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Minor league players are just costs to MLB

Players association reportedly plans to reject owners proposal to reduce minor league reserve lists

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MLB Owners Meetings Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

I’m beginning to wonder just how much Major League Baseball likes actual baseball. The latest eye-opener came in the form of part of the owners’ offer on Saturday in labor negotiations. An offer with which the players were reportedly “unimpressed”.

Part of the league’s proposal included the right to eliminate at least 30 players per team beginning in 2023 by cutting the domestic reserve list, which limits the number of minor league players an organization can have at any one time. Per Jeff Passan at ESPN:

The league proposed keeping the number at 180 for 2022 but allowing the commissioner’s office to reduce the maximum number of players “below 150” over the rest of the collective-bargaining agreement, sources said. The proposal says the league could adjust the reserve list’s size “up or down.”

This is a natural continuation of the restructuring of the minor leagues that occurred before the 2021 season, with 42 teams contracted from affiliated baseball. Organizations were pared from five to four domestic minor league teams — Triple-A, Double-A, and two Class-A teams. Fewer teams means fewer coaches, and for most teams, fewer scouts needed.

The quest for ruthless efficiency comes right out of the venture capitalists’ playbook. There is no growing the game long term, only growing profits for owners in the short term by cutting costs.

If the 30 players trimmed were making the Triple-A minimum of $700 per week — $17,500 for a 25-week season — that’s $525,000 per year per team. The minimum weekly salary for players in Class-A is $500, or $11,500 over a 23-week season; 30 of those players would cost a team $345,000 per year. That’s a paltry sum compared to the benefits of that group producing even one extra major leaguer.

But costs are all minor leaguers are to MLB, based on the league’s actions.

Like on Friday, when a lawyer for MLB argued in federal court that minor league players should continue to not get paid spring training, per Evan Drellich at The Athletic:

“It is the players that obtain the greater benefit from the training opportunities that they are afforded than the clubs, who actually just incur the cost of having to provide that training,” said Elise Bloom of Proskauer Rose, a firm that is also advising MLB in its lockout of major league players. “During the training season, the players are not employees, and would not be subject to either the Fair Labor Standards Act or any state minimum wage act.”

Drellich also reported that MLB hired an expert witness who estimated the value of training received by players at $2,200 per week. Sadly, that training doesn’t pay the bills, not directly. Just ask the players.

MLB’s plan to gain the right to cut minor league players is related to the league’s counteroffer to limit the number of options allowed per player each season, that section of the 130-page offer by Passan as “a 28-point package on transactions.”

Passan also noted that during negotiations last July, players offered a 20-round MLB Draft, one of the few areas of labor talks that the two sides can agree on.

Owners and the MLBPA also agreed to reduce drafts as part of negotiations to re-start the 2020 season. Per those talks, the 2020 draft was limited to only five rounds, down from 40 rounds, and in 2021 the draft was 20 rounds.

Minor league players, the ones not on 40-man rosters, aren’t represented by the players association, which is why they often get the short end of the stick in negotiations they aren’t even a part of. Minor leaguers didn’t have a seat at the table when MLB lobbied Congress to pass the cruelly-named ‘Save America’s Pastime’ act in 2018 that allows players to be paid less than a living wage.

Only through minor league players speaking out publicly, amplified by the work of groups like Advocates for Minor Leaguers, have they been able to improve some working conditions. But even the easy public relations win that was MLB agreeing to pay for housing for minor leaguers beginning in 2022 came under scrutiny, with players still asked to share bedrooms, among other shortcomings.

Limiting the minor league domestic reserve lists is still something that needs to be collectively bargained. Not by the minor league players themselves, but rather MLB owners and the major league players association, the latter which plans to reject this part of the league’s proposal, per Passan.

But don’t worry. MLB can probably find another aspect of baseball to strip to the studs, eventually.