ends up being a subject of bargaining, meaning, MLB could not just unilaterally make this move without the approval of a Minor League union.
There is work to be done, and MLB is going to keep doing theirs regardless of what happens with Senne v. MLB or any other lawsuit against them. They wanted to shrink the minors, so they did. They want to shrink it again, so they will. Unless they can be stopped, and this time around, that might actually be a possibility. But the years between now and MLB’s next opportunity to disaffiliate need to be productive ones for the opposition.