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Radical MLB Proposal would drastically reshape Minor League Baseball

This would change some things.

Southwest University Park, home of the El Paso Chihuahuas
Photo courtesy of Southwest University Ballpark

Unless you’re big on the minutia of how baseball leagues work, this one might have slipped under your radar. However, it carries some pretty serious ramifications for us Padres fans, and MLB fans in general. Baseball America recently published a very well-researched story regarding the on-going negotiations for a new Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball. While it’s still early in the negotiations, MLB floated a pretty radical proposal, one that, if accepted, would dramatically reshape Minor League ball as we currently know it. I’ll try to break this down to the key implications, but seriously, give the article a read; it’s well worth your time.

Wait, what’s going on?

As mentioned above, MLB is negotiating a new PBA with Minor League Baseball (MiLB). Think of the PBA as the equivalent of a Collective Bargaining Agreement between a League and its Players’ Union, only here, a PBA ends up giving Minor League teams Player Development Contracts (PDCs), which give Minor League teams affiliations with an MLB club, and makes MLB clubs provide players and staff to Minor League teams. Since 1903, MLB has always had a PBA with MiLB, but outside of a few negotiations, they’ve been relatively quiet affairs. The last contentious PBA negotiation went down in 1990, which ended with MLB receiving a ticket tax from MiLB teams, eliminated payments from MLB to MiLB for player transactions, and implemented requirements for significant facility improvements. While the current PBA won’t expire until the end of the 2020 season, each side has already turned combative, making already lengthy discussions even more tense.

So, what’s the big issue?

Ostensibly, this is about MLB seeking dramatically improved MiLB stadium facilities, as well as taking control of how the Minors are organized, to include geographic locations of clubs, and wanting MiLB to share in increased costs that will be coming from increased player pay. These are all long-standing issues between MLB and MiLB, as according to MLB, roughly 25% of MiLB clubs’ facilities fall below the level of facilities they view as needed for their minor league players. MLB essentially wants MiLB to find a way to guarantee stadiums will all reach what MLB deems as acceptable standards in the near future.

Also, MLB also wants to completely rework the PDC process to ensure MLB clubs can have MiLB affiliates that meet their desires geographically. Simply, MLB teams want Minor League teams closer together to cut down on costs, both in terms of team travel, and for players going back and forth from the MLB level or to receive quality care when injured/rehabbing.

Most of these issues are not new. In fact, some teams view these problems as so systemic, that some ownership groups simply purchased MiLB teams to avoid ending up in what they view as the worst stadiums and facilities in the minors.

Ok, so what’s MLB’s proposal?

Hold on to your butts, this is going to take a minute:

Simply, MLB wants to eliminate the number of PDCs, going from the current system of 160, down to 120, specifically eliminating the 4, non-complex Rookie-level and short-season classifications from the minor leagues. Additionally, the full-season minor leagues would get completely reorganized: In AAA, the Pacific Coast League would shrink from 16 teams, to 10. The International League would grow to 20 teams. The 14-team low A South Atlantic League would turn into a 6-team league, with a new Mid-Atlantic league springing up. The short-season Northwest League would move to full-season ball. This proposal also calls for some teams to move from A to AAA, and vice versa, with less dramatic moves included as well, all with the goal of bringing clubs closer together geographically (teams that get moved in classification would get compensated, likely another sticking point).

The key point to all this? Each MLB team would get limited to fielding 5 minor league clubs in the U.S. total, breaking down as 4 full-season teams, and 1 complex-based Rookie level team. Additionally, each MLB team would be limited to 150-200 players on contract, meaning some clubs (like the Padres and the Yankees) would have to cut minor leaguers loose to meet the new restrictions, as currently, there are no restrictions on how many teams (and, therefore, how many players) a team can field.

It should be pointed out that, currently, the proposal doesn’t address roster limits for international players playing in the Dominican Summer league, but that may change if MLB institutes an International Player draft in either 2020 or 2021.

Wow, that’s some pretty significant changes!

Oh, that’s just the start. MLB’s proposal would also axe some current full-season clubs, while potentially adding a pair of Independent clubs (the St. Paul Saints, and the Sugar Land Skeeters) to the ranks of affiliated ball.

This also has implications for baseball’s draft, as well. With no short-season affiliates, the Draft would move back to after the College World Series, likely to July, and would get reduced down to 20-25 rounds. Without short-season and non-complex Rookie-level teams, drafted players would likely not play official games during their draft year. Instead, they would probably play in scrimmages and instructional league-type games in August and September. The next spring, college players would likely head to Class A teams in their first full pro seasons, while high school draftees would join international signees in the complex leagues. This also carries ramifications for high school players, as it would dramatically reshape the summer showcase circuit so high school players get more time to try to impress scouts.

So, wait, what would happen to the players cut loose/the teams without a PDC?

MLB suggests setting up what they call the “Dream League,” a quasi-independent league supported jointly by MLB and MiLB, with teams fielding undrafted players. But suffice to say, those players and teams would be largely on their own, looking for a path to the Majors they otherwise had with affiliated teams. It would also greatly heighten the differences between the minor league haves (teams with a PDC) and the have-nots (teams without a PDC).

Why’s MLB doing this?

You can believe MLB’s talking points I listed above, because most of them are true or at least based on fact. Some minor league facilities are barely better than some high school fields (I exaggerate, but you get the point). The minor leagues are spread out throughout the U.S., which sometimes makes it tough to get a player from one team to another, or to get a player to quality treatment. Additionally, MLB teams are responsible for paying for the salaries and benefits of players and coaches on all affiliated minor league teams, while minor league teams pay for the minor league staff, travel and other expenses. In the case of a short-season or Rookie-level club, players’ and coaches’ salaries (and the worker’s compensation insurance that comes with it) can be a significant share of a team’s total expenses.

Let’s not sugarcoat this, though. Mostly, it’s about money. Many expect MLB to raise salaries for minor league players in the near future, with most expecting minimum salaries to rise by 50%. Reducing the total number of affiliates (and thereby, the total number of players) allows teams to pay an increased salary without increasing their total costs. MLB is also currently involved in a class-action lawsuit filed by minor league players who contend they should have been paid for their time in spring training and extended spring training (which, in my mind, they totally should be).

So there you have it. This proposal is still initial, so it’s still likely to be changed. However, if it’s accepted, even in part, it’d mark the most dramatic reworking of the minor leagues since they were reorganized in 1962. Also, there’s no guarantee MLB won’t come back to this idea of reducing PDCs in future PBA negotiations. The two sides have taken October off from negotiations during the MLB playoffs, but they are expected to meet again in November. This could set up an interesting dynamic at the Winter Meetings, which will be in San Diego this year. Normally, the Winter Meetings are a celebration that major league and minor league owners partake in together. Safe to say, this year will be a little more tense than years past.

Stay tuned.