Lansing’s roster often is one of the more interesting ones to wait for every spring.
For the other three full-season affiliates, it’s fairly easy to project their rosters. There may be the odd surprise, but you can generally count on players moving up to the next level if they were successful the season before.
The decisions for Lansing’s roster are more difficult, because team officials have three short season levels below Low A to consider when putting the Lugnuts’ 25-man together.
Lansing’s roster this year contains a few surprises, as much for who’s not on the roster as much as who is. After a half season of Vlad and Bo, and with Nate Pearson, Logan Warmoth, Riley Adams, and a good chunk of Vancouver’s bullpen starting the year in Dunedin, Lugs’ fans will not have as much star power to watch this year.
Yennsy Diaz had a swinging strike rate of 13.5% as a 20-year-old when he was called up halfway through the season, and will get the ball on Opening Day. Maximo Castillo fanned better than a batter per inning at Bluefield last year, and skips Vancouver to begin the year in the Midwest League, where at 18 he’ll be one of its youngest players.
Maverik Buffo’s draft stock fell last year due to a torn UCL, but through rehab he became healthy enough to dominate the GCL, and jumps a pair of levels to start the season. Zach Logue and Justin Dillon piggybacked effectively at Vancouver last year.
In the pen, both Ty Tice and Orlando Pascual have closing experience. Tice Saved 12 games in as many opportunities at Bluefield, striking out 35 in 25 innings, while Pascual recorded a half-dozen saves for Vancouver, fanning 45 in 35 IP.
As for position players, the Lugs will be led by toolsy OF Chavez Young, 1B/OF Ryan Noda, and 1B Kacy Clemens. Young is one of the more athletic players in the system, while Noda laid waste to Appy League Pitching en route to an MVP award. Clemens, son of the Hall-of-Famer, wore down in his first pro season last year, and will be looking to make amends at Lansing.
Cesar Martin returns for his second season as Lansing’s Manager, joined by Position Coach Dave Pano (up from Vancouver), returning Pitching Coach Antonio Caceres, and Hitting Coach Matt Young. New to the organization, Young played with the Braves and Tigers, and operated a baseball academy in Texas prior to joining the Blue Jays.
The Dunedin Blue Jays will be rich in starting Pitching this year.
The defending High A Florida State League co-champs will feature a pair of first-round picks in their rotation in T.J. Zeuch (2016), and Nate Pearson (2017).
With Patrick Murphy, Josh DeGraaf, and Tayler Saucedo joining Zeuch and Pearson in the rotation, Dunedin’s greatest strength will come from that starting core. Pearson skipped Low A after a lights-out short season stint with Vancouver last year. Some eyebrows were raised that Zeuch has returned to Dunedin after a strong Arizona Fall League peformance. His return probably speaks more to the concerns the club may have over his injury-plagued 2017, as well as the depth at New Hampshire. If Zeuch gets off to a good start, he should be in the Northeast by the time the weather warms up.
Joining Pearson from the 2017 Northwest League champs are SS Logan Warmoth, Pearson’s first round mate from last year, as well as C Riley Adams. Warmoth’s leap was no surprise, but Adams’ is somewhat. A fine athlete who was Vancouver’s MVP last year, Adams has some work to do with his receiving.
Justin Dillon, Travis Bergen and William Ouellette from Vancouver’s lights out bullpen last year have made the leap over Low A as well. Juliandry Higuera is an interesting arm. The southpaw started out in the organization as a starter, but was moved to the bullpen at Lansing last year, and fanned better than a batter per inning.
Bradley Jones returns from an injury-shortened 2017 to Dunedin. He started the year at Lansing, but moved up to Dunedin in June. Jones led the Appy League in Homers, RBI, Total Bases, and Slugging two years ago as a First Baseman, and added 2B and 3B to his portfolio last year.
Josh Palacios, one of the best athletes in the organization, moves up from to Lansing to play the OF. 2012 1st round pick DJ Davis returns to High for a 3rd season. His .283/.357/.369 second half may be a sign that he’s coming close to finally fulfilling his tremendous promise.
P Justin Maese underwent surgery for a shoulder impingement last month, and is likely out for the season. His presence would have given Dunedin a truly dominant rotation.
