Rob Manfred is lying about Minor League compensation (again)

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Admittedly, I’m not much of a math guy. I can do basic arithmetic, though, and luckily, with the way Rob Manfred spins his stories, that’s about all you need to show that something is amiss. It’s not that Manfred’s numbers used to show how much MLB teams are spending on minor-league players are inaccurate in a vacuum, necessarily: it’s that everything he says with those figures is intentionally skewed so that it looks like more is being done than is, and that compensation is already in a good place.

This is from Manfred’s letter to the United States Judiciary Committee, in an attempt to justify the continued existence of MLB’s antitrust exemption:

Over 700 players who signed their first Minor League UPC [Uniform Player Contract] in 2021 received signing bonuses of over $100,000, and 70% of AA and AAA players either received a signing bonus of at least $100,000 or are earning a salary of at least $100,000. MLB Clubs spend about $750 million per year in total compensation and benefits for all Minor League players, which is the equivalent of $108,000 per player on a per capita basis. Pursuant to the Basic Agreement with the Players Association, most of the signing bonus pool is allocated to the players with the greatest likelihood of making the Major Leagues. However, as a matter of policy, MLB requires all Clubs to provide the same benefit package to all Minor League players, regardless of their prospect status, and all players – irrespective of their skill level – receive similar salaries.

MLB will spend at least $1.03 billion in 2022 to operate the Minor League system. Of that amount, about $750 million will be spent on player compensation and benefits, with that amount rising to over $800 million in 2023. MLB receives approximately $25 million in revenue from Minor League operators each year. As a result, the net subsidy MLB Clubs provide to Minor League operations is over $1 billion.

“…which is the equivalent of $108,000 per player on a per capita basis” is an obviously misleading way of looking at things, since society has long ago mastered the art of “the median.” Let’s break this down bit by bit.

The signing bonus pool for the 2022 amateur entry draft this summer totaled $280 million, while the international signing pool for the 2022 period came to a bit over $166 million. That’s over $446 million of the $750 million right there, and it’s not as if those funds are distributed evenly, either: the first-overall pick from the 2022 draft had a slot value of nearly $17 million, sure, but the pick the O’s made 10 rounds later was valued at $155,800. And while that might still sound like a good haul, you have to remember a few things.

For one, following the 10th round — there are another 10 after that— bonuses can be whatever teams want to offer. So, sure, sometimes a bonus will be a little larger as a team drafts a high schooler they aren’t sure they’ll be able to convince to skip out on college, but in order to successfully do that, they’d have to cut down on the bonuses offered to players within their first 10 picks, lest they go over their allotted draft budget that’s imposed from above. With the draft now cut in half from 40 rounds to 20, yes, there are fewer players getting nothing or $1,000 or whatever to sign, but we’re still not talking about the vast majority of players getting draft money that has them set for life, despite how MLB loves to pitch and frame nine- and 10-digit figures as if that’s what’s happening right out of the gate.

And second, that approximately $150,000 bonus that 10th-round picks received this summer might be the only real money these players see for years. Manfred said that, “70% of AA and AAA players either received a signing bonus of at least $100,000 or are earning a salary of at least $100,000,” which was a clever bit of obfuscation. The “or” in the middle of that sentence is carrying so much weight that it’s going to collapse simply by looking at it too hard. As already mentioned, yeah, lots of drafted players are signing for bonuses of at least $100,000 now, but the only ones pulling in a salary of over $100,000 are those who already completed their original six-year pro contract, accrued big-league service time somewhere in there, and find themselves back in the minors once again. Minor-league players on the 40-man roster, thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement, saw their salaries rise to $57,200: those are honest-to-God MLBPA members that account for roughly one-third of the entire membership, and they’re not even making the $100,000 salary Manfred purports is everywhere with his carefully chosen phrasing.

So, you’ve got the relatively small class of players who already earned service time and completed their initial contract — players who are at least six years past their initial draft or sign date, can’t quite stick in the majors but haven’t exhausted opportunities in the minors yet, making over $100,000. Then you’ve got 420 players on 40-man rosters (14 per club) making $57,200, or the prorated version of that, whenever they aren’t in the bigs. Due to the larger (and varied) roster sizes of the minors, there are over 3,600 active and affiliated minor-league players even after 40 teams were cut loose before the 2021 season. Which means that the vast, vast majority of players, numbering in the thousands, are making sub-poverty-level wages each year: among your standard, most prevalent class of minor-league players, only the ones repeating Triple-A have a salary that bests poverty-level wages. And the $100,000 bonus Manfred brags about them getting? That’s likely long gone. It’s not much of a “bonus” if it’s required to buy groceries for the next six years of your life.

Yes, MLB is equitable with its benefits and its salaries for minor-league players, and I’ve had players tell me that the benefits are actually good, outside of when they’re available — like with so many minor-league things, they’re covered by the UPC only during the actual playing season, which is how I ended up hearing a story about a minor leaguer who needed to get his eyes checked during the spring in order to get corrective lenses, but couldn’t do it until his benefits were available to him again in-season. The problem is that “equitable” is not the same thing as good: when everyone is paid shit, that doesn’t make the pay better. It just means more people are paid shit. If you spin it to a Senate Committee like Manfred has, then you can make it look better, but that’s all it is. Spin. The reality, the one Manfred rejects the premise of, is so much worse.

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