On the salaries of MLB’s ‘disposable pitchers’

A day in the majors isn’t worth what happens to the salary of this new class of churned-through pitcher.

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Last week, I shared a Baseball Prospectus story written by Jarrett Seidler and Rob Mains on the rise of the “disposable pitcher.” A trend has emerged, with teams calling up a pitcher — a not-really-a-prospect kind of pitcher — on the 40-man roster up from the minors for a very temporary stay in the majors, and then designating them for assignment after they’re done with them rather than optioning them back to the minors. This allows for them to, effectively, stream a 40-man roster spot for additional call-ups like this down the road, while also allowing them to avoid exposing any genuine prospects to the majors or the need to be optioned before they feel like those players are ready for the show.

As I wrote last Friday:

I dislike that it feels very fantasy baseball, a la its streaming of pitchers with the last roster spot, since we’re talking about actual people here. It’s also a problem of finances and labor that I’d like to explore a little more after giving it some more thought, too. My initial concern is that we’re taking players off of the 40-man who are making good money with MLB-level union protections, and then removing them from that context.

Granted, they do have some MLB experience on their résumé now, albeit limited, but having to go back to the minors as a full-blown minor leaguer… well, it’s not as cut-and-dry as it used to be, given that minor leaguers are also unionized now whereas they weren’t a few years back, but still. It merits a deeper look to see just how this messes with salaries and such, especially for those players who maybe aren’t making it back to the majors anytime soon or ever.

So that’s what we’re going to do now. In 2024, a minor-league player on the 40-man roster — that is to say, a Minor League Article VI(A)(3) player, as far as the collective bargaining agreement goes — is paid $67,300, regardless of what level of the minors they’re at. A league-minimum MLB player, however, is paid $825,000 for the season. If one of these 40-man pitchers is called to the bigs, they are going to be paid at the major league rate for the duration of their stay at that level, per day on the active roster. That rate is prorated for the length of the “Championship Season,” which means the length of time from Opening Day until the final game of the regular season. So, that tends to be around 180 days, or, in the range of $4,500-$4,600 per day of the championship season at 2024’s league-minimum rate, depending on whether the one in question is a few days longer or shorter than 180.

That’s a good deal if you can swing it, but remember, these are temporary stays! Jeff Lindgren, whose appearance last year was the first like these in Seidler and Main’s piece, was in the majors for one full day, and was designated the next. Vladimir Gutierrez also got the one-day stay. Kent Emmanuel, the same deal — all three of those pitchers were Marlins, by the way. Miguel Díaz and Josh Maciejewski got five days before they were designated, at least, but Julio Teheran had the lone day. Wander Suero got three days, Michael Tonkin just the one, and Tanner Tully got two days but didn’t even get a chance to play. Which doesn’t impact his pay, but still. Rough.

The players who picked up a few days did well enough for themselves — five days is over $22,000, which is more than players used to make in the minors over an entire season. Things are different in 2024 than they used to be down on the farm, however, and even the 40-man players make significantly more than they used to: in the final year before the new CBA took hold, 2021, 40-man minor-league players made $45,300 (plus a cost-of-living adjustment), over $22,000 less per year than they make this year.

As Baseball America recently laid out in table form, Triple-A players — i.e. the ones getting the call-ups here — are doing much better than they used to as far as pay goes. In 2019, before MLB increased pay, the average salary at the level was $11,044, and in 2020, it was $17,500. In 2024, with minor leaguers now also unionized and playing under a CBA, it’s $35,800. Which is better, but not good — there’s room for improvement there, which isn’t news. This is relevant here, because yes, Vladimir Guerrez and Kent Emmanuel and the others got a bump in pay that gave them a very brief, very large raise, but they actually end up not even breaking even here. By dropping from $67,300 to $35,800, even the five-day stay players aren’t making up for the loss in salary that being designated and removed from the 40-man brings. Those called up for a single day are in far worse shape, as they’re getting a one-day payout of $4,500, sure, but it costs them another $26,000 on the season to get it.

A single day in the majors, or even a week there, isn’t giving the players an eventual meaningful monthly payout via the pension plan, either — they need 43 days, a “quarter,” for that, not just a couple — so don’t start thinking this will eventually pay for itself down the line. These are players who, in many cases, don’t have an MLB future — were selected for this role for that reason, in fact — and were removed from the most comfortable living in the minors they can make at great financial cost to themselves. If they stick around in the minors long enough to sign a new deal, then yes, that day or couple of days of MLB experience can help them earn a larger contract as a Minor League Article VI(A)(2) player — the minimum salary of which is $134,500 this season — but they have to get to that point first. If they blow out an arm before then, if they wash out of the league before then, all that’s happened is that they had their pay cut for doing their job, because MLB teams are obsessed with churning anyone they can through the machines of efficiency.

Now, whether there is anything to do about this remains to be seen: none of this would be news to the Players Association, but until the next round of collective bargaining, it’s difficult to do anything substantial besides document cases as they build up, like Seidler and Mains already began doing when they noted the trend in the first place.

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