MLB and long time MiLB vet Casey Candaele joins the organization to manage Dunedin. Donnie Murphy takes over as Hitting Coach, while Mark Riggins returns as Pitching Coach. Michel Abreu returns as Pitching Coach.
Much of the Florida State League co-champion Dunedin Blue Jays roster moves up to New Hampshire, giving fans potentially one of their most competitive clubs in several seasons.
The inclusion of Lourdes Gurriel Jr on the roster was something of a surprise, as he seemed ticketed for AAA after spending half a season with New Hampshire last year. His play this spring had been described as lackluster, but whatever the case is, Gurriel still needs plenty of reps, after missing a good chunk of last year and all of the two season prior to that.
New Hampshire should have decent starting pitching, led by (in no particular order) Jordan Romano, Nick Tepesch, Sean Reid-Foley, Francisco Rios, and Jon Harris. The latter three are repeating AA, and there were hopes that SRF might reach AAA, but a disappointing spring has him headed back to New Hampshire. There likely was no room for him in Buffalo’s rotation anyway, and after reaching AA at 21 last year, there’s still room for development. Andrew Case, Dusty Isaacs, and Danny Young should form the core of an effective back-end of the bullpen, along with Zach Jackson, who was promoted from Dunedin. Veteran reliever Craig Breslow signed a minor league deal with the Jays and had an opt out on March 22nd, but decided to stick with the organization.
Max Pentecost slipped through the Rule 5 draft last fall after being shut down late in the Arizona Fall League. Veteran MiLB Patrick Cantwell joined the organization late last year, and appears to be splitting the Catching duties with Pentecost. To be honest, it’s surprising there isn’t a 3rd Catcher on the roster, as Pentecost’s duties behind the plate have been limited.
The infield appears to be Guerrero at 3rd, Bichette at SS, Gurriel at 2nd (spelling Bichette on occasion), and Juan Kelly at 1st. Cavan Biggio has played 2nd since being drafted two years ago, but was working out at 1st this spring. Gunnar Heidt can play several infield positions.
The New Hampshire OF has returning CF Jonathan Davis, who had strong Arizona Fall League and Spring Training campaigns, anchoring it. He’ll be joined by returnees Harold Ramirez, who did not hit as well has had been hoped last year, and the multi-talented Andrew Guillotte. Connor Panas, along with Romano, represents the Canadian content on the roster. Panas has mostly played 1st or DH’d since joining the Blue Jays in 2015, but he can play the corner OF spots.
Ladner, BC native Tom Robson starts the year on New Hampshire’s Disabled List. Robson, who was converted to full-time relief last year after returning from Tommy John surgery in 2016, appears to be headed for surgery again. Another Canadian, Lefty Shane Dawson, was a member of the Fisher Cats’ rotation the past two years, but was released this past week.
John Schneider moves up from Dunedin to helm the Fisher Cats. Schneider played for 7 years in the system after being drafted by the Blue Jays in 2002, and is entering his 10th season as a Manager. Huner Mense joins him as Hitting Coach. Mense played in the Padres system for five seasons before returning to school and receiving his Masters in Sports Psychology. He served as the hitting coach for the Padres Northwest League affiliate before joining the Blue Jays this off-season. Nova Scotian Vince Horsman returns as Pitching Coach. Horsman originally signed with the Jays in 1984, and has been a coach in the organization since 2009. Andy Fermin, who turned to coaching last year after 7 years as a player in the system, returns as Position Coach.
With the Blue Jays, who experts suggest have a shot for a wild card spot, having lost the first two games of the season against the Yankees, who many think have a shot at a World Series appearance, many fans are predictably suggesting President/CEO Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins tear everything and begin an immediate rebuild with only 160 games left in the season.
And part of that rebuild, for many fans, appears to be built around OF Teoscar Hernandez, the toolsy Dominican acquired from the Astros last summer.
They point to the 8 Home Runs Hernandez hit after a September call-up last year, as well as a .358/.386/.698 line he posted this spring. Never mind the 36 strikeouts in 94 PAs during that stretch, as part of a 37.5% K rate between the Blue Jays and Astros last year.
Hernandez’ line this year was mostly posted against lower level pitching, when you look at the Quality of Opponents as measured by Baseball Ref:
Hernandez’ 6.6 OppQual puts much of the Pitching he faced between High A and AA. The majority of his ABs did not come against MLB opposition. When we view Spring Training stats of young hitters, it’s wise to keep this qualifying lens in mind. Facing Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka, it’s hard to see Hernandez making a lot of quality contact these past two games.
