Ever since the American league declared itself as a major league in 1901 in competition with the National league, minor leagues have operated independently of, but in cooperation with major league baseball (MLB) to regulate the development and assignment of player contracts and provide mostly uniform playing rules for America’s pastime. All that changed with the expiration of the most recent professional baseball agreement (PBA) on September 30, 2020.
Baseball’s “modern era”, as it is commonly known, began in 1901, with the American and National leagues each having essentially the same eight franchises in each league for a period of sixty years. Although there was some movement of those franchises and team names changed on occasion, there were eight teams in each league and a World Series played between the winners of the two leagues after every season since 1903.
At the same time, a group of minor league owners met in Chicago after the 1901 season to form what has since been known as “The National Association” or as it is now called “Minor league baseball” (MiLB). For the past 120 years, even as the number of major league teams has grown from 16 to 30, the minor leagues have developed players who aspire to make it to the major leagues. There have been a series of formal agreements (PBA’s) between MLB and MiLB, which has been the exclusive representative of some 160 minor league teams in towns all across the United States.
The end of the most recent PBA is very much by design as far as Rob Manfred, commissioner of Major league baseball is concerned. There have been proposals exchanged, with MLB proposing a full takeover of MiLB, elimination of MiLB offices in St Petersburg, Florida, and MLB control over the minor leagues from its’ headquarters in New York. MLB also proposed, among other things, cutting the number of affiliated teams from 160 to 120, mostly by eliminating “short season” rookie leagues, but also by disaffiliating over a dozen minor league teams at the single-A and double-A levels.
MLB holds all the leverage in any negotiation, since they control the supply of players. The arrangement has been that MLB drafts and pays the salaries of players and coaches, while MiLB maintains facilities, stages and schedules the games, and controls ticket sales and concessions.In addition to the PBA, each MLB club has player development agreements with a number of minor league affiliates to supply players. These agreements vary in duration, and most terms are covered by the greater PBA.
The two sides worked hand in hand as recently as 2017 when they joined forces to lobby congress to pass the “Save America’s Pastime Act” as part of the big tax bill, carving out a specific exception to national minimum wage laws for minor league players. Now, MiLB owners must be asking themselves “Et tu, Brutus”, unsure of exactly what has been saved.
MLB has agreed with the Major league players’ association, who have no skin in this game, to cut the amateur draft from 40 rounds to five in 2020 and 25 in 2021, thereby cutting the supply of players who would stock the rookie and short season leagues.
MLB is pushing the date of the amateur draft back from June to August, meaning that drafted players will not be available when short season and rookie leagues have begun play.
As the 2020 season unraveled, minor league teams saw all games canceled due to the Covid- 19 pandemic while MLB replaced the minor leagues with camps that supplied players to MLB clubs throughout the shortened season.
Now that the PBA has expired, MLB is not compelled to negotiate with MiLB at all, instead being free to dictate terms to any team, or any league that wants to be part of the MLB affiliated future. MiLB teams could only watch as MLB executes its’ plan to carry on without them.
MLB has already announced that the Appalachian league, a rookie league comprised entirely of ten teams owned by MLB clubs, will convert to a wood bat format for college sophomores and freshmen for the 2021 season. That’s 10 teams down, 32 to go.
Also on the chopping block are nine of 14 teams in the short season NY- Penn league, including the newly renamed Norwich Sea Unicorns, formerly the Connecticut Tigers. Five other teams from that league were at least initially slated by MLB to be moved to a single-A league.
Also on the hit list in MLB’s initial proposal were two teams each in the double-A level Eastern and Southern leagues, including the Detroit Tigers’ affiliate, the Erie Seawolves, and a number of single-A level teams in the Midwest, California, South Atlantic, and Carolina leagues. The Pioneer rookie league, which has eight teams in the rocky mountains is also slated to be cut loose.
The rationale provided by MLB for the restructuring is multi-faceted:
- MLB can provide more efficient marketing for the minor leagues at a lower cost to their teams
- MLB wants to pay minor league players higher salaries, and having fewer players on the payroll would help that cause
- Most players in the lower levels have no realistic chance of ever becoming major league players
- MLB wants to improve the quality of facilities in many minor league ballparks
- Geographical realignment will reduce travel time and costs between minor league teams as well as their major league affiliates
MiLB’s counter proposal indicated that they are on board with the above objectives, essentially giving in to the demand to cut the number of affiliates by converting more leagues to a short season format, but keeping their headquarters and control over minor league structures. MLB would have none of that.
The one objective that MiLB could not swallow was most important to Manfred and MLB- control. As proposals were exchanged, there was never a realistic chance of agreement, given MLB’s obsession with a takeover of control of the minor leagues.
It would be much tidier for MLB if they could strike deals with existing leagues, making a few structural changes as needed for geographic reasons, rather than cutting 120 separate deals with individual clubs. The transition will be easier for triple-A level International and Pacific leagues where MLB would keep all the teams as affiliates, while making common sense geographical restructuring.
The Eastern league figures to be able to save most of their teams, with the possible exception of Erie and the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, who will be replaced by Brooklyn from the NY- Penn league as the New York Mets’ double-A affiliate.
Many MiLB owners are said to be open to MLB control, as long as they keep their MLB affiliations and maintain the value of their franchises. MLB can pit these teams against each other and dictate terms for a new affiliation agreement. MLB will take over operation of league offices from MiLB, and control marketing of the leagues, while control over local marketing, ticket sales, and concessions would remain with the local teams.
MLB clubs still have player development agreements with many minor league owners, but if terms can not be agreed, clubs could move on to other locations. To add leverage, MLB has reached working agreements with the three largest Independent leagues- the American Association, the Atlantic League, and Frontier league. Exactly what the partnership will entail is unclear, but MiLB owners must be keenly aware of the new potential dance partners in the room.
MLB has not released an updated list of the 120 minor league teams that will be MLB affiliates, and they surely have not made final agreements with all of the teams. Ballpark Digest published some details of a potential restructuring in this article:
California League (8 teams)
Florida State League (10 teams)
South Atlantic League (12 teams)
Midwest League (reduced from 14 teams)
Northwest League (converted from short season)
Carolina League (reduced from 10 teams)
New Mid-Atlantic League
The new structure will have four levels of 30 teams, with each MLB team having one affiliate at each level. There will be some restructuring at the AAA level leaving fewer teams in the Pacific league and more in the International League, and there will be movement at all levels as part of the shuffle.
MLB’s initial proposal suggested that MiLB teams could pay for part of the increased player salaries and still pay an 8 percent ticket tax to their MLB rulers, and that teams pay a fee to move up to higher levels of competition.
Minor league franchise owners presently have no schedules, no players, and many have no affiliation agreements. It’s easy to sympathize with their plight, but their interests do not necessarily align with the interests of players, or of municipalities that have poured millions of taxpayer dollars into facilities. Nor do they necessarily align with the best interests of baseball as our national pastime. Minor league players, small towns, and fans have no seat at this table.