The minor leagues as we know it could look wildly different after 2020, but the change won’t happen without a fight.
The underlying Professional Baseball Agreement that codifies the working arrangement between Major League Baseball and minor league teams expires after the 2020 season. Back in October, J.J. Cooper of Baseball America detailed a proposal from MLB that would eliminate roughly a quarter of all minor league teams.
The New York Times on Saturday reported the 42 teams on the proposed chopping block. Most of these teams are at the lowest levels of affiliated teams, with 28 of the 42 teams either in rookie level or short-season Class-A ball.
Some of the cuts make sense. The nine Appalachian League teams on the cut list averaged a collective 1,072 fans per game in 2019, including six teams averaging under 1,000. The only team in the league not on the cut list is the Yankees affiliate in Pulaski, Virginia, whose 2,821 average attendance topped the Appalachian last year.
The Florida Fire Frogs, a Braves affiliate in advanced Class-A, are also on the cut list, after two straight years of dismal attendance in Kissimmee, averaging just 327 per night, roughly a quarter of the Florida State League average.
These cuts, if enacted, would essentially consolidate the affiliated minors into four levels — Triple-A, Double-A, Advanced Class-A and Class-A — plus the complex leagues at teams’ various spring training facilities. Still, there are four Double-A teams on the cut list — Chattanooga and Jackson in the Southern League, plus Binghamton and Erie in the Eastern League.
“The way I look at it is if they are indeed looking to eliminate the lower levels of minor league baseball, there are a couple of markets here and there to regional major league teams,” said Greg Coleman, president of the Erie SeaWolves, during an interview with SB Nation. “The most widely speculated transition would be the Binghamton Mets going to Brooklyn, New York, because you can bring your Double-A team closer to your major league team. Without having all the details, the Double-A teams on this list are likely affected because another market opened up as a result of changes in the lower minors. Our facilities meet standards, so it’s not about standards.”
In 2018, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf approved a grant that included $12 million in upgrades to UPMC Park in Erie. Coleman said changes include two new video boards, replacing the playing surface, upgrading the batting cage structure, plus restrooms and concessions.
Dave Heller is the president and CEO of Main Street Baseball, a group that owns four minor league teams. Three of which — Class-A Quad Cities in Iowa, short-season Class-A Lowell, Massachusetts, and rookie-level Billings, Montana — are on the cut list, though Heller expects them to still be affiliated with major league teams in 2021 and beyond.
“We are taking Major League Baseball at its face value,” Heller told SB Nation. “We are trusting that they’re telling the truth when they say this is really about facilities standards, and the 25 percent — their figure — of minor league baseball parks that are not in compliance with MiLB facility standards. All four of my clubs are easily in compliance with that.”
Three Double-A teams on the cut list released statements Tuesday condemning the proposal, including Binghamton: “No one is stealing hometown American baseball from The Bing, or any other city in America, without a fight.”
That’s what this really comes down to, is losing access to professional baseball in markets that either aren’t close to a major league city or would like a more affordable alternative.
“Our goal is to keep baseball in the 160 minor league markets that we currently have. We want to do what we can to continue to grow baseball,” said Jeff Lantz, senior director of communications for Minor League Baseball, to SB Nation. “A lot of kids might be losing baseball. The real negative here is the future of the game has been put in jeopardy a little bit.”
Congress chimes in
On Tuesday, 106 congresspeople signed a letter to commissioner Rob Manfred calling for MLB to reconsider such drastic measures in the minor leagues. “If enacted, it would undermine the health of the minor league system that undergirds talent development and encourages fan loyalty,” the letter states.
The letter was co-authored by representative Lori Trahan of Massachusetts’ third district, which includes Lowell, home of the short-season Class-A Spinners. The Spinners are one of nine teams in the New York-Penn League on the chopping block.
Signing such a letter allows a Congress member to say they were fighting for their constituents, and offers the only real threat congress has over baseball — its anti-trust exemption.
“For over a century, Congress has taken numerous actions specifically designed to protect, preserve, and sustain a system and structure for both major and minor league baseball to flourish,” the letter continued.
What has flourished in reality has been the sport of baseball itself, and not necessarily its players. Trahan is one of 25 representatives to sign this letter elected after March 2018, when Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act, an enormous spending bill that included, among other things, the “Save America’s Pastime Act” (scroll to page 780) which meant players were guaranteed a minimum wage, but only for a 40-hour work week, “irrespective of the number of hours the employee devotes to baseball related activities,” and even then only during the baseball season.