I readily admit that I haven’t seen a lot of Hernandez. My focus after the trade deadline was Pitcher Thomas Pannone, acquired from Cleveland. Hernandez did not exactly set the International League on fire after joining the Blue Jays, hitting .222/.294/.505 in August for Buffalo before Toronto decided to promote him to see what they had when rosters expanded on September 1st. The tools are no doubt there, but whether or not the pitch recognition skills are there to allow him to make consistent contact don’t appear to be yet.
Don’t get me wrong: I like Hernandez’ toolkit a lot. He uses the whole field, has legit pop, and projects as a plus defensive player. He’s also in danger of becoming a AAAA player – a guy who can hit minor league Pitching, but can’t quite find consistency of at the MLB level. Truth be told, a healthy Anthony Alford had a much better chance of breaking camp with the Jays, but Atkins was already suggesting by mid-March that he neeed a bit more seasoning. And Dalton Pompey fits in there somewhere, but he’s been so injury-prone that it’s tough to figure out just where.
Is it time for Teoscar? Not just yet, and the Blue Jays are unlikely to push the panic button just yet.
At the risk of giving a hint as to my age, I admit that my first baseball hero was Rusty Staub, who passed away in the early hours of Opening Day.
Montreal Expos RF Rusty was the first baseball hero for many Canadians. I learned many baseball lessons through him.
After losing only 5 of their first 9 games in May of that first 1969 season, the Expos went 0-for-the-rest-of-the-month. The losing continued on until the first week of June, stretching to 20 games in total. Every day, I would anxiously check the linescores (they didn’t even print box scores then) in the Toronto Star to see if they had won. I was disappointed on 20 straight occasions, setting me up for learning to deal with a youth of sporting disappointment (I was a Toronto Maple Leafs and Argonauts fan as well).
Rusty was the beginning, middle, and end of the Expos offence. In his first three seasons with the team, he didn’t play less than 158 games, walked more than he struck out, and posted OPS+ marks of 166, 139, and 148. He was the Expos All-Star rep every season.
Seemingly at the height of his career, the Expos did the inconceivable, and dealt Rusty to the Mets for three prospects. I was crushed, but the experience was my Introduction to Baseball Business 101: teams don’t intentionally try to break your heart (they can do that unintentionally easily enough), and when they can exchange what they view as a declining asset (the rumour was that Rusty’s hands were going) for three promising pieces of a future puzzle, they tend to do it. That trio of futures (Tim Foli, Ken Singleton, and Mike Jorgensen) would have the Expos in a pennant race two years later, hanging in until the final weekend. That pennant, of course, was won by Rusty and the Mets.
Staub was highly marketable, and not just for his bat. His trademark orange hair stood out on a ball field, earning him the nickname “Le Grand Orange des Expos.” He was the star of the CBC’s Wednesday night Expos telecasts, the only televised baseball fans could watch aside from NBC’s Saturday Game of the Week. My mom, who had hair of a similar hue to Rusty’s herself, bought me an Expos colouring book, and I gave the Rusty picture the flaming orangest crop of hair you could imagine.
When the Expos reacquired Rusty during their first “real” pennant race in 1979, it was like coming back to your hometown after a lengthy absence and discovering that your favourite diner had re-opened. And his return was something of a passing of the torch to my next favourite player, a speedy young September call up by the name of Tim Raines.
I came to love baseball because of Rusty. I learned to live with losing, and how to deal with the crush of having your favourite player traded.
So said disgraced Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, who woke up a slumbering nation with his fist-raised-at-the-finish-line performance one fall day in 1988, taking gold at the Seoul Olympics in the 100m, vanquishing reigning champion Carl Lewis and setting a world record in the process.
Three days later, Johnson was stripped of his medal because of a positive PED test; to a nation, it felt like a collective kick in the gut. Never mind that six of the eight athletes who lined up with Johnson at the start of that race had positive tests and/or strong links to PEDs themselves over time. It was a national disgrace, and in the years that have followed, Canadians have had strong reactions to the whole notion of drugs in sport.
The Dominican players likely lack the wherewithal to release a statement similar to Pannone’s, but their sentiments would probably be the same.
