Baseball has undergone a technological revolution over the last decade. Spreadsheet-savvy analysts have become major influences in front offices, high-tech devices like Rapsodo and Edgertronic help Pitchers design better pitches while Motus sleeves determine stress on their UCLs, and tools like Diamond Kinetics’ swing tracker help determine bat speed and launch angle. Teams are hiring sport science specialists from a wide variety of backgrounds to help their teams’ players train and recover more effectively. Baseball has come a long way when it comes to developing their players.
Except in the very structure in which they’re developed. At least, according to MLB, which is currently in negotiations with the minor leagues on a new Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA). The PBA has gone relatively unchanged since 1990. The last extensive reorganization of MiLB last took place in 1963. MLB wants to effectively break out the sledge hammers to undertake an extensive renovation of that system.
The current PBA expires at the end of the 2020 minor league season. If the changes MLB has proposed come to fruition, according to a leak first revealed by Baseball America, the minor leagues would become a very different product from what fans in many cities across America enjoy. Seeking to cut costs, streamline instruction, gain some geographic proximity, and eliminate some franchises MLB sees as sub-standard in terms of training facilities, about one-quarter of present-day MiLB teams would be eliminated by the start of the 2021 season. In addition, MLB wants to gain some measure of developmental stability by increasing the Player Development Contracts between major and minor league teams from two to five years. With the contraction of over three dozen minor league teams, most MLB farm systems would drop from housing about 160 players to around 120 each. The draft would be pushed back from its early June date until later in the month when the college season is finished, and would be limited from 30+ rounds to 20. In order to accommodate those players who would normally be Day 3 guys, MLB has proposed a joint, semi-independent venture called the Dream League, which presumably would be housed in those short season stadiums shut out by the new agreement.
While it’s best to keep in mind that this is a proposal, and that the negotiations are at about the half way point, if all or a majority of changes go through, this would be a significant and profound change to minor league baseball.
What would the impact be on the Blue Jays farm system? That’s hard to say, and staff both in the front office in Toronto and around the system were reluctant to comment, citing the ongoing nature of the negotiations. With the full season clubs, there would be little impact. Buffalo and Lansing, at the top and bottom of the full season hierarchy, respectively, are excellent fits, both for their locations and training facilities for players, staff, and roving instructors. Dunedin, of course, is owned by the Blue Jays, and remains an important development and rehab base. Both sides are reportedly happy with the New Hampshire relationship, but part of the rumours leaking out over the weekend had the Northwest League moving up to full season – possibly AA – status as part of the necessary shuffling of teams, classifications, and leagues that would occur as a result of this proposal. Nat Bailey Stadium is not without its charms, but it’s dated, and the Canadians’ training facilities under the old grandstand are a bit of a labyrinth. And then there’s the April/May Vancouver weather, which is not always baseball-friendly. Just the same, Vancouver has been an important part of growing the Blue Jays brand across the country, and the C’s likely figure prominently in the big club’s future plans, especially with their PDC not expiring until 2022. Could Vancouver replace New Hampshire as the Blue Jays AA affiliate? Time will tell.
Under the proposal, MLB teams would be limited to five US-based minor league teams – four full season plus one complex club. If this planned contraction goes ahead, the New York/Penn, Pioneer, and Appalachian Leagues would seem to be firmly on the way out. Many of the parks and training facilities in these leagues are below MLB standard, although there are a few (such as the Yankees’ Brooklyn affiliate) that stand out. Toronto’s Appy affiliate Bluefield probably fits into the former category, although the team has a unique arrangement with a local college to house the players, and prospects who have played there give Bluefield positive reviews. Under the terms of this proposal, the complex level teams in the GCL and DSL would remain intact.
