Mailbag: Changing minor-league team control

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It’s time for a mailbag. If you have a mailbag question you’d like to see answered, either respond to this newsletter email, or hit me up on @Marc_Normandin on Twitter. Here goes.

Payment and living conditions are likely big items, as well as getting spring training pay formalized, but what are the issues MiLB might try and address that might have drastic impact on team/player control for minor league players? -@ERolfPleiss

That… is a great question. Realistically, this first time out, I’m not sure if it will be a priority to change how long minor leaguers are under the control of one club. It becomes very hard to change things that have already been agreed upon in a prior collective bargaining agreement, and while this will be the first between minor-league players and MLB, there are already rules and regulations in place in the existing CBA between MLB’s players and the league.

That’s not to say that there will never be any inroads made here. It should be relatively easy, when the time is right, for the minor-league bargaining unit to defensibly point out that they had nothing to do with the formation of the current setup, and should get to have some kind of say in it. What those changes would be, if that issue was opened up, is more the question. Chances are good that the base amount of time a minor-league player is under control for wouldn’t change — you see how unwilling MLB was to even discuss the idea of big league players getting to free agency faster or being put into a different class (super two) based on very specific conditions this past spring.

However, I could see the attempt to make some carve outs that allow players to have a bit more freedom here and there, depending on specific conditions. What happens when a drafted first-round player doesn’t want to sign, for instance, is clearly balanced entirely in the favor of the 30 teams: they get a compensation pick for the next season that’s close to the one they failed to sign, while the player themselves just have to grind it out for another year, at least, in school or in the independent leagues or overseas. Trying to bring some balance there, so that players have a stronger negotiating base, is one way to create some control of their destiny — maybe allowing them to sign with another club that’s failed to come to terms with a pick of their own? Maybe letting them become a free agent rather than having to reenter the draft, though, not immediately, mostly because that would be a non-starter. But perhaps in time for the next pro season, or by the time of the next draft?

MLB isn’t going to want to go for this, either, for fear the entire draft system falls apart when every player refuses to sign in order to make themselves a free agent, but they also don’t get to just decide these things on their own anymore, either. And if they want to say no to one thing, they might have to find something else to say yes to if they don’t want to face off against a striking minor-league unit that suddenly has resources behind it to sustain that strike.

So, let’s say something like the Kumar Rocker situation comes around again, where a player wasn’t signed not because the two sides couldn’t agree to financials, but because the Mets refused to even engage in negotiations with a player whose medicals they didn’t approve of after drafting him. Why should he be punished, just because the Mets didn’t want to play ball after locking him into their negotiations? Let him sign with whichever team wants to take the risk. That seems like the kind of special carve out compromise that collective bargaining could arrive at.

Maybe something could be worked out at the other end of the development spectrum, too, for players who are shuttled between the majors and the minors with far too much regularity. There’s holding onto depth, and there is holding back someone’s career: the switch to a maximum of five options per year for three years, introduced in the latest CBA, was a good one, but maybe there should be some additional changes that put a cap on how many times a player can be optioned in total before they have to be placed on waivers, or before they are allowed to reject an assignment and become a free agent. That’s admittedly more spitballing, and would take more effort than the Rocker Rule, as it were, but it’s worth prodding to see where MLB is willing to make concessions and what they’re going to stand firm with a no on regardless, too.

I’m of two minds when it comes to salary bumps for minor-league players with more experience who are repeating a level, and not just those who are at higher levels, because I worry that MLB would just abuse that system by releasing players who cost more in favor of those who cost less. On the other hand, though, it could allow for an influx of minor-league free agents who get more of a say of which organization they want to be in at that point in their career, so maybe it’s worth exploring these kinds of salary tiers since the results might be positive whether the players are cut and allowed to seek employment elsewhere or if they’re retained and paid more. And maybe there’s a balance point where the difference in pay is much more significant for the player and not worth divesting from as a team, too, to keep them from automatically disliking pricier minor-league players just like too many orgs do with their MLB cousins.

I’m sure there are other considerations in this realm, but the main point is just that it’s going to be carve outs here and there that give minor-league players a bit more control of where they are playing. Freeing themselves from the Uniform Player Contract they had no input into is a great start on its own, but there is going to be space to fight for more, and remove the most egregious exploits that hold them back, or keep them from having any individual negotiating power.

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