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Opinion: Manfred’s MiLB Plan is Bad for Baseball (Updated)

Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during the Major League Baseball winter meetings Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

The most dramatic storyline this offseason has been the one between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball as they attempt to negotiate a new Professional Baseball Agreement.  The current agreement expires at the end of the 2020 minor league season, which means that if they cannot come to a new deal, the minor league season in 2021 will be very different than what it is now.

Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during the Major League Baseball winter meetings Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

For those who haven’t been following along, allow me to summarize.  MLB has come into this negotiation with MiLB with a dramatic plan to eliminate 42 teams from minor league baseball, forcing teams to cut players and reducing Rookie and Short-season leagues.  Each MLB will be permitted only four full-season affiliates plus one complex team and have a limit of 150 players under contract.  That is a huge change as currently, there are no limits to the number of affiliates and players a major league organization can have. This has allowed discrepancies like the Yankees who have 311 players under minor league contracts, not including players currently on the 40-man roster.

It is no surprise to many in baseball that this plan to eliminate teams comes from the Houston Astros, under the leadership of their former General Manager Jeff Luhnow and owner Jim Crane. The Astros, who have been embroiled in one of the worst cheating scandals since the Black Sox of 1919, have become known for their heavy reliance on analytics and new technologies.  The Astros’ themselves have cut back on their minor league affiliates, but not to the point set forth in the proposal.  If it wasn’t obvious at the beginning of this saga it is now, after MLB went light on the Astros organization for their use of technologies to steal signs, that Manfred has cozied up to the Astros and is pushing their agenda.

MiLB has come into this PBA negotiating period, understanding that there will be huge changes to facilities standards, league alignment, etc.  But nothing to what MLB has proposed, especially eliminating teams.  Minor League Baseball has become big business since the 1990 PBA, and team values are essentially tied to the fact that MLB had set in stone that there will be 160 affiliated minor league teams. If that changes and the number of teams become negotiable, the values of every team instantly drop.

The reduction of 42 MiLB teams means approximately 1,470 players will be without jobs.  Most of those players would be organizational players who would not sniff the upper levels of the minors, let alone the major leagues. That is a large number of players that would be out of the job, some may be diamonds in the rough, but the vast majority are non-prospects.

This drastic reduction in playing opportunities means teams would change how they draft.  This could mean fewer high school players drafted as they have no short-season teams for them to play.

Not only would this move be costing the player jobs, but it would also be losing the jobs in the front offices, coaching staff, etc. that would be the real sad casualty of this proposal.  While MLB says, they would work to make sure the teams still had baseball in one form, whether it would be a wood-bat college league or the supposed “Dream League,” It is not likely the teams that would be affected by this would be able to afford the change.

When you look at the state of independent baseball, it is clear that it is not a model that has proven sustainability.  Very few independent leagues have lasted more than two seasons; in total, 31 different independent leagues have folded over the years. Seven Independent leagues still exist, but only three maintain anything that could possibly compete with current minor league teams in the quality of their stadiums.  Many play in formerly affiliated stadiums that lose their affiliated teams or play out of a single stadium.  With that said, independent baseball teams across all leagues that report attendance average 2,551 fans per game, a large difference from the 4,044 fans per game that current minor league teams average.

Minor League Baseball front office jobs are often the first job many college students get in not just baseball but also in sports. It is an important opportunity for interns and young professionals to get acquainted with the life of sports.  Losing those spots means that there are fewer opportunities for future broadcasters, team photographers, general managers, etc.

What Major League Baseball, under the leadership of Commissioner Rob Manfred is doing is just plain wrong.  Not only has he been dishonest in the media, but he has also actively tried to bully Minor League Baseball to accept his conditions. He has claimed that Minor League Baseball has not budged on their “Take it or leave it” stance when it has been, in fact, Major League Baseball that has that stance.

That has become even more clear after Major League Baseball issued this past Friday night.

“If the National Association [of Minor League Clubs] has an interest in an agreement with Major League Baseball, it must address the very significant issues with the current system at the bargaining table. Otherwise, MLB clubs will be free to affiliate with any minor league team or potential team in the United States, including independent league teams and cities which are not permitted to compete for an affiliate under the current agreement.”

It is clear that if negotiations had remained secret that Minor League Baseball would have no power. The only power they can wield is their reach, which unfortunately for Mr. Manfred goes a lot further and touches a lot more communities than Major League Baseball.

Don’t get me wrong. Pinstriped Prospects would clear benefit from MLB’s plan for minor league contraction.  Having less minor league players and less minor league teams would make the work of covering the minors a lot easier and much less expensive. So, we are clearly arguing for the plan that would clearly go against our own self-interest.

“I think what they are doing is horrible,” said one former minor league coach I spoke to. “They don’t understand the impact that MiLB teams have on cities.”

