COVID-19 Adds Obstacles for Minor Leaguers

Last Wednesday night, the day before MLB shuttered spring training and delayed the start to its season, I was texting with a baseball operations employee in a National League front office. We discussed the likelihood of cancellations, the chaos that would inevitably follow, and the repercussions for players and teams. At one point in the conversation he speculated, “minor leaguers will be absolutely shafted.”

It appears that he was right. With one notable exception, minor leaguers, already unpaid during spring training and the offseason, will not collect paychecks for any games missed due to the spread of COVID-19. So far only one team, the Tampa Bay Rays, has announced plans to pay their minor league players during the delay. While not covering anyone’s salary directly, the club plans to give everyone $800 to help with expenses while they’re unable to play ball. It’s a step in the right direction, even if $800 is considerably less than the monthly salaries these players were set to earn before the disruption.

Still, it’s money that players elsewhere around the league would love to have. Most minor leaguers were just weeks away from solidifying their in-season accommodations, and now find themselves without a place to go or a buck to pay for it once they arrive. The situation has caused affected players considerable distress.

“It sucks,” says one pitcher in a National League farm system who, like other players interviewed for this piece, preferred to remain anonymous. “I’m fortunate enough that I can come home and live with my parents and not pay any rent. But I have a lot of teammates who either have a kid or are married and don’t have the opportunity to go home and have their parents pay for everything.”

For those who must work until the game returns, finding a job won’t be easy. Minor leaguers have free time now, but the duration of their availability to prospective employers is limited and unknown. As is the case for players who work over the offseason, they’d have to balance the time spent at their new day job with staying in shape and preparing for a baseball season that may or may not come. And of course, getting a job isn’t easy right now; many businesses are either shutting down or limiting their operations. The Athletic’s Emily Waldon is doing yeoman’s work helping link individual players to employment opportunities near their hometown, but many ballplayers will have a hard time getting work.

Compounding the problem is that some of the jobs minor leaguers would normally take at a time like this are either unavailable or less compelling than usual. Many players earn money by offering hitting or pitching lessons, or otherwise teaching at a training facility. But a lot of those places have closed already because of the virus, and more are sure to follow. One player I spoke with contemplated working as an Uber driver, but that carries its own inherent risk as a potential source of infection.

Major leaguers, of course, don’t face quite the same challenges. Many of them are already wealthy from their signing bonuses or salaries, and they’re also being taken care of during the league’s hiatus. Each big leaguer, along with certain non-roster invitees, gets a weekly allowance of $1,100 until at least April 9. For context, that’s about half as much money as a player in A-ball makes in an entire month.

On top of all that, the potential for an extended layoff could do real harm to many of these players’ long-term futures. For guys in their first spring training, it’s an especially damaging blow. Should the season get cancelled or significantly reduced, low-level players will have to compete for attention with a brand new class of professionals eager to make a strong impression. For last year’s draft class, spring training was “our chance to show that we’ve improved,” said one 2019 draftee. “But now we don’t get that opportunity. I hope it won’t affect us in the long run, but we’re not playing in games, so they don’t get to see us.”

In the meantime, players face an uncertain present. Unable to work out at their spring training complexes, many are heading home and looking for training facilities.

“We’re kind of on our own when it comes to trying to find places to train,” one minor league pitcher for an American League club said. “The place I normally train back home has upped its fees because of the demand, so paying for that is going to be a challenge.”

Another player I spoke with won’t have that problem: “I have a place I usually work out in during the offseason, but they’re closing their doors and all the gyms are closed. I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

The strain is especially challenging for those who don’t have a reliable income source at this point. “We can’t file for unemployment since we’re under contract,” one pitcher explained. It’s a disturbing inequity, and one that ultimately goes far beyond the cost for a training facility. “The fact that major leaguers are getting an allowance and we’re getting nothing is absolutely ridiculous. How are we supposed to pay for bills or rent or any necessities for that matter?”

It’s a fair question, one that a $10 billion industry like Major League Baseball should be able to answer. Throughout the sports world, we’ve seen heartwarming stories of players like Zion Williamson or George Springer announcing that they will pay the salaries of the hourly event workers who were going to miss out on their paychecks because of game postponements. While we can discuss whether or not the players themselves should be the ones footing that particular bill, their generosity speaks to the communal spirit needed to get everyone through a tough time.

In that same spirit, the powers that be in baseball need to step in and pay the minor leaguers. Salaries for minor leaguers range from $400-700 per week for all but a handful of upper-level players — a pittance for any major league club but a meaningful amount for those currently hung out to dry.

“Even if it was just the weekly per diem, that’s better than nothing,” said one minor league pitcher. It certainly would be better than nothing, but there’s room to grow from there. Major league teams should pay their minor league personnel their full salaries all season long. It’s how they’ll get through.

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3 years ago

What does it mean for players under team control and their service time? For instance, Kris Bryant has 4.171 years of service time according to his player page and will be a free agent after the 2021 season. But what if they only play 81 games and he only gets credit for half a year of service time? Does he stay under team control through 2022? I can’t imagine MLBPA would let that stand without a fight since it will affect hundreds of guys.