So Friday’s big news was this bombshell report by J.J. Cooper in Baseball America that Major League Baseball is proposing to get rid of one-quarter of all minor league teams after next season, while rearranging surviving teams and leagues and replacing some of the Snapped franchises with leagues of unaffiliated players and amateur wood-bat leagues. BA called the proposal, if adopted, “the most dramatic restructuring of the minor leagues in more than half a century.”
That, if anything, is understating the case. Baseball’s minor leagues originated as independent entities whose teams would sign players themselves and then sell the best of them to major league franchises; starting in the mid-20th century, MLB teams started to affiliate with minor league “farm teams” whose players were paid and supplied by the major league affiliate. Aside from changes to the classification levels — a holdover from old rules about how much MLB teams had to pay MiLB teams for poaching their players — that system remains pretty much unchanged today. And MLB franchises have always been free to have as many or as few farm teams as they want; for that matter, minor leagues have been free to have as many or as few teams as they want, though independent teams without MLB affiliations have become a rarity in affiliated leagues in recent years.
So, what the hell prompted this? The BA article is wide-ranging and a bit rambling, but there are a few clues:
“From the perspective of MLB clubs, our principal goals are upgrading the minor league facilities that we believe have inadequate standards for potential MLB players, improving the working conditions for MiLB players, including their compensation, improving transportation and hotel accommodations, providing better geographic affiliations between major league clubs and their affiliates, as well as better geographic lineups of leagues to reduce player travel,” [said MLB deputy commissioner Dan Halem]…
In MLB’s viewpoint, roughly a quarter of all current MiLB clubs far fall below the level of facilities they view as needed for their minor league players. MLB has essentially put the onus on MiLB to find a way to guarantee those stadiums will all reach what MLB deems as acceptable standards in the near future.
Put that way, this sounds like, in part at least, a massive nationwide shakedown of minor-league teams — and inevitably the cities they play in — to upgrade their stadiums to “acceptable standards” on pain of losing their major-league affiliations otherwise. This gambit has been used before on a smaller scale — most notably when the community-owned Toledo Mud Hens had to build a new stadium under threat of having their franchise yanked — but announcing to the entire minor leagues that they’ll have to scramble to be one of the 120 teams allowed onto the lifeboat would be a stupendous escalation of the strategy.
Nobody seems to have gone into details as to what’s “unacceptable” in current minor-league stadiums. Former Toronto Blue Jays exec Keith Law wrote at ESPN that “nobody wants to admit it” but “a lot of markets … lack the facilities necessary for modern player development,” but he doesn’t get around to specifics before the article disappears behind a paywall. Since revenue-enhancing items like luxury boxes or additional ad signage don’t do anything for major league affiliates, presumably MLB is looking for things like upgraded clubhouses and training rooms — which MLB could easily enough pay for with a couple of bills pulled off its $10 billion annual bankroll, but why pay for the cow when you can get the milk by shaking down taxpayers?
That’s especially true when there’s a separate shakedown afoot here as well. As noted here briefly last month, there’s a brewing battle over how much MLB is paying its minor leaguers, with players suing to insist that they be paid at least minimum wage (recently punctuated when a player for a Triple-A champion team tweeted out a photo of his meager paycheck), while MLB wonders aloud if maybe modern statistical analysis will allow them to just pay the sure-thing prospects and lay off all the long shots.
The latest MLB proposal, though reported as “getting rid of 42 teams,” really isn’t quite that so much as “get 42 teams worth of players off of the MLB payroll.” The annihilated teams would be replaced by either “Dream Leagues” — which look to be leagues of players unsigned by MLB franchises who would try to play their way into getting offered affiliated contracts, i.e., pretty much the way all of the minors worked 100 years ago — or amateur wood-bat leagues, both of which would have the advantage of costing MLB nothing in terms of player salaries (though BA reports that “there is also an awareness on MLB’s side that some sort of subsidies would be needed” for the Dream Leagues). And while, again, this is chump change when it comes to MLB’s relative costs — as Marc Normandin writes today in his subscription-only newsletter, “paying every single minor-league player in an organization $50,000 per year instead of poverty-level wages would cost every MLB team something like $7.5 million annually” — sports team owners never like to leave any money on the table when it can be reclaimed with the rattle of a saber.
The overall proposal, then, reads as a shot across the bow of both minor-league cities and minor-league teams: Make us happy, or else we can send a whole lot of you to the cornfield. There are other benefits to this kind of 800-pound gorilla behavior, too, of course — MLB can have more control over placing minor league franchises within easy reach of major league ones, and placing hard limits on the number of affiliates each team can have prevents a franchise like the New York Yankees from spending to load up on minor leaguers and forcing other teams to follow suit — but mostly it’s directed at cities and players.
As for which cities, we’re back to tea-leaf reading. The BA article reports that the proposal would “completely eliminate the four, non-complex Rookie-level and short-season classifications from the minor leagues,” meaning the New York-Penn League, Northwest League, Appalachian League, and Pioneer League would be marked for death. (Though it also says the Northwest League would be converted to full-season ball, so maybe only three leagues would be outright eliminated?) But it’s extremely unlikely that MLB would want to eliminate, say, the tremendously popular short-season A ball Brooklyn Cyclones (who play in a fairly new stadium, though 18 years old is worryingly close to not “fairly new” anymore in MLB terms), so you’re likely to see some of those teams shuffled into higher-level leagues, while some higher-level teams get bumped down to Dream League status or whatever. And, of course, MLB can always require stadium expansions or other upgrades for lower-classification stadiums before allowing their teams to get promoted.
Back to Normandin:
My suspicion is that this is mostly a threat from MLB to get MiLB owners to start spending more money: if you don’t want to reach into your pockets to pay for stadium upgrades and better facilities when MLB is under pressure to pay players more and is likely aware they’ll have to eventually do just that, then you don’t get to own an affiliated club anymore. It is a threat they’ll carry out, though: do not think for a second that the army of cutthroat rich assholes are making an empty threat when following through on it would result in even less spending for them. This is the kind of situation that helped make all of them as rich as they are now, and they’ll be glad to pull the trigger to keep that going.
Ayup. This is only the very beginning of what’s likely to be a major expansion of the stadium-shakedown and minor-league-payroll battles. And if Cooper is right, we could start seeing it renewed every few years:
One thing that kept coming up in my reporting on this. MLB's initial proposal is for a new 5-year PBA (usually they have been 7 or 10-year terms in past). Heard concerns from several that 120 teams in 2021 could become 90 in 2026.https://t.co/PyrCySbTO5
— JJ Cooper (@jjcoop36) October 18, 2019
It’s almost like monopoly power is a bad idea! Somebody should really get on that.