The move to eliminate teams is one that is not just about losing the jobs.  It is a direct threat to the teams that have spent years investing in their minor league system and want more players.  In this day and age, when everything is about data and analytics, some teams realize the more players you have under contract, the better chance you are going to have at finding that one diamond in the rough.  Teams like the Yankees and Reds, for that matter, have added affiliates in recent years, increasing the number of players in their system in the hopes of finding those.

Major League Baseball’s proposal also seems to negate a natural advantage that the Yankees have under the current system.  Since there is currently no limit to minor league teams a Major League organization can have, the Yankees have invested heavily in having as many open spots as possible.  Currently, they field two Gulf Coast League teams, a Rookie-Advanced team, a short-season Class-A team, and four full-season teams.  Having that many extra teams allow the Yankees to be a bit more conservative with some players and give other players a chance to show what they could do.

The Yankees themselves have taken exception to the proposal and went as far as to be the only major league team to comment on the matter.

“There are negotiations currently taking place between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball,” Levine said. “We have been assured today that there have been no decisions made regarding the elimination of the Staten Island Yankees. We support the Staten Island Yankees and their facility, and people should give the negotiations a chance to conclude before speculating on any outcome.”

Go up, and down the Yankees system; there are a great example of these types of pitchers like Daniel Alvarez, Brooks Kriske, etc. who would not have had the chance to thrive if it were not for the Yankees having extra roster spots available for them to pitch.  To think, if the Yankees did not need an infielder to fill in in the upper levels in 2018, they would not have acquired Gio Urshela. Look at how that turned out.

All of that being said, there are some legitimate concerns from Major League Baseball.  So, let’s take a look at a few of them.

(Robert M. Pimpsner)

Minor League Players Pay

Major League Baseball has come under increased scrutiny the last few years for the incredibly low pay that minor league players receive.  Prior to the 1990 Professional Baseball Agreement, minor league teams paid a substantial part of players’ salaries, and if a player was promoted to a new level, the minor league affiliate was paid a transaction fee.  After the 1990 PBA negotiations, MLB teams assumed full control over MiLB player salaries and no longer paid MiLB teams a transaction fee.  Instead, minor league teams pay Major League Baseball a ticket tax that pays MLB roughly $20 million annually.

Minor League Baseball players and coaches are employees of the major league affiliates.  The contracts they sign are all with the major league team, and the minor league team pays for uniforms, facilities, travel, hotels, etc. Many minor league teams also offer the players a chance to supplement their income by running clinics and camps throughout the season.

(Eduardo Amaro)

Minor League Facilities

It is no secret that technology has changed a lot since the last major PBA change in 1990.  There is a lot more tech in the game, not to mention the drastic increase in roster sizes and the increase in the coaching staff as well as support staff.  In 2001 many minor league teams typically had a manager, pitching coach, hitting coach, and an athletic trainer.  Now many league teams have defensive coaches, strength and conditioning coaches, video managers, analysts, etc. Leading to an increased need for larger coaching facilities.

Knowing this, many minor league teams were expecting a drastic increase in facility standards.  Several that I know of were already planning renovations to help bring stadiums up to what the new standards would be. Minor League Baseball itself has stated publicly that they are willing to discuss reasonable facility standards, but it has been MLB that has dragged its feet on setting what those standards are.

MLB and MiLB retain the architecture firm, Gould Evans, to inspect facilities at least once every few years.  But as the standards have currently been defined in the PBA that baseball operates under, few if any teams fail to meet those standards.

League Alignment, Travel, and Schedules

I lumped these three together as they are all directly related.  As the leagues are currently set up, there is a lot of bad alignment of leagues, especially at the Triple-A level. This has been the result of many minor league teams moving over the years.

Don’t take that as it is solely the falt of minor league teams, many of the moves have been because the teams could not acquire a stadium that met the current standards of facilities as well as because the MLB-team bought the team and decided to the move the team.  Case in point, the former Watertown Indians were moved to Staten Island after the New York Yankees purchased a portion of the team.  Another example is when the New York Mets bought the St. Catherine’s Stompers and moved them first to Queens and then to Brooklyn.

Minor League Baseball has stated publicly that they are willing to discuss a realignment of the minor leagues to make travel a lot easier on players.  Realigning the minor leagues to have closer opponents would make things a lot easier on players in terms of travel and in terms of scheduling.

At the very least Manfred has been disingenuous in his public statements about the matter.  At worst, he and MLB have been acting in bad faith in negotiations.

It has been proven that each of Major League Baseball’s public reasoning for the drastic changes to the minors has been misleading at best. MLB and Rob Manfred have tried to bully Minor League Baseball, and with threatening to cut off ties completely, he has doubled down on that position.  A position that will surely cost MLB a lot in the long run.

This very public spat between MLB and MiLB is just what baseball did not need leading up to the talks between MLB and MLBPA on the Collective Bargaining Agreement.  Baseball cannot afford the bad publicity and to alienate fans right now.  But MLB and Manfred have been doing just that.

Make no mistake, this plan is bad for the communities involved and bad for baseball as a whole.

 

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