Earlier this week, we discussed the principal bone of contention between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball regarding MLB’s proposed contraction plan. MLB wishes to, among other things, transfer more control and money away from minor league baseball and eliminate short-season baseball. While they have tried to make their case that the measure is not a cost-saving one, that case isn’t particularly persuasive, as discussed in Part I of this series.
But while contraction is a cost-saving measure, that doesn’t mean major league teams don’t have a more efficient way of producing good major league players than in the current system, and that argument deserves to be assessed on its own merits. David Laurila recently talked to some MLB executives who explained some of their thoughts on the potential changes, and in a piece at FiveThirtyEight, Travis Sawchik laid out the potential benefits of fewer minor league teams while including keeping the level of competition higher, preventing teams from preying on players with little chance of reaching the majors and putting players closer to spring training sites where the quality of facilities is better and the coaching is more concentrated. (It’s worth noting that MLB hasn’t actually done a very good job of making that argument.)
The following is from an MLB response to MiLB detailing MLB’s objectives in contracting the minor leagues:
We have provided MiLB our Clubs’ reasoning for the elimination of short-season baseball numerous times, and “creative solutions” to retain baseball in every community, but MiLB’s public messaging has consistently been that MLB desires to restructure short-season baseball for “cost savings objectives.” While we recognize that such messaging may play well publicly, it is absolutely not true. MLB has three objectives that affect short-season baseball, none of which is premised on cost savings. First, as we have previously explained, our Clubs believe that the First Year Player Draft has too many rounds (40 compared with 7 for the NFL and NHL), with hundreds of players drafted each year that have an extremely low chance of making the Major Leagues (only 18% of all drafted players reach the Major Leagues for at least one day; 8% accumulate 3 years of service; and those figures fall to 5% and l%, respectively, for players drafted after the 25th round). Players who choose not to attend college because they are selected in the draft, or leave college after their junior year, often do not complete their education after being released.
Second, MLB desires to move the draft later into the summer, preferably after the completion of the College World Series, so MLB Clubs do not draft players in the middle of the NCAA playoffs.
Third, under current player development philosophy, many Clubs prefer to rest recently drafted players as much as possible since they just completed a full season of high school or college baseball and utilize their Spring Training complex to orient them into professional baseball.
Whether MiLB agrees with these objectives or not, these are decisions that MLB, in consultation with the Players Association, has the right to make to develop elite baseball players into Major League players. Our player development objectives impact short-season baseball in two distinct ways. First, with the draft moved to early July, MLB Clubs would not have players to send to short-season teams until late July or early August, making the operation of a short-season league unfeasible. Second, with the number of rounds of the draft reduced, MLB Clubs will not sign a sufficient number of players to staff short-season teams.
First, MLB doesn’t actually address the cost-savings criticism in their objectives. MLB wants to shorten the draft, and the explanation they provide is that only one in 20 players after the 25th round makes it to the majors, with players forgoing an education to chase a 5% shot at playing in the big leagues. (We could dispute whether a 5% shot at the majors is actually that bad given the potential payoff.) However, the player demographics in those rounds don’t really support MLB’s “education” contention. Half of the players drafted in the latter rounds are either college seniors or from a junior college. Many of the high schoolers or college juniors taken in the draft’s latter rounds don’t end up signing contracts and return to school, and those that do often receive six-figure bonuses, indicating that clubs actually have quite a bit of confidence in these players’ abilities.
This is certainly an effort to streamline the minors and make them more efficient by removing those players who have the least chance at a successful pro career, but efficiencies is just a buzzword for cost-savings when the players MLB teams are concerned about spend most of their time at the spring training complex and almost no time in short-season leagues before moving up to full-season A-ball. MLB wants to codify what teams are already doing in practice, and eliminate what they see as wasteful spending. The lack of a real chance at the majors also conflicts with their own statement in the next paragraph where they discuss developing “elite baseball players.” MLB isn’t being altruistic toward the players with little shot at the majors. They simply don’t want to spend their own resources on developing players who probably won’t see the big leagues.