Perhaps aware of the negotiations taking place behind closed doors, 538’s Travis Sawchik mused last month about whether or not we even need minor league baseball. As Sawchik pointed out, the Astros married the latest in technology and PD to shed two affiliates at the outset of the 2018 season:
The Astros felt comfortable cutting the teams in part because of data harvested from new tech. Since turning over the vast majority of their player development staff and minor league coaches under GM Jeffrey Luhnow, the Astros feel they have become better at identifying which players have a chance to rise through their system. For example, while a number of teams were experimenting with their first high-speed cameras this spring to study pitch grips and body mechanics, the Astros had 75 such cameras hard-mounted at stadiums throughout their minor league affiliates last season. According to the ex-Astros official, the team believes it needs less time and fewer games to understand potential, and it is better served by consolidating resources around their most promising players.
It’s no big secret that the org guy, beloved by those who follow MiLB, has a miniscule chance of making the majors, and MLB is perhaps tiring of supporting a bunch of players who have a less than one percent chance of seeing the show.
Sawchik suggested that MLB might go the European soccer route of centralizing player develpment one day, having training, rehab, and player development essentially under one roof. This would have significant benefits, according to one MLB exec:
1. More player focused – concentrating resources around a smaller number of players should, in theory, lead to better teaching and learning
2. More nimble – a lot of the challenge of a modern PD structure is the size of it and creating change is sort of like turning the Titanic…it’s hard to do it quickly with so many people, stakeholders, etc..
Still, there would be a place for the minor leagues in this scenario, according to the exec. Teams could develop players in their training complex, then send them out to minor league teams to implement newly learned skills. When it came time to say, add a change up to a Pitcher’s arsenal, it would be back to the complex. But the need to practice that skill in real time in real scenarios, according to Seattle OF Mitch Haniger, will always be there:
“You can’t really simulate facing a pitcher in front of thousands of people,” Haniger says, “and failing in front of a whole bunch of people.”
The MLB exec we spoke to sees a day when maybe there is a hybrid format of the minors: teams would have a core of top prospects who they focus their player development efforts on, but they would also field complex level-type teams to try to catch the players who fell through the scouting cracks:
I don’t ever see the elimination of the minor leagues but I think undoubtedly there are ways to make it more effective and efficient. If you are looking for a counter argument its probably something about access to talent. For example if a team adds a 2nd GCL or 2nd DSL team and there are 25-30 players on that team then even with lousy player development practices there is a CHANCE every other a year a player emerges from that group simply because opportunity was provided and if so there could easily be an easy return on the investment of adding that team. I could almost see this type of thing happening where a team sets up it’s PD structure to focus on a smaller group of players it feels it already knows about but then adds secondary short-season teams as sort of professional scout teams where there is less energy focused on optimal PD practices but rather simply to identify diamonds in rough, after which those diamonds get moved into the other group.
With the leaking of this news that MLB is pushing for a considerable downsizing of MiLB, a cynic might suggest that the doubling of minor league salaries by the Blue Jays last spring was not as magnanimous as it first seemed. Perhaps they were just ahead of the curve. There’s no question that MLB could afford to pay their prospects more, but given how few actually make it, it looks like they prefer to divert those funds to the development of those with the have the highest chance.
Still, if this proposal proceeds, not only would 40+ cities find itself with no baseball or a vastly diminished form of it, but more so-called “marginal” prospects would have little or no room for further development. Certainly, as the exec above indicated, some of that talent would find its way to the top, but those cases would be fewer and farther between. Certainly, a 32nd round pick like Kevin Pillar would not even get an initial sniff of pro ball. Robinson Chirinos probably doesn’t get to a World Series under this new development scheme. There are slam-dunk players before they even play a minor league game who you can easily project as one-day First Division MLBers, but MLB rosters are sprinkled with guys who needed a position or role change, or a few extra seasons of development to become contributing big leaguers.
Negotiations between MLB and MiLB have been paused for October with the MLB playoffs taking place, but are expected to resume when the World Series ends. That may make things interesting at the Winter Meetings in December. One thing seems to be certain: the minor leagues, as we know them, are in for some significant changes.