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Addressing MLB’s Player-Development Concerns Without Contraction

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With Major League Baseball laying out its reasons for eliminating 42 Minor League Baseball teams, there has been plenty of buzz in the industry about how these concerns can be addressed without full-scale contraction. Here are some solutions floated within the industry.

In negotiations for the next Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball, set to replace the current PBA that expires at the end of the 2020 season, MLB has put forth a series of proposals culminating in a current plan to eliminate 42 teams, restructure specific leagues, move the player draft back by two months and delay the first year of player signings by a season, and upgrade player facilities. Some of this can’t be addressed by Minor League Baseball—the battle over a season delay for drafted players to begin their pro careers will need to be worked out with the players union (more on that later)—but much of it can. Minor League Baseball’s clear position is that MLB’s concerns can be addressed, for the most part. Here’s some of the talk from MiLB circles, as there’s been plenty of chatter within the industry as how to work out a solution acceptable to both sides.

The 42 teams slated for elimination were chosen because of inferior player facilities. This is certainly debatable: MiLB folks say the list is arbitrary and teams hosted in inferior facilities are making the cut, while other teams that have upgraded facilities very recently are slated for elimination. Look at the Lowell Spinners (Short Season A; NY-Penn League), where the team installed a new field and upgraded lighting in the last two years. Take the case of the Erie SeaWolves (Class AA; Eastern League), a team proposed for elimination, and where $12 million in state money was used for upgrades to UPMC Park in 2019 and 2020. The playing surface was completely overhauled prior to the 2019 campaign at the behest of parent Detroit Tigers. During this offseason’s round of construction, player facilities are being upgraded with a climate-controlled batting/pitching facility. Does Erie really have an inferior player facility when compared to Bowling Green?

A continual complaint from MiLB owners is that MLB refuses to actually define what constitutes acceptable facilities: there are certainly ballparks slated for contraction that may be a little lacking on the fan side but surprisingly well-appointed on the player side. And there are plenty of MiLB teams playing in facilities that don’t meet any proposed new standards — Kinston, Zebulon, Salem (VA). The obvious way to fix this without contracting 42 teams is for MLB to specify minimum facility standards at each level of play and give teams two years to meet them. Owners would fully expect these facility standards to include larger clubhouses and better amenities like hydrotherapy areas, kitchens, expanded coaches spaces, lounges, climate-controlled batting cages and workout rooms. There has already been a study outlining existing MiLB ballpark offerings, so defining standards would be a clear roadmap for improvements.

Too much travel is involved in Minor League Baseball. This is the least controversial aspect of MLB’s vision of the future, and one that can be easily addressed. A plan to create a third Class AAA league—10 teams in the Pacific Coast League, 10 teams in the International League and 10 teams in a new mid-America league—makes sense. It’s less debatable whether adding St. Paul and Sugar Land to the Triple-A mix makes sense and may have more to do with MLB team parochial interests than with player concerns. In particular, adding Sugar Land to the Astros farm system (replacing Round Rock) seems to have more to do with Houston going on its own path after demoting former team president Reid Ryan and cutting ties with Nolan Ryan, whose family owns the current Astros’ Class AAA affiliate, Round Rock. With Sugar Land Skeeters owner Bob Zlotnick owning a 5 percent share in the Astros, there is certainly a convergence of interests here.

And there’s no doubt a revamping of High A and Low A leagues along geographic lines makes sense for all involved. What’s not been talked much about yet is the potential downgrading of some High-A Carolina League teams to Low A and how that would play out in terms of franchise values and affiliations. But basically, adding a third Low-A league based in the mid-Atlantic region addresses the travel issues posed by the South Atlantic League, which certainly sprawls.

One other solution discussed: eliminate some games and allow for easier travel times. You could make every Monday a day off across the minors. Again, losing dates isn’t an ideal solution on the MiLB side—but it’s preferable to contraction.

Too many players are under contract. This is more an internal MLB debate than anything to do with Minor League Baseball, with the Astros and several other MLB teams (Milwaukee, Baltimore, Colorado) saying that bigger-budget teams have an advantage by signing more minor leaguers to contracts. Their solution is to limit the number of MiLB players under contract to 150, down from the 200-plus contracts controlled by the likes of the Yankees, which would lead to cost savings.

Let’s crunch the numbers. Most of what MLB pays in MiLB salaries comes in the form of signing bonuses and Triple-A players, and these numbers would not change. Take away these numbers, and MLB teams spend $40 million or so in player salaries. Limit the number of players and the industry saves $20 million annually—not a huge number when you consider MLB is a $11-billion industry. But this is not a net cost: despite what many assume, MiLB teams do pay MLB for the use of players in the form of a 7.5% ticket tax, some $18 million annually. Double that figure—not the best of solutions, but certainly one preferable to contraction—and you’d be able to maintain the status quo. You could also lose the Appalachian League to cut the number of players, as all the teams are owned by MLB parents: again, not a huge cost savings.

But that may not happen if the players union does not sign off on a plan to overhaul how entry-level players are drafted and developed, with MLB teams assuming a larger role in the initial training of prospects. The player draft would be moved from June to August, with contracted players reporting to camps and undergoing instruction before beginning their professional on-field careers the following year. (Player contracts would not kick in until the season after they are signed.) This is being called the “Houston plan” for player development, named for the Houston Astros staffers proposing it. For a college player whose season ends in May with a conference tourney, they’d cool their jets until the fall and then hit the field again the following April. In addition, the draft would be trimmed to 20 rounds from the current 40, limiting the number of players under minor-league contracts to 150 players. Again, this is something that needs to be worked out with the players union, but if the union balks, there may be no reason to drop short-season circuits. Certainly every agent out there would prefer their clients begin their pro development immediately after exhausting their college eligibility or high-school career.

Right now, talks continue, and many on the MLB side are waiting to see if Congress does raise the prospect of lifting baseball’s anti-trust exemption. This is the nuclear option, and no one in the sport really wants to see it go away. On the MLB side, there would be some serious ramifications, as Major League Baseball would immediately lose the ability to limit franchise movement. There’s little doubt the New York City region could support another MLB team in New Jersey, and if I’m Stuart Sternberg, I’m immediately talking with state officials about a new ballpark in the Meadowlands for the relocating Tampa Bay Rays. Similarly, if I’m running the Oakland A’s, I am immediately negotiating for a new San Jose ballpark and reviving plans for Cisco Field. Or maybe, if I’m Mark Attanasio, I begin a flirtation with Long Beach officials about a third team in the greater Los Angeles area; it’s closer to home, and I am free to leave Milwaukee without MLB interference. Losing the anti-trust exemption leads to some very real-world consequences for Major League Baseball.

As noted, talks continue, both within MLB (some teams have expressed misgivings) and between MLB and MiLB. There’s still plenty of ways to reach agreement on meeting MLB’s big-picture needs, but it relies on MLB being honest in their goals—and not just proposing contraction as a simple line-item money grab.

Archival photo of Colorado Springs’ UCHealth Park by Mark Cryan.

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