Additionally, reducing the number of rounds in the draft would make the second and third points moot. It doesn’t matter when the draft is or what teams prefer to do with drafted players in the summer if they’ve already decided they don’t want to have enough players to field short-season teams in the first place. It’s also worth noting, despite their mootness, that the second and third points actually directly conflict with each other. Leaving players to their own training programs, the influence of non-MLB coaches, and more pre-draft showcases for an additional month after the vast majority of potential draftees have finished their seasons runs counter to the goal of resting draftees and neglects a potentially important developmental period for newly drafted baseball players as they embark on a pro career. MLB’s concerns about playing conditions and access to good clubhouses as well as training and nutrition programs ring hollow when they reveal they have no regard for these players’ futures in baseball because they don’t think they have one.
There might be an argument that MLB should stop preying on these players’ unrealistic dreams, but that also comes up short when one considers that MLB has acted as the predator by using its lobbying money to get laws passed that deny minor leaguers a living wage or fair pay for all their work.
Eliminating short-season baseball also somehow makes the Save America’s Pastime Act even worse than when it was passed as part of a massive spending bill in 2018. When the legislation was originally proposed, it came on the heels of a still-pending lawsuit to provide minor leaguers with overtime pay. From MiLB’s press release on the law suit:
This suit threatens baseball’s decades-old player development system with an unprecedented cost increase, which would jeopardize the skills-enhancement role of the minor leagues and the existence of Minor League Baseball itself. As a result of this lawsuit filed on behalf of thousands of current and former players, many cities would be in jeopardy of losing their Minor League Baseball teams, resulting in the elimination of tens of thousands of jobs nationwide, shuttering tax-payer funded ballparks and creating a void in affordable family-friendly entertainment.
The law, which had the full support of MiLB at the time, doesn’t appear to have stopped MLB from putting cities in jeopardy of losing their teams, nor has it protected jobs. When the bill was passed, Rob Manfred claimed that it was a good thing, as it would result in a raise for some players. But even if we were to believe that assertion, under MLB’s proposal, most of the players who would “benefit” from the legislation might have their teams taken away entirely. When politicians decry MLB’s proposal (and perhaps attempt to pass legislation to prevent it), there will be some voices who wish politics would stay out of baseball. But it was MLB who asked politicians to help them; it was MLB who invited politics into its sport. It’s only reasonable for those same politicians to remain involved when they feel they’ve been lied to.
Ultimately, removing the short-season leagues wouldn’t change much regarding how MLB handles elite prospects. Those leagues are filled with good players who probably won’t make the majors, playing mostly extraneous baseball, and it only costs MLB teams $400,000 per year to pay those players. The real question is whether such a league should exist. While MLB touts an alternative indy league that would receive some MLB assistance, when these leagues only draw 75,000 fans per season and charge $7 per ticket, spending nearly $400,000 on players isn’t feasible; most teams would simply die. If the short-season leagues are to remain viable, major league teams need to foot the bill for player costs and provide those players.
There’s a business argument to be made based on the fact that the value teams recoup in developing one average baseball player from these ranks probably pays for about 10 years worth of team salaries. To say that paying these players bonuses under $10,000 each and then spending less on an entire team than a minimum-salaried player makes it nearly impossible for major league clubs to “lose” money on these leagues when big leaguers are the lifeblood a $10 billion per year industry. There’s also the argument that providing access to cheap, in-person baseball for current and potential fans is an important part of keeping and creating new customers.
But there’s also the issue of a one-size-fits-all approach to developing players. While talent identification is likely better than it used to be, identifying players who will improve and succeed if given the opportunity and training remains an imperfect science, and one at which major league organizations are not equally adept. The Astros believe their system shuttering farm teams and keeping players closer to their spring training facility is the best way for them to develop prospects, but clearly not all teams build and succeed in the same way. Ten franchises, including teams with great development records like the Rays, Yankees, and Cardinals, have multiple short-season teams, and many other clubs have multiple complex-league teams in Arizona and Florida. With a proliferation of technology better able to identify a player’s strengths and weaknesses, and help with tweaks to pitches and swings, there should be more diamond in the rough stories made possible by a larger pool of talent. Limiting those opportunities over what amounts to a fifth-rounder’s signing bonus or the salaries for a few September call-ups doesn’t seem worth wrecking the current system.
Of course, as you may have guessed from this installment and the last, isn’t just those costs that’s driving MLB’s push for a weakened farm system. We’ve reached the end of the second part and have yet to address the real power consolidation that MLB is shooting for. We’ll do so next time.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.