MLB’s Plan to Overhaul MiLB Appears to be Full Steam Ahead

“I cannot believe the arrogance of these people,” he said. “They don’t care about lawsuits or anything. They think they’re bullet proof. They’ve told us, ‘We’re doing this and there’s no discussion about it, and if you don’t like it, we’ll form our own minor leagues.’”   New York Daily News

A drastic series of changes to the structure of Minor League Baseball proposed by their MLB Overlords appears to be close to reality.

For the first time since 1963, another contraction of the minors will take place after the 2020 season.  A whole level (short season) of play will be eliminated as part of these changes, along with modifications to the MLB draft.

This weekend, more details of the negotiations between MLB and MiLB over the Professional Baseball Agreement, which governs the relationship between the two, were leaked.  The negotiations seemed to be a very one-sided affair, with sources saying the charge to lead these changes were led by the Houston Astros.

Among the changes:

  1.  A reduction in the number of minor league teams, mostly in the Northwest, NY-Penn, Appalachian, and Pioneer Leagues.  Over a quarter of current MiLB franchises will be eliminated.  The Blue Jays’ Appy League team, the Bluefield Blue Jays, will be part of that cull.
  2. Moving the draft from June to August, and limiting it to 20 rounds.  Similar to international free agents, draftees will head to teams minor league complexes for training and evaluation before starting their pro careers the following season.
  3. Limiting the number of prospects in a minor league system to 150 players from the current 200 (or more) most teams employ.
  4. Creating a “Dream League”, a wooden bat loop for players not selected in the draft, presumably to be housed in the cities of the eliminated franchises.

 

For their part, MLB says this series of moves will streamline player development, and make sure their prospects play in state-of-the-art facilities.  Travel time will be cut down, they claim, by grouping teams in more proximate geographic locations.  By gathering all of their recent signees under one roof, they can be sure that there is consistency of instruction.  An MLB exec pointed out two issues that would be addressed as a result of MiLB contraction:

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..

 

MiLB Executives, as you might expect, are quite upset with these changes.  It takes baseball out of a number of state-funded stadiums,  cuts down on the number of highly sought after jobs in baseball for both players and off-field personnel, and removes live baseball from fans who live far from an MLB city, and/or can’t afford to watch the big league product in person.

Then there’s the fact that  an era (about 2000 combined years’ worth) of minor league history that will wind up in the dustbin.  Bluefield, which represents twin cities of the same name along the Virginia/West Virginia border, has been in affiliated baseball for over 80 years.

As for the players, a domino effect in jobs will likely take place.  The 3rd Day of the MLB draft, when MLB teams admittedly are taking players mainly for the purpose of filling out their lower level rosters, will be gone, and with it, opportunities to play pro ball for players like Kevin Pillar.  Similarly, there would be no room for John Smoltz, Roy Oswalt, Mark Grace, among others – players taken after the 20th round.  The Dream League, if it comes to fruition, will likely represent even more of a financial crunch than minor league ball, so many college players will opt to stay in school for an extra year because of the financial security a scholarship of some form offers.  That would translate to less opportunities for high school players opting to go the college route.

 

On the surface, it appears that these moves are little more than an attempt to slash costs by MLB operators.  Lawsuits on behalf of MiLB owners appear quite likely, and baseball risks losing its precious anti-trust exemption, which has been a useful tool in keeping minor league players’ salaries down.

Negotiations will continue this week.  Throughout the Blue Jays organization, team officials are very tight-lipped on the matter, refusing to even speak off the record about the proposed changes.  All of the other teams in the system appear to be safe from contraction at this point, with Vancouver and the remaining NWL teams moving up to full season play.

Details about how the Dream League would operate have been sketchy to his point.  MLB might provide some administrative support and umpires, but the largest cost – salaries for players and coaches, currently paid by MLB – would become the responsibility of the franchises.  It’s hard to see this being a successful venture without the financial support of MLB, especially those cities (Erie, PA being one of them) that are geographically outside of the affected short season leagues.

Perhaps this is about focusing resources on those players who have the greatest chance of becoming Major Leaguers.  Or maybe it’s cost-control on steroids, and part of the corporatization of a sport that seems to be increasingly run by guys who would be just as comfortable working for a hedge fund as they would an MLB team.  Here in Canada, we have seen the local twice-weekly newspaper become all but extinct in a media environment dominated by a few major players, who obviously don’t see how grassroots news coverage helps their bottom line. There would appear to be a number of similarities between the small town paper and minor league baseball.  That the Astros, an organization whose on-field success has become largely overshadowed by their off-field stumbles, is leading the way in this development certainly adds to the frustration fans of minor league baseball must be feeling.

For people living in the 42 cities on the chopping block, it must be tough to love baseball when it doesn’t seem to want to love you back.

 

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