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Baseball’s Minor League Cut May Lead to Major Changes

By: Matt Dacey

Major League Baseball began its 2020 season amidst COVID-19 uncertainty on July 23rd, months after originally scheduling its Opening Day for March 26th.[1] The MLB has done an outstanding job monitoring its top 1,800 players and controlling virus concerns. Only 0.07% of tests have been reported positive and there have been no new positive tests among players as recently noted by the September 11th league-wide report.[2] However, for the remaining players within each club’s minor league system and minor league affiliate teams themselves, health scares are the least of their worries.

The Minor League Baseball (MiLB) season was cancelled on June 30th and the organization’s Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) with the MLB is set to expire at the end of September.[3] Staring down the dual-barrel of an 18-month long offseason and millions in lost revenue, MiLB teams, owners, and players now wonder if they will even have jobs at all next year. According to ESPN’s Jeff Passan, the number of released MiLB players due to COVID-19 and economic downturn is estimated to be above 1,000.[4] In addition, MLB’s plan to begin minor league contraction at the start of the 2021 season will eradicate the MiLB system as the game knows it. Each major league club will maintain four minor league affiliated teams at the commonly known Triple-A, Double-A, Advanced-A, and Low-A levels.[5] Short-season Class A and Rookie level teams will be cut and lower-level players not on affiliate team rosters will train at their parent club’s spring training facilities.[6] 42 minor league teams will lose their affiliations, while various independent league teams across the country set their sights on garnering the vacated positions.[7] MiLB team owners do not know if their team is on the chopping block and should they be, the ripple effects will be immense.

There are arguments supporting both sides of the league’s decision. The MLB will now have complete control over their minor league counterpart. Each Major League club will be able to choose their 4 affiliated teams based on factors such as location and quality of facilities.[8] When chosen, those affiliates will be contracted to their MLB parent. If a parent club becomes dissatisfied with one of their affiliate’s performance, finances, or facilities, it may negotiate with another MiLB team once the contract expires. [9] With closer geographic proximity and easier access to its MiLB teams and players, MLB clubs can put more focus into player development to prepare their prospects for big league competition while also cultivating a closer relationship with their affiliate owners and staff. [10] For example, the New York Yankees have already begun talks with the Somerset Patriots, a team in the independent Atlantic League located in New Jersey, to potentially serve as one of the Yankees’ new affiliates.[11] The current Yankees Low-A affiliate is located in Charleston, SC, so a move to Somerset, NJ makes complete geographical sense. The defending World Series champion Washington Nationals may also look to relocate affiliate teams as their Triple-A affiliate is located in 2,300 miles away Fresno, California. [12]

On the contrary, there are multiple issues stemming from the MLB’s shift to minor league contraction. First and foremost, the total number of affiliated minor league clubs will be essentially eliminated by about 25% (162 down to 120).[13] Those team owners face a challenging business decision of whether to discontinue operations, pivot to becoming an independent league club, or join an amateur collegiate summer league.[14] Cut teams could leverage their past success as a MiLB affiliate to receive first crack at joining independent leagues or attracting top collegiate talent, but at what cost? Communities that have enjoyed local affiliates for years will lose access to watching the future stars of the game and will go without the economic positives that follow.[15] Unaffiliated teams may not sell enough tickets to fill their stadiums, which may lead to a decreased amount of concessions and merchandise purchased to fund new facilities for their players. In addition, future changes to the MLB First-Year Player Draft only serves to further the notion that non-affiliated clubs will be disadvantaged. The MLB and MLB Players Association have already agreed to decrease the rounds of the annual amateur draft.[16] The customary 40 round draft was cut to 5 in 2020 and could be reverted to 20 rounds in 2021.[17] Plus, future changes will predictably be a topic of discussion following the expiration of the league’s CBA after the 2021 season.[18]

A decrease in players entering the minor league system enables parent clubs to put more time and effort into their prospects’ development, but what happens to the players who would’ve presumably been selected in rounds 21-40? Are those players going to be forced to join un-affiliated teams and endure subpar living conditions hoping to continue their career? Less attractive facilities plus a lower-level player talent pool multiplied by decreased revenue equals a financial nightmare for owners opting to continue business. A less attractive path to the majors may ultimately persuade many youth and professional players to give up on the game completely.

The ramifications of MLB’s minor league contraction won’t be felt entirely until the start of the 2021 MiLB season. League and media-wide perceptions of MiLB contraction will surely dictate how the MLB and MLBPA approach forming a new CBA in 2021 and whether the minor league system as we know it will return to normal remains a massive question to be decided.

References

[1] Andrew Simon, MLB’s 60-game schedule for 2020 revealed, MLB.com (July 6, 2020),https://www.mlb.com/news/2020-major-league-baseball-schedule-released

[2] MLB’s latest COVID-19 test results, MLB (September 11, 2020), https://www.mlb.com/news/mlb-covid-19-test-results-9-11-20

[3] ESPN Staff, Why MLB’s minor leagues as you know them will end Sept. 30, ESPN (September 3, 2020), https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/29795127/why-mlb-minor-leagues-know-end-sept-30

[4] Jeff Passan, Hundreds of minor league players cut amid pandemic, sources say, ESPN (May 28, 2020), https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/29237251/minor-league-baseball-cuts-hundreds-players-amid-pandemic-sources-say

[5] ESPN Staff, supra

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] David Laurila, SABR CEO Scott Bush on the Business of Minor League Contraction, Fangraphs (September 15, 2020), https://blogs.fangraphs.com/sabr-ceo-scott-bush-on-the-business-of-minor-league-contraction/

[11] Greg Tufaro, New York Yankees reportedly considering Somerset Patriots as minor league affiliate, My Central Jersey (September 5, 2020), https://www.mycentraljersey.com/story/sports/baseball/2020/09/05/new-york-yankees-reportedly-considering-somerset-patriots-minor-league-affiliate/5728094002/

[12] ESPN Staff, supra

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Laurila, supra

[16] Mike Axisa, MLB’s 2020 draft changes have long-term ramifications; most of them will be bad for baseball, CBS Sports (April 6, 2020), https://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/mlbs-2020-draft-changes-will-have-long-term-ramifications-most-of-them-will-be-bad-for-baseball/

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

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