With Baseball on Hold, Life for Minor Leaguers Remains in Flux

“Chaos, absolute chaos.”

That was the only way one agent was able to describe the current situation going on in professional baseball. Meanwhile, multiple minor-league players bleakly described their situation as being “an afterthought” — this after being sent home with no information on what their timeline for return might be, and whether they would be paid.

As Major League Baseball attempts to deal with the fallout from cancelling spring training, and the delay of the start of the season due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus, players across all levels are feeling the pain, as questions continue to mount. When will their next paycheck come? From where? What preparation needs to be taken for the delayed start of the season?

The recurring theme during conversations I’ve had with players across all levels of professional baseball — from the majors down to rookie ball — is the stark contrast between the amount of information being given to major league and 40-man roster players versus that being provided to minor leaguers. As one minor league player put it, “Minor league guys don’t know anything until it comes out on Twitter.”

Once the season was officially suspended by Major League Baseball, each club had different ways of dealing with their rostered versus non-rostered players. Across the league, players on the 40-man have been given three options: First, to stay at the complex and continue to receive their $1,100 weekly spring training stipend paid by the club, and retain access to the facility with minimal staff present; second, go to the club’s home city and continue to train at the ballpark, again with minimal staff, and receive their stipend of $1,100 per week paid by MLBPA; and third, return home and receive their weekly $1,100, also paid for by the union.

The situation is so fluid that originally, players were told that the union would only cover the stipends of players who were on the 40-man, or were non-roster invitees who had finished the regular season on the major league roster or the Injured List. By Monday, that had changed to include any non-roster invitee who had at least one day of major league service time during the 2019 season. This is in contrast to minor league players, who had largely been kept in the dark, using social media to find out most of their updates on the status of spring training and the season.

One key point that should be noted: Only major-league players, and players on the 40-man roster, are represented by the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA). Minor league players are not represented by MLBPA, or any union for that matter. Due to these lines drawn in the proverbial sand, major league and 40-man roster players have had nearly daily communication with the union and/or the team’s individual player reps, as well as the team’s front office and league officials over the last week updating them on the situation. Conversely, many minor league players have been essentially left in the dark. While 40-man roster players were given the option to remain at their teams’ facilities, minor league players were not. Non-40-man roster players across the league weren’t allowed to come into team facilities to continue training; organizations began to bring players in for players to pack their things, indicating that they would be put on flights home in the coming days.

On March 11, the NBA announced that they were suspending their season after it was revealed that Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. The next day, MLB teams began to hold meetings, send text messages or emails informing players of their organizations’ plans. The amount of communication and its specificity varied from team to team. Some were told workouts would continue, but would now be optional. Others were told that players would have the weekend off and would resume activities the following Monday. Players described these initial meetings on Wednesday and Thursday as tense and marked by anxiety; they had a lot of questions, but front office staff had very few answers at that time. Many were sent home from the team facility and told to wait for updates from team officials. On March 12, MLB announced the start of the season would be delayed by two weeks; just four days later, they had to restructure that timeline further, when the CDC issued new guidance advising against gatherings of 50 or more people for the next eight weeks, thus delaying Opening Day at least that long.

During that time period, minor league players again received updates of varying frequency and detail from their organizations and team officials. One player in the Cactus League told me he received an email from the club Thursday night indicating he would be sent home; he received his flight confirmation for the next day. But another Cactus League player told me he was sent to the team hotel Thursday and had no contact with team officials for over 48 hours, while hearing from friends in different organizations that they were already being put on flights home. It wasn’t until Saturday that he received word from the team that he would have to come in for a meeting at the team facility, where he and his fellow teammates were told to pack their things as they were being sent home indefinitely. When players began to ask questions like “Are we getting paid?” “Are these the set rosters?” and “When can we expect to come back?” they were met with inconclusive answers from team officials. All they knew for certain was that spring training had been cancelled, they weren’t allowed to be at the team hotel or the practice facility, and they were going to be forced to return home.

Every minor league player I spoke to was either at home or, in the case of a handful of international players, in the process of finding their way there. Depending on their country of origin, they may be met with a mandatory 14-day quarantine. One international player in the Grapefruit League told me, “I would rather stay here, because I don’t know what is going to happen when I get home, but I don’t have a choice.” A different player on the 40-man roster, also in the Grapefruit League, described a conversation another rostered teammate had with front office personnel about what would happen if he decided to return to his home country to be with his family, and got stuck there when MLB decided to resume. His questions were met simply with “Yeah, that is something you have to think about.”

One conversation that really stood out to me was one I had with an agent that involved the story of a prospect who was told he would be flying to his home country of Venezuela. However, flights from the US are not allowed directly into Venezuela due to political tensions between the two countries, meaning that he would have a layover in Panama. Upon arrival, he was told that the Venezuelan government had closed all its airports, and that his flight to Caracas had been cancelled. After a back and forth with team officials, he was forced to stay the night in Panama; instead of returning to the Spring Training complex, he was flown to the Dominican Republic, and told he could stay at the team’s academy for the time being.