Chemist/writer Stephanie Stringer, writing in Fangraphs, suggests that these athletes may be guilty of a lack of judgement, brought on by an impulsive desire to see results quickly:
The marketing of dietary supplements is highly dependent upon the timeframe in which a consumer expects to see results. Humans are impatient creatures, and we like to see results fast. When a product markets itself based upon its long-term health benefits, the consumer places a certain amount of uncritical trust into the manufacturer’s claims. There may be clinical research supporting the science behind the products, but long term studies take years to demonstrate long-term health benefits, such as improving heart health or cognitive function………………….There is often inconclusive evidence linking these biomarkers to actual improvements in performance, which is why many sports nutrition studies are based on evaluating any changes in activity or behavior in a subject. This can be subjective, but there are some tangible, quantifiable measures. Fatigue or endurance may be quantified by looking at the distance a subject can travel in the same time period, for example. This benefit may manifest itself as a few more minutes on the treadmill, extra weight on the dumbbell, or an extra repetition in a weight lifting set, all of which are much easier for the consumer to gauge than a general health claim. Thus, for an athlete who might benefit from any slight performance enhancement product as soon as this week’s series of games, dietary supplements are an easy sell.
MLB players receive considerable support when it comes to proper nutrition, including the use of supplements – it’s written right into the MLB Labour Agreement. Minor Leaguers are not covered by that agreement, and while teams would argue that they do their best to educate their prospects (they’re encouraged to speak to their team’s trainer if they’re not sure about what they’re considering taking), but it’s obvious from the number of suspensions handed out – 16 already this year, 87 last year – that the education the players are receiving is substandard. Another possibility is that many minor leaguers can’t afford supplements that are on the NSF “Certified for Sport” list, and that’s where they’re rolling the dice:
Despite all of the claims supplements may make regarding improving one’s health and well being, there is very little regulatory oversight regarding the safety or efficacy of supplements. The Food and Drug Administration does not regulate supplements for efficacy, purity, contaminants, or safety. While drugs fall within the purview of the FDA, dietary supplements are not subject to the same regulations. They are regulated under the 1994 Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act, which the dietary supplement industry had a hand in creating. The act specifically forbids the FDA from requiring that dietary supplements must be effective, or even safe. Thus, the products that you find on the shelves of your local drugstore or mass market retailer may not have been tested for contaminants or adulterants.
While it’s not acceptable to use PEDs, it’s understandable why most athletes would seek to gain an advantage by using supplements. Jim Bouton wrote almost 40 years ago in his epic Ball Four, “If there was a pill that could guarantee you win 20 games, but it would take five years off your life, players would take it.” Viewed as undersized, it’s easy to understand why Pannone wanted a few extra minutes on the treadmill, or several more reps in the weight room. For Dominican players fighting to play stateside, trying to escape a life of poverty, it’s even easier to understand: if someone was taking a supplement and the results were obvious, many players would be tempted to try it just to keep pace.
This is not to exonerate Pannone and the Dominican players suspended for PEDs. They still have the responsibility for everything they put into their bodies. It is a request that the Blue Jays take a closer look at the level of education their minor leaguers receive in this area. No doubt they have taken the right steps – I hope to learn more from Gil Kim next month. But this is a systemic issue that all clubs need to take a closer look at.
Roemon Fields’ signing by Blue Jays scout Matt Bishoff at an amateur tournament in British Columbia after going undrafted is one of the great feel-good stories in the organization. And after a solid second half at AAA Buffalo last year and a sizzling spring training this year, he has to be in the conversation for a spot on the Blue Jays 25-man roster at some point this year.
Fields was the classic speedster who couldn’t steal 1st for his first three years in the organization. He did set a Northwest League record for stolen bases with Vancouver, but he had difficulty getting on base at a consistent clip to take advantage of his speed. Fields bottomed out at AA New Hampshire in 2016, slashing .227/.295/.296, with a 17.6% K rate.
Fields repeated AA last year, but injuries at Buffalo earned him an early promotion. And under the tutelage of hitting coach Devon White, he began to turn things around. Last June, after posting a 1.020 OPS in May, he told Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi:
“I’ve been working on a consistent swing and (hitting coach) Devon White has been telling me to hit my strong points and I’ve been sticking to it,” says Fields. “I’m starting to be my old self and not be too mechanical – see the ball, hit the ball. I’m more of a middle-away guy, hit that six-hole, left field, up the middle, not really a big pull guy. So I’m trying to stay to my strong points.”
