Due to the deadly coronavirus, the 2020 major league baseball season is sure to be reduced, perhaps even canceled, or limited to games played in locations where no fans are allowed to attend. Major league baseball will survive, but the impact on minor league baseball in dozens of smaller towns across America could be devastating.
Major league Baseball (MLB) owners have made a proposal to dramatically reduce the number of minor league affiliates from 160 down to 120 teams, and to cut the amateur player draft from 40 down to 20 rounds when the current Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) expires at the end of the 2020 season. The agreement reached by MLB players and owners to reduce the amateur player draft due to the pandemic may present them with the opportunity to do just that. The players association has shown no indication of standing in their way.
JJ Cooper of Baeball America reports that Minor league baseball (MiLB) may be ready to agree to the reduction, although they have denied the report.
“Recent articles on the negotiations between MiLB and Major League Baseball (MLB) are largely inaccurate. There have been no agreements on contraction or any other issues. MiLB looks forward to continuing the good faith negotiations with MLB on Wednesday as we work toward an agreement that best ensures the future of professional baseball throughout the United States and Canada.”
Maury Brown, writing for Forbes.com, confirms the report despite MiLB’s denial: “Under pressure, minor leagues agree with MLB to shutter 40 teams”
While major league baseball owners and players are discussing their options to get in some sort of a major league season this year, there is not a strong incentive to play ball in the minor leagues in 2020. Sure, it would be great, arguably even necessary for the development of players, but let’s not fool ourselves- this is a business- and it’s about money.
Even if there was an agreement to play some minor league games, the players and owners have already agreed to divvy up what pie there is left to be eaten this season. The terms of the agreement provide that the amateur player draft will be reduced from 40 to as few as five rounds, although MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has the option to increase that number if revenue is coming in.
MLB also can shorten the 2021 draft to as few as 20 rounds. The draft may also be pushed back as late as July 21st, with a signing deadline as late as August 1st, in both the 2020 and 2021 seasons.
MLB’s proposal would cut ties with minor league affiliates in 42 cities across the United States and permanently reduce the draft to 20 rounds. The first step in the restructuring equation is all but done, as the 40 round draft could be a thing of the past. With just five rounds guaranteed in 2020, and 20 rounds in 2021, going back to 40 rounds seems unlikely.
With the draft being cut so drastically, we can forget about short season leagues this summer, and maybe forever. The amateur draft has traditionally supplied the talent pool for short season leagues. With the supply of players being choked off, restructuring of the minor leagues, including elimination of ties between several teams, seems to be inevitable as major league clubs don’t have a desire to continue operating so many teams, or paying the salaries of so many players, as paltry as those salaries may be.
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|
|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|
There are four short season rookie leagues in particular, comprised of 39 teams, that would be almost out of business under MLB’s restructuring plan. 28 of those teams found themselves on MLB’s hit list targeted for elimination- or at least due to have their ties to major league baseball severed, leaving them to sink or swim on their own without an affiliation.
The Appalachian league, New York- Penn league, and the Pioneer league play a summer schedule of 66 to 70 games, with 33 to 38 home games, including playoffs. These leagues are stocked with newly drafted players who are selected in the June amateur player draft. Reducing the number of players in the draft significantly as well as postponing the draft would dry up the supply of talent for these leagues.
A dozen rookie league teams would make their way into other minor leagues, with 14 teams in those other low A, high A, and double-A leagues also cast adrift, including the Erie Seawolves, the Tigers’ double-A affiliate in the Eastern league, and the Connecticut Tigers, their rookie league affiliate in the NY- Penn league. Triple-A leagues would be realigned, but no current AAA teams would be let go. Two independent league teams would become affiliated, reducing the number of affiliated teams from 160 to 120.
The grand scheme to eliminate the major league affiliation in 42 cities has not been finalized, as the Professional Baseball agreement between minor league owners and MLB is in place until the end of the 2020 season. But the die has been cast, and the threat is very real to the minor league towns, many of which have invested millions of dollars and public resources into facilities to house their affiliated teams.
Minor league teams, with the exception of facilities based teams, are independently owned, with player salaries paid by major league affiliates while facilities and coaches are funded by the minor league franchises. While negotiations are ongoing, MiLB clubs are sitting at the table four cards shy of a poker hand as major league baseball holds all the leverage.
Major league owners have come under pressure to pay a living wage to minor league players, no thanks to the MLBPA. They have stated a desire to increase minor league pay, but it comes in the context of eliminating the expense of carrying so many affiliated teams. Minor league salaries range from $ 1,100 per month for rookie leagues to $ 2,150 for players in triple-A who are not on a major league roster. There is no pay for overtime or spring training. MLB has suggested that minor league owners should contribute to player salaries.
It could very well be that MiLB will just try to cut their losses and guarantee as many affiliates as they can for as long as they can. Several minor league teams that are on the chopping block could try to compete with existing A ball cities to land a coveted affiliation with an MLB franchise. MLB owners will be looking for greater control and investment from affiliates that survive the purge.
MLB lobbied congress to grant them an exemption to minimum wage laws. They called it the “Save America’s pastime” act of 2017. Pressure from congress may be one of the only tools that minor league towns have to prevent MLB from casting them adrift.
Whether there will be a minor league season in most full season leagues is dependent on when the safety of players and club officials can be assured in ballparks across the nation. Whether fans will be able to attend minor league games is a further step away, as social distancing guidelines could remain in place even as players are cleared to play.
How the restructured minor leagues will look after negotiations is not yet determined, but the writing is on the wall, and it says that affiliated minor league baseball will not be played in as many American towns as it was before the pandemic wiped out the 2020 season.