The fate of pro baseball in America has been up in the air since things were shut down in late March. But while the major leagues were always going to make a push to play some kind of partial season, most expected the minor league season was a wash from the start. Today MLB finally confirmed that impression, cancelling all minor league seasons for 2020.
While the extraordinary difficulties of playing baseball amidst the relentless spread of COVID-19 are the driving factor in the cancellation, the specific issue here is, as you’d expect, money.
While most of Major League Baseball’s revenue comes from sources other than gate receipts and concessions, the situation is reversed in the minor leagues. MLB parent club’s essentially license their players to minor league franchises, who are then tasked with producing and marketing games, making their money on ticket sales, merchandise, and concessions. For most, the margins are tight even in good years. Without the possibility of fans in the seats, there just isn’t any way these franchises can operate.
"It’s north of half (of MiLB teams) who could either have to sell (or go insolvent without government or other help). This is the perfect storm. There are many teams that are not liquid, not solvent," O'Conner said.— JJ Cooper (@jjcoop36) June 30, 2020
Beyond that, MLB teams have already stocked their taxi squads with the best of their prospects. Most top minor league players who’ve competed above the A-ball level, and some who haven’t, like our own Riley Greene, have already been assigned to taxi squads to ensure they get development time against good competition, and as replacements for major league rosters that are already seeing attrition due to cases of COVID-19 and players opting out over health concerns for themselves and their families. There just weren’t going to be many marquee names left to sell tickets in the minor leagues even if a season was possible.
As of now, Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper reports that instructional leagues in Florida and Arizona have not been officially cancelled. There may be an outside chance that younger minor leaguers will be able to practice at spring training facilities at some point this year. Unfortunately, the massive outbreaks of the virus in states like Florida and Arizona make that a tough proposition until case numbers decline substantially and consistently.
There is the possibility that some players decide to play in Independent Leagues to get work in this summer instead. Major League Baseball has given teams permission to decide for themselves whether to allow minor league players to join independent ball teams while their contracts are suspended. Right now it’s unknown how many teams might be willing to explore that option.
Currently, all but two clubs have committed to continuing their $400 weekly stipend to minor leaguers through July, per Baseball America. The Tigers themselves haven’t committed to a timeline, but have continued to pay the stipends thus far and will presumably do so through July at a minimum. The pay in independent leagues is marginal, but if teams pay the stipends and allow their guys to work in independent ball, there may be some who can make it work financially and continue to work on their own development in real game scenarios. But without those stipends, players aren’t going to be able to make ends meet, making it an option that will only be suitable for players with financial support elsewhere.
Two independent leagues, the Frontier League and the Atlantic League have already cancelled their championships this year, but are allowing for individual teams to coordinate games between them. Some of those teams are already in talks about setting up smaller, more localized circuits between them to try and put together some kind of schedule of their own. The American Association is still currently set to play a 60-game schedule with six teams beginning on July 3.
The independent league path allows MLB clubs to avoid liabilities, while giving lower tier minor leaguers some opportunity to work on their skills. However it remains to be seen whether many will decide to do so. An injury suffered in independent play could end up being grounds for termination of contract, and players would potentially find themselves without medical coverage. All in all, it’s doesn’t sound like an option that will appeal to anyone still hoping to have a long-term future in the game, but we’ll see how things unfold.
What is certain, is that for a lot of former college players who have yet to crack their club’s prospect lists, their dreams have come to the end of the road via circumstances beyond their control.
The long term ramifications here are going to be painful and will probably hasten permanent changes in the minor league structure. Major league owners have already been on the offensive in their attempts to eliminate leagues and cut costs even before the pandemic took a bite out of their finances. The elimination of short season leagues like the New York-Penn League was already booked. Now plans for further cuts and the proposed reorganization of teams and leagues may be inevitable, and the financial impact of the lost season on minor league franchises may well be far worse than for their parent clubs.
The Detroit Tigers’ own Double-A affiliate, the Erie SeaWolves, is unfortunately a perfect example. The SeaWolves play at UPMC Park, formerly Jerry Uht Park, in Erie, Pennsylvania. The Erie County Convention Center Authority, which governs the site, is in the midst of a two-year renovation of UPMC Park that will improve and expand seating, and substantially upgrade the field and facilities. Work was halted this spring, but resumed on May 4. The $20 million project was funded with state grants and should make UPMC Park one of the better minor league stadiums in the game. But it remains to be seen when they’ll have baseball back, and which team they’ll be affiliated with when they do.
The SeaWolves were already slated in the fall of 2019 as one of the teams that could be eliminated or transferred to another parent club under minor league reorganization proposals. Without minor league baseball, it’s a safe bet that the elimination of teams and restructuring of leagues is going to kick into high gear. There will probably be some legal challenges and much wrangling before we get a real idea what this is going to look like, but it’s safe to say the minor leagues are going to look a lot different by the time players are back on the field, hopefully in time for a regular 2021 season.
There will be baseball at UPMC Park again at some point, but whether the Erie SeaWolves franchise itself can sustain itself without revenue is unclear. Either way, it seems even more likely that whichever franchise occupies UPMC in the future will be the affiliate of an east coast major league team, rather than the Tigers, by the time minor league baseball returns.