Buffalo Manager Bobby Meacham observed that Fields got back to a Blue Jays system fundamental – hunting the fastball:
“That’s everybody’s kryptonite, so to speak, they can’t hit the breaking ball but they start looking for it, then they forget what they can hit and it’s the fastball,” says Meacham. “What I’ve seen this season with Ro is right away he’s hitting the fastball well and staying on the fastball. Even with him in the midst of him swinging good, I said, ‘Listen, you’ve got to remember this, stay on the fastball and you’ll be OK, you’ve got to discipline yourself to it.’”
A fixture at the bottom of Buffalo’s lineup, where he served as a second leadoff hitter, Fields did not stop hitting as the summer progressed, even though he began to see a heavier diet of off speed pitches. What he began to do was to use the whole field effectively:
While at Buffalo, Fields produced a career-high 21.8% Line Drive rate. While he’ll always be more of a ground ball hitter, Fields’ approach clearly paid off, as he put more balls in play that at any other point in his career. And he hasn’t stopped hitting this spring, posting a line of .357/.413/.595 in 44 ABs. Granted, spring training stats can be misleading, because they’re very much about at what point in the game they’ve mostly been compiled, but Fields has a respectable 6.2 Opponent Quality index, meaning that he’s faced some lower level Pitchers, but he’s also faced some AAA/MLB guys as well.
Fields has been lost in the shuffle this spring. Curtis Granderson, Steve Pearce, Kevin Pillar, and Randall Grichuk will head north for Opening Day, while Anthony Alford or Teoscar Hernandez may be the first call ups from Buffalo. And even the Bisons’ outfield will be crowded, if you throw in a healthy Dalton Pompey, Dwight Smith Jr, and Fields on top of Hernandez and Alford – some even suggest Fields will start in AA. Fields’ value lies more in the fact that his skills seem suited to a reserve role. An outstanding defensive player, Fields can play all three OF spots. He can also come off the bench late in the game in pinch-running situations. A return to Buffalo will give him a chance to work with new Hitting Coach Corey Hart, who is a rising star in the organization.
Blue Jays radio voice Mike Wilner mentioned on the broadcast today that he and another Sportsnet member had lunch with the late Mel Didier, a legendary scout with decades of experience two springs ago. When asked which Blue Jays off-the-radar prospect Didier thought might break through, he replied with Fields’ name.
At 27, Fields is just entering his prime. A player of his build (5’11″/180) will age fairly well, so his speed should continue to be an asset into his early 30s. He wouldn’t necessarily, say, supplant Pillar in CF, but he could fill a valuable role for the team off the bench.
Stetson RHP Logan Gilbert has that long, lanky frame (6’6″/210) that teams covet in a Pitcher.
With a bowling ball sinking fastball that sits at 95, a curve that’s projectable, and a change that shows promise, Gilbert was talked about as one of the top college righties before the season started. Toss in five double-digit strikeout games already this season, and you’re riding a rocket to the Top 10, or maybe just outside of it – like to #12, where the Blue Jays will select.
With a loose, easy delivery, Gilbert fills the strike zone. His size allows him good extension, and some late life on that fastball. A 3rd Baseman for much of his high school playing career, he’s still relatively new to Pitching. Gilbert was the Atlantic Sun Conference Pitcher of the Year last year, and was ranked the 5th best prospect in the Cape Cod League last summer. He was also a pre-season All-American.
Tall, lanky frame with long arms and room for growth; no windup, minimal step-in to motion; long-armer through a 3/4’s slot; loose, live arm and he throws free and easy; ball explodes out of his hand; double-plus fastball (93-to-97 mph), comfortably sitting 95 mph with plus movement, explosive late life; heavy sink action with hard run and tail; true swing-and-miss pitch; projectable, plus curveball (74-to-76 mph) with two-plane action and solid depth; must stay on top of curveball more consistently; seldom used changeup (84-to-85 mph) with solid fade; plus performance seen on July 18, where he worked five innings giving up two hits, one walk and eight strikeouts. Will be one of the premier right-handed college pitchers for the 2018 Draft.