The financial burdens of the cancellation of spring training and the delay to the start of the season are particularly acute for minor league players due to the paltry salaries they receive even when they are playing. Moreover, players are only paid during the season, which in a normal year only runs for a little over five months. They are not paid during the offseason, and are also not paid during spring training. During spring camp, the minor league per-diem is $25, or $175 per week. This is in stark contrast to their major league counterparts, who receive $1,100 weekly stipends during spring training, and a $555,000 minimum salary. Minor league spring stipends and regular season salaries are paid by the players’ parent clubs. Last year, the league saw revenues of $10.7 billion dollars, up from $10.3 billion in 2018.

Many players find part-time work near to home during the winter months. I held a variety of offseason jobs during my playing career including serving as a pitching instructor, a substitute-teacher, a waiter, and a landscaper. However, given the unique nature of this situation, players are now making an unplanned return to places that are beginning to see widespread closures of both schools and business. One player from a Cactus League team explained how he returned home and reached out to youth players he typically worked with during the winter to let them know he would start giving pitching lessons at a facility near his house, only to find out two days later that the facility was being forced to close over concerns about the spread of the virus.

Another player in the Grapefruit League described his situation bleakly: “What are we expected to do while we’re not getting paid? It’s not like I can go out and get a job; nobody wants an employee that might have to leave in a few weeks.” Players’ prospects of employment are made even slimmer by the fact that they can’t be certain of when they will be called upon to report back to their teams. Players unable to find traditional employment have tried to get creative, setting up video game tournaments with teammates to broadcast live on sites like Twitch, or starting their own podcasts. Some players have tried to file for unemployment benefits, but because they are still under an active contract with their parent clubs, have learned they do not qualify.

Players may soon receive some relief from their parent clubs. On Monday, the Tampa Bay Rays announced they would pay a one-time, $800 stipend during the stoppage to help support their minor league players. By Wednesday, multiple other teams had announced various forms of compensation plans. Cardinals, Dodgers, Marlins, Mets, Padres, Red Sox, Tigers, and Yankees have all decided to continue their standard spring training per diem payments, while the Indians announced they will pay their players a $400 weekly payment for the next two weeks. Thursday, MLB announced the “lump sum” payout of spring training stipends owed to players through April 8, which total roughly $500 per player.

But these announcements only came after MLB announced that each of the 30 teams would contribute $1 million per club to assist ballpark employees affected by the delayed start to the season. Just to compare with some quick math, there are around 250 players in minor league camp, with the exact number depending on the club. If MLB were to pledge another $1 million per club to assist minor league players, it would equate to roughly $4,000 in assistance given per player. If we go off the eight week timeline given by CDC, some players would actually end up making more money with that level of relief than if the baseball calendar had continued normally. So while I commend the organizations who have pledged to assist minor league players during this difficult period, the size of the payments being discussed only serves to underscore the paltry sums minor leaguers currently receive.

Outside of the financial stress placed on players, they also have to contend with maintaining their health and conditioning. The players and agents I spoke with all voiced concerns about not having proper facilities at which to train. In an effort to combat the spread of the virus, many gyms and training facilities are being forced to close. One player took to twitter to describe his situation. He was given a link from team staff pointing him at-home workout equipment he could purchase to maintain a training program, but did not have the financial resources to actually buy the equipment. Even players in warm weather climates such as Miami, where a group of players I spoke to are attempting to put together outdoor workouts to stay in shape, are finding it difficult to organize anything due to the CDC guidelines to limit group gatherings to fewer than 10 people.

And players who hail from Latin America could face particularly difficult challenges in the coming weeks. One agent described his concern for his Latin American clients: “Poorer players are going to have nutritional issues, particularly in Latin America. Without MLB stepping in, I don’t know what’s going to happen to some of these guys.”

With players potentially unable to access proper nutrition and training, and likely facing a compressed timeline to get ready for the delayed start of the season, there is serious concern that players will be rushed back to the field in an attempt to salvage as much of the season as possible, which could lead to more (and more severe) injuries. The amount of communication players have had with training staff has varied from club to club. Some of those who have been in contact with team personnel are simply being asked if they are exhibiting symptoms associated with COVID-19, while others have been in contact with strength and conditioning staff for ideas about at home workouts. Others have simply had no communication whatsoever.

One player from a Grapefruit League team was told to be ready to possibly report straight to affiliated baseball when play resumes, while a player in a different organization in the Grapefruit League was told that he would return to Florida for an abbreviated camp before reporting to affiliated ball. One player explained his concern about trying to stay in shape while at home: “I’m worried about trying to set up bullpens and live BP’s because if I don’t have access to all the recovery tools I’m used to, and … get hurt right now, it could alter the course of my career.”

The outbreak of the COVID-19 virus has ground virtually every aspect of life to a halt, and has shown that those most vulnerable are the ones subject to its challenges, financial and otherwise, first. In the case of professional baseball, that means minor leaguers at the bottom of the MLB totem pole.

Major League teams have grossly underpaid their minor league players for decades, but these same teams now have an opportunity to step up for them, just as they have stepped up to support their ballpark employees. Players on the farm are the future of the league, and it’s time baseball started treating them as such.





Jon was a minor leaguer with the Brewers and Royals from 2015-2018. He now works as a financial advisor for Waterfront Advisors in Overland Park, KS.

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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I was about to ask…is this former Brewer prospect Jon Perrin? I guess so! Great to see he “made it”, although in a totally different way than baseball. Financial advising is a much safer life than the minor leagues, although that presents its own challenges when the economy is imploding.