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How minor league baseball would look under MLB’s proposed restructuring plan

The proposed changes would leave the Tigers without a Double-A affiliate.

MLB: All Star Game-Futures Game Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Major League Baseball has made a proposal to dramatically downsize and restructure the minor leagues when the current Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) expires at the end of the 2020 baseball season. The plan would eliminate MLB-affiliated baseball from 42 cities, move the Rule 4 amateur player draft to July while reducing the draft from 40 to 20 rounds, and restructure the leagues to be more geographically compact.

While the plan requires agreement between minor league baseball (MiLB) and Major League Baseball (MLB), some details of the plan have been made public.

First, the basics

Baseball America reported that MLB had submitted a proposal to cut the minor leagues from its current number of 160 major league affiliated teams down to 120, and reduce the number of minor league players down to 150 to 200 players per MLB club. There is currently no limit on the number of players or teams that an MLB club can have in the minor leagues.

The New York Times reported the full list of 42 cities that would lose their MLB-affiliated teams. The New York Daily News reported, in an article titled “Rob Manfred’s plan to destroy minor league baseball,” that MLB negotiators had dismissed complaints from minor league officials and told them that the plan is going forward, their objections notwithstanding.

Naturally, minor league teams don’t like this

MiLB President Pat O’Conner was quoted by the Baseball America and Daily News articles, which led to a public outcry from communities affected, and a reaction from 105 members of Congress, who are angered over the loss of jobs that would result in their constituent communities.

The Congressional letter contained strong, if not threatening words.

The abandonment of Minor League clubs by Major League Baseball would devastate our communities, their bond purchasers, and other stakeholders affected by the potential loss of these clubs. We want you to fully understand the impact this could have not only on the communities we represent, but also on the long-term support that Congress has always afforded our national pastime on a wide variety of legislative initiatives.

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.

Many minor league communities have paid millions of tax payers’ dollars, under pressure from MLB, to build and improve facilities to keep MLB-affiliated teams operating in their towns. These projects, not to mention the teams themselves, have created thousands of jobs and contributed to their local economies.

The city of Erie, Pa. has recently committed $12 million to upgrade the facilities that host the SeaWolves. Understandably, they are irate with MLB’s plan to eliminate their local team. SeaWolves President Greg Coleman wrote an open letter criticizing the MLB plan.

Daytona Tortugas co-owner Rick French, stated that this is just the first step.

“The thing that’s not being talked about, but has been communicated to us by Minor League Baseball, is that this is the first wave of contraction. 160 teams to 118, 118 to 90 in the next five years. They want a clean Single-A, Double-A, Triple-A with nothing in between. MLB’s five-year plan involves cutting baseball from 70 cities and towns across the country that have supported the game.”

“One thing they haven’t felt yet that they will if this plan goes through is that we’ve already been contacted by grassroots activists, and politicians have made it clear they’ll be risking their antitrust exemption,” French said. “Secondly, they’re beginning to assemble a list of MLB corporate partners (advertisers and sponsors), and asking one simple question: Do you stand with people in communities across this country, or do you stand with the corporate interest and greed of Major League Baseball?

MLB strikes back

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred was critical of O’Conner for going public. Manfred cited four objectives of the plan:

1. Improvement of minor league facilities
2. Increase in compensation for the remaining minor league players
3. Improving geographic alignment of MiLB teams
4. Stop “wasting” money on players with no realistic shot at playing major league baseball.

Coming from the leader of a $10 billion industry that has benefited from almost 100 years of an anti-trust exemption from labor laws, and a new provision as part of the “Tax Cut and Jobs Act” passed by Congress in 2017 that exempts minor league players from being paid minimum wage, Manfred’s comments seem especially disingenuous.

MLB deputy Commissioner, Dan Halem, fired back in a letter to Congress:

“It may not be a useful expenditure of public funds to upgrade any facility in a market in which the affiliate consistently loses money, lacks a significant fan base or is located in a place that makes travel for Minor League Players burdensome or player development difficult.”

“The majority of Major League Club owners believe that there are too many players in the Minor League system. Most of the players on the rosters of rookie, short season and low-A teams are there to fill rosters so the Minor League teams can stage games for their fans, not because the Major League Clubs require all of those players to develop Major League talent.”

Halem’s letter suggests that MLB simply wants to reduce the number of minor league players and teams, regardless of any upgrades to facilities or geographical concerns.

The short season rookie leagues targeted for extinction are often stocked with players recently drafted to get their feet wet in professional baseball before graduating to a low A or advanced A league. Younger players drafted tend to start out in the complex based rookie leagues operated by MLB teams.

Here’s how the plan would impact the minor leagues

The following chart shows how MLB’s plan will affect each of the 16 minor leagues in the United States.

