There are two stories that have floated around minor league baseball over the past few months that have hit some people associated with the game hard and others have simply scoffed and brushed aside. The first was news over the summer when it was reported – not for the first time – that minor league players were upset that when you figure in all of the hours they put into the game, they’re paid less than minimum wage. It’s an issue that has come and gone a couple of times. Recently, there’s been a story about Major League Baseball wanting to contract just over one-quarter of the 160 minor league teams and do some classification shuffling with others.
First, you have to understand that Major League Baseball has an agreement with Minor League Baseball to serve as the development league for MLB. Minor league teams have to agree to keep their facilities up to standards set by Major League Baseball and follow other policies set by MLB. The current agreement expires following the 2020 baseball season. The proposal to contract teams and realign some leagues is an opening salvo to negotiating a new agreement for the 2021 season and beyond.
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As it turns out, the two stories aren’t as much separate entities as they are cause and effect.
There is currently a slow moving federal lawsuit going through the courts in which minor league players would have to be paid more than the roughly $1,100 per month that they get now. In 2018, Major League Baseball lobbied Congress with the idea that minor league players are “seasonal apprentices” and need not be paid for the time when they are not “working.” In their argument, ,”working” hours meant during the season; not spring training and certainly not offseason when players go through training often under the guidance of their parent club. The “Save America’s Pastime Act” was part of a larger spending bill that gave baseball permission to pay minor league players the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, but only for 40 hours a week and only during the season.
If the lawsuit – which was originally filed in 2014 and upheld in August of this year by a Federal Court – is ever successful, major league teams would have to pay minor league players much more than they are paid now. Even if only getting paid for a 40-hour week, but year-round, it would be a help to the players financially and a “burden” to the teams.
This is where the proposal to eliminate 42 minor league teams comes into play. The same proposal would cap the number of players in a team’s minor league system at 150, down substantially from what Baseball America estimates at between 275-280 players per organization. One source estimated that the contraction and realignment proposal would save each major league team upwards of $700-thousand per year. Money that could conceivably be put toward higher salaries for minor league players who remain.
The proposal also calls for the MLB Draft to be cut from 40 rounds down to 20. There are a number of memorable players who were drafted after round 20 over the years, including former Phillies Roy Oswalt (round 23), Darren Daulton (round 25), John Denny (round 29), Raul Ibanez (round 36), Bake McBride (round 37). Others include Andy Pettite and Hall of Famer John Smoltz (round 22), Mark Grace and Jorge Posada (round 24), Ken Griffey Sr. (round 29), Mark Buehrle (round 38). Keith Hernandez (round 42) and Mike Piazza (round 62) were drafted after round 40 when the draft went longer than 40 rounds.
As for contraction, it’s a not well-known fact that there is a clause in the current agreement between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball that would allow MLB to completely wipe-out the Appalachian League, a 10-team league with teams playing throughout Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina. Nine of the teams – with the exception of the Pulaski Yankees in Pulaski, VA – are on the list of 42 teams that would be contracted. Pulaski well outdraws the other teams in the league, drawing more than double the fans per game than the other teams.