Gilbert is one of the half a dozen or so arms that are in the top ten discussion. He needs to continue to rack up performances like this if he wants to stay in the upper tier of arms. I see a potential front of the rotation arm. I still have him as my number two college right-hander in this class and think he is likely going to be a steal when the draft occurs.
Gilbert checks many boxes with the Blue Jays with his size, college background, velocity, and remaining projection. If he continues this ascent, he may not be around when it comes their time to select, but he would be a very nice fit.
TSN’s Scott Mitchell suggests that top prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Bo Bichette will face challenges at AA this year, after President/CEO Mark Shapiro confirmed the pair will begin their 2018 season there.
The rise of the bash twins is quite remarkable. Both are entering only their third year of pro ball, but are on the cusp of major league stardom. Guerrero, the top-ranked international free agent bat in 2015, acquitted himself well in rookie ball the following year, then burst out in 2017, along with 2016 2nd rounder Bichette, who followed the same meteoric rise.
Both had spent only a half season at High A after mashing their way from Lansing last year, and there was some thought that they might begin the season back with the Florida State League’s Dunedin Blue Jays for at least another half before moving up. The Blue Jays have proven to be conservative in the advancement of their prospects, having them spend a full year (whether it be over one or two calendar years) at each full-season level. In reality, both have little left to prove at High A, and their ascension to AA makes considerable sense.
TSN’s Scott Mitchell suggests AA will be a challenge for the duo because:
That’s where the Pitching becomes more advanced….a lot of top prospects come straight up to the majors from AA.
Mitchell may be simplifying things a bit. The jump from A ball to AA has been described as the biggest transition in the minors. Minor league baseball is like a giant colander, and players who get by on the basis of their physical talents alone tend not to pass through it to the higher levels. In AA, players tend to have a plan – for Pitchers, it’s in the form of advanced secondary pitches, for example, or for hitters, it’s the ability to have make adjustments with their approach. Below AA, rosters tend to have a lot of “org players” – roster fillers with 86 mph fastballs, or good field/no hit position players. AA is where weaknesses are exposed – Pitchers with inconsistent command, and hitters with holes in their swing. All teams have two affiliates in A ball, but only one at AA – rosters at that level have been culled considerably, and players who do well there have a shot at MLB.
Why will Bichette and Guerrero be successful at that level? 3 reasons
Both have approaches that should allow them to continue to hit; Bichette uses the whole field and cuts his swing down with two strikes, while Guerrero doesn’t just control the strike zone as much as he manages it, choosing pitches to barrel almost at will.
The “windshield” effect: Ross Atkins spoke about this in the off-season, when discussing how blood lines are something the Blue Jays consider when scouting an amateur player. Because both players grew up in an MLB environment, they don’t tend to get intimidated as easily as other players do. Judging by their performance this spring training, not much fazes either of them.
Their record vs top prospects: Bichette has hit .345/.382/.558 vs Top 20 Pitching prospects from other organizations, Guerrero .279/.388/.471. Both have had over 100 PAs against elite competition, and their numbers suggest future success.
This is not necessarily to say that Bichette and Guerrero will post numbers similar to what they did at Lansing and Dunedin this year, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that they will continue to square up pitches on a consistent basis. And if they go through a bit of adversity, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because almost every MLBer has gone through it in their minor league career at some point. Learning to deal with it is part of a player’s development.
Both players may still have some work to do defensively, but it’s looking more and more that one or both will be in the majors almost before we know it.
As had been expected since last weekend, Congress passed a $1.3 Trillion spending bill in order to keep the U.S. government running. Snuck into that bill like a late-night burglary was a provision to exempt minor league baseball players from legislation concerning minimum wage and overtime requirements.
MiLB has been intensely lobbying Washington for the past several years for such legislation in light of a lawsuit filed by several former minor league players. MiLB President Pat O’Conner predicted a loss in that legal action would be the death knell of minor league baseball:
“If the cost of that talent is doubled or tripled, which could happen under an FLSA basis, MLB is not going to pay that much money for the talent,” he said. “They’re not going to pay. They’re going to do one of two things: They’re going to say, ‘If 160 (minor league) teams is going to cost (this much), we’re just going to cut down on the number of teams. We’re not going to pay for 160. We’ll pay for 80. We’ll pay for 100.’