Impact of MLB’s proposed changes on minor leagues

League Level No teams Teams cut Key notes
League Level No teams Teams cut Key notes
International AAA 14 0 Would be 20 teams or new AAA league
Pacific AAA 16 0 Would be 10 teams
Eastern AA 12 2 Erie, Binghamton out
Southern AA 10 2 Chattanooga, Jackson out
Texas AA 8 0 No reported changes
Florida State A+ 12 2 Daytona, Kissimmee out
Carolina A+ 10 1 Frederick out, would be 6 teams
California A+ 8 1 Lancaster out
Midwest A 16 3 Clinton, Burlington, Quad cities out
South Atlantic A 14 3 Hagerstown Md, Lexington Ky, Charleston WV out, would be 6 team league
Mid Atlantic A 0 0 New low A league formed
Northwest A-ss 8 2 Would become full season league
NY- Penn A-ss 14 9 5 cities would have other teams
Appalachian Rookie + 10 9 Only Pulaski, TN survives
Pioneer Rookie + 8 8 Rockies league eliminated
Gulf Coast Rookie 18 0 Complex based league
Arizona Rookie 14 0 Complex based league

Of the 42 cities that would lose their MLB-affiliated teams, 14 would be in Single- or Double-A leagues that would remain operating, but restructured. Since each major club would continue to have an affiliated minor league team at each of four levels (Triple-, Double-, High-, and Single-A), those 14 teams would have to be replaced, presumably by teams in some of the rookie league cities that survive the downsizing plan. The other 28 cities on the hit list are in short-season rookie leagues.

Three short season rookie leagues would be eliminated, with only the “complex-based” teams in the Gulf Coast and Arizona Leagues continuing, along with the six remaining teams in the Northwest League, which would become a full-season league.

The Pioneer league, which has some of the only teams in large areas of Montana, Idaho and Utah, and the Appalachian League would lose their affiliation with MLB completely, while the New York-Penn League would lose 9 of 14 teams, with the rest joining some South Atlantic League teams in a new Mid-Atlantic A-ball league.

Newly drafted players would no longer be sent to the short-season leagues that are being eliminated. Instead, they would be sent to complex-based facilities owned and operated by major league teams, such as the Tigers’ facilities in Lakeland, Fla., to learn advanced baseball concepts and techniques.

The cost of minor league baseball

Minor league teams, with few exceptions, are owned and operated independently, while the salaries of players and coaches are paid by MLB affiliates who control the movement of players through their respective farm systems. Minor league teams pay a “ticket tax” to MLB affiliates.

Pressure has been increasing on MLB to pay minor league players a living wage. The vast majority of players earn less than the national minimum wage, and can not have a year-round job while pursuing a baseball career. MLB argues that the elimination of minor league salaries would result in an increase in pay for the remaining minor league players. MLB owners don’t want to incur the increased cost of fair wages. BYB pointed out in this article that paying all minor league players a living wage would cost about $3 million per team.

MLB suggested cities that lose affiliates could form a “Dream League”, but without a major league affiliation or the funds to pay salaries, this is just a pipedream. The estimated cost of paying salaries and benefits would be $300,000 to $400,000 per year, per team. Given how small budgets are around minor league baseball, even for MLB-affiliated teams, this does not seem feasible in an independent league. The reality is that professional baseball would no longer be played in many cities and towns across the United States.

What about the Tigers organization?

Among the teams targeted for extinction are the Detroit Tigers’ Double-A affiliate in Erie, Pa. and their short season rookie league team in Norwalk, Conn. The Erie Seawolves, who drew 215,000 fans in 2019, and the Connecticut Tigers would no longer be major league affiliates.

The Tigers would still need a Aouble-A team, but it is unclear where that new club would be located. Erie is situated on the western edge of the Eastern League, and the other two Double-A leagues are the Southern League, which is losing teams in two cities located in Tennessee, and the Texas League. It seems unlikely that a new Double-A team would be located in Michigan because of the geographic boundaries of the current Double-A leagues.

The other Eastern League team targeted for extinction is the New York Mets’ affiliate in Binghamton, N.Y. The Mets’ rookie league affiliate in Brooklyn would host a Double-A team in the Eastern League.

Baseball America has reported that the Pacific League would shrink from 16 to 10 teams, and the International League would go from 14 to 20 Triple-A affiliates, or a new Triple-A league would emerge. Some teams would simply switch leagues.

Baseball America also reports that there will be some cities currently with A-level teams gaining a Triple-A team, and vise verse. Grand Rapids should be high on any list of cities that could support a Triple-A team, in terms of the facilities, the local population, and proven support for minor league baseball.

A done deal?

Whether MLB’s plan can be altered, or delayed is not yet known. A new PBA between MLB and minor league baseball must be reached before the 2021 season begins. Profit-driven motives may not support the idea of MLB paying salaries for players who have little chance of ever playing Major League Baseball, but there’s more at stake than that.

If MLB is intent on changing the way that players are developed immediately after being drafted, such that short season rookie leagues are no longer needed, then efforts to save the major league affiliations may be futile. The larger motive appears to be offsetting the increased cost of paying a fair living wage to the remaining minor league players.

At a cost of less than $400,000 per club, per year, major league owners are essentially subsidizing the game of baseball in 42 cities, attended by some four million fans per year. Given the amount of money MLB teams make per year, this is not about the quality of minor league facilities, or a sudden desire to pay higher salaries for players. And it’s certainly not about the good of the game. It’s about money.