The minor league minimum salary is as low as $1,100 per month, especially in many of the lower-level cities on this cut list. Minimum salary for major league players is $563,500 in 2020, for comparison.
A co-author of Tuesday’s letter, David McKinley, represents West Virginia’s first district. There were no minor league teams in his district on the cut list, but three from the state itself. He also voted back in 2018 in favor of minor leaguers not getting paid a living wage, and he wasn’t alone. In all, 59 of the 81 signers (73 percent) who were in Congress in March 2018 voted in favor of that bill.
That includes Kentucky representative Bill Guthrie, who co-authored the original “Save America’s Pastime Act” as a stand-alone bill in 2016 — the language of which is nearly identical to the version that passed as part of a larger bill in March 2018.
Minor league players, at least those not on 40-man rosters, are not part of the Major League Baseball Players Association, and have gotten the short shrift for years. A lack of union representation has hurt them, though they have an ongoing class-action lawsuit alleging major league owners have not complied with labor laws.
Simply put, minor league players want to be paid more than $6,800 or $7,290, for instance, for a full season of their labor — including spring training — so they don’t have to think about having to make one Chipotle bowl last for two meals.
Major League Baseball’s response, at least in the form of this proposal, is to cut the number of minor league players it has to pay. MLB counters that the consolidation of teams will help minor league players, according to what deputy commissioner Dan Halem told Baseball America in October:
“From the perspective of MLB clubs, our principal goals are upgrading the minor league facilities that we believe have inadequate standards for potential MLB players, improving the working conditions for MiLB players, including their compensation, improving transportation and hotel accommodations, providing better geographic affiliations between major league clubs and their affiliates, as well as better geographic lineups of leagues to reduce player travel.”
The timing of this isn’t lost, especially with MLB’s working agreement with the minor leagues expiring after 2020. Baseball is trying to get its ducks lined up now, because a bigger fight is looming. The collective bargaining agreement with players — the major league ones — expires after 2021, and labor peace is nowhere near guaranteed.
The Dream League
Where this proposal to sever major league affiliation for so many teams fails is in the logistics of it all. The entire rookie-level Pioneer League would be wiped out, as would nine of the 10 teams in the rookie-level Appalachian League, and nine of the 14 teams in short-season Class-A New York-Penn League.
Baseball America reported that MLB’s proposal would create something called the “Dream League”, in which teams wouldn’t be tied to a major league club and would thus have to endure the increased costs which include paying the players (currently done by major league teams) and more travel.
“Travel to Tennessee and back for us doesn’t work, travel to Montana and back probably doesn’t work,” Coleman said. “We need more details to see what Major League Baseball has in mind, but on the surface I think it would be very difficult to absorb a lot of new expenses while also losing 70-80 percent of your franchise value overnight.”
“What they ought to call it is the Pipe Dream League,” Heller said. “We’re going to put them all together in one league, really? A league that stretches from Utah to Vermont? From Montana to Florida?”
For leagues that couldn’t afford those increased costs, like the Pioneer and Appalachian, those teams could form wood-bat summer leagues that would be loosely tied to MLB, but essentially independent.
“The independent league model as you’ve seen in a lot of cities that have shut down ballparks, whether it’s Camden, Nashua or some of these bigger markets,” Lantz said. “If the independent model doesn’t work there, it’s hard to imagine the independent model working in markets the size of the Appalachian League towns or the New York-Penn League towns. It works in Sugarland, Texas, and it works in St. Paul, Minnesota, but it’s really, really hard to have a sustainable business model with an independent team.”
Minor league baseball, all 160 teams, is still on schedule for 2020, but the timing of the news hasn’t made it any easier on teams trying to sell tickets for the upcoming season, with a future that is increasingly in doubt.
Still, it’s important to note that this is all in the proposal stage.
“The negotiation process started early enough where there’s plenty of time to go back and forth and get a deal done that’s beneficial for both sides and alleviate some of the concerns of either side,” Lantz said.
But the next year figures to be contentious between MLB and MiLB, with the future of baseball in various cities in the balance.
“It’s never going to go through. Minor League Baseball is never going to agree to have 42 teams contracted in the most arbitrary and capricious way,” Heller said. “They can’t proceed without our acquiescence.”