O’Conner told the Washington Post he’s in favour of salaries going up. But he’s not, really, when he uses a rationale like this:
“We’re not saying that it shouldn’t go up,” he said. “We’re just saying that the formula of minimum wage and overtime is so incalculable. I would hate to think that a prospect is told, ‘You got to go home because you’re out of hours, you can’t have any extra batting practice.’ It’s those kinds of things. It’s not like factory work. It’s not like work where you can punch a time clock and management can project how many hours they’re going to have to pay for.”
Minor league players currently make between $1150 and $2150 per month, depending on the level. They are paid only for the actual season, and not spring training. Their salaries have been stagnant for decades.
The money, of course, is there to pay them more. Minor League teams may operate on thin margins (players are paid by their MLB parent club), but MLB revenues exceeded $10 Billion last year, and all 30 teams ran into some found money when each club received a $50 Million share for the sale of MLB’s digital and media arm, MLB Advanced Media, last year. It’s just that the will is not there – MLB doesn’t pay their minor leaguers more because they don’t have to. For their part, teams likely would point the finger at the MLB Players Association, which has not shown a willingness to include MiLB pay levels in negotiations. MiLBers are not part of their union, and in fact, they’re the competition. There doesn’t not appear to be much incentive for MLBPA to improve these salary conditions.
The bottom line is that a $10 Billion industry doesn’t have to adhere to the same wage regulations that McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, and 7-11 do. And their employees tend to make more, on average.
Some will point to the fact that a team like the Blue Jays had $8 million in bonus money to spend on their draft picks last year, and close to $5 million for international free agents. Much of that money, of course, is consumed by the top half-dozen or so picks, or the top-ranked IFA. In a system with about 150 players, close to 4 out of every 5 got a much smaller bonus, ranging from $10 to $100K. While none of us would turn a cheque like that down, it’s certainly not enough to live on for very long. Many international players are sending most of their pay home, while the other players in their situations have to budget their money wisely. That means eating cheaply if not well (teams are doing a better job of feeding their players at home; at $25/day for three meals on the road, not so much), and doubling or tripling up on accommodations. One Blue Jays farm hand told a story of sleeping on a mattress found at the curbside – his bedroom was behind the furnace in the small house he was renting with six other players.
The Blue Jays have invested heavily in their minor league system since Mark Shapiro took over as President/CEO. He instituted a highly regarded sport science department, which oversees all aspects of training and nutrition for their prospects. The team had a fairly significant turnover in its minor league staff this winter, bringing in a number of instructors with extensive college teaching and coaching experience. And funding was finalized this week for the spring training upgrades – three levels of Florida government will cover aout 75% of the expected $80 million cost to overhaul the stadium and minor league complex. That investment does not appear to extend to minor league salaries, however.
There are all sorts of ethical and moral arguments to be made for paying players a fair wage, but let’s ignore those for a moment. (God knows MLB has.) There’s a baseball argument here, too. Say that a club decides to invest here and pay their 200 minor-leaguers a monthly average of $3,000, which would come out to a yearly total of $7.2 million. Not $7.2 million more than what the club is currently paying, but $7.2 million total. Say that this helps just one minor-leaguer tap into his potential a little bit more—the ability to pay for more nutritious food when he’s eating on his own, to work out more during the offseason without trying to make extra cash on the side, to be generally less stressed and focus more on his play. Say that all amounts to one extra win of major-league production once he’s called up. The estimated price of a win above replacement is $10 million. This is a market inefficiency to be exploited, if only baseball weren’t so steadfast in their commitment to exploiting the minor-league players themselves instead.
Sadly, this likely is not about to happen. Minor league players are not out to get rich, but they would like to be able to live a little bit more comfortably. The cash appears to be there…….
….but, sadly, the will is not. In fact, MLB spent nearly $3 Million over the past two years to fight attempts to increase minor leaguers’ salaries.
The truth is, of course, that on any given minor league team, there are only 4 or 5 players that have a shot at even a brief MLB career. The other 20 players are roster fillers who are present so that the prospects have someone to play and develop with. And their pay seems to reflect the fact that they’re mostly cannon fodder.
Baseball has won the battle for now. The only hope for players in the next round of collective bargaining in 2020, but their financial plight will likely rank far down on both sides’ list of priorities.