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A FRONT OFFICE VIEW OF MINOR LEAGUE CONTRACTION

Phillies assistant general manager Scott Proefrock was part of the contingent of Phillies players, coaches and front office personnel that rolled into the Lehigh Valley last week to talk about the upcoming season. One of the issues facing Major League Baseball is contracting 42 of the 160 minor league teams in a move that would allow minor league players to earn a living wage, but saving teams money in that they would have fewer players that they would have to pay. The bean counters may like the idea and it would be better financially for young players who would find their way into the revamped minor league system, but fans and some players would suffer. It appears that Proefrock believes that major league teams and baseball in general could suffer as well.

Proefrock spent five years in the Atlanta Braves scouting and player development department, including being their assistant director for scouting and player development. From there he went on to work for the Rays and Orioles in their baseball administration department and helped to prepare the team’s operational budget, which includes minor league player salaries. Looking back on his days with Atlanta, he immediately came upon a situation that would have been difficult without having flexibility in where he could assign players.

“We had three entry-level clubs and we had Chipper Jones and Tony Graffanino and they both needed to play shortstop, so one of them was in the Gulf Coast League and the other was at Idaho Falls and if I didn’t have that flexibility, we would have had to make some decisions that I wouldn’t have wanted to make at an early point in their careers,” said Proefrock about the lesser flexibility that fewer teams would bring to baseball. “This is a game where you get better at it by playing and if you have less places to play, it’s harder to get better because repetitions are needed both from a pitching standpoint and from a position player standpoint.” 

The situation with the Braves wasn’t a unique one. The Phillies did the same with J.P. Crawford and Roman Quinn, who both began their careers at shortstop. Eventually, as both moved up the ladder, Quinn was converted to the outfield so the two could coexist in the organization. There have been other key decisions that teams were able to allow to play out for a season or two because they had options on where to send players in the lower levels of the minors. Baseball’s contraction plan would remove that flexibility and likely cause teams to have to make decisions on players earlier in their career than they would like to have to make them, which could lead to the wrong player being released and possibly falling through the cracks.

One solution to that from Major League Baseball would be the formation of a so-called “Dream League” of unaffiliated players who would play in some of the facilities that become empty through towns losing their minor league team, such as could happen in Williamsport. It would basically be an independent league sanctioned by Major League Baseball that teams could draw talent from after seeing them play against other unaffiliated players. Basically, a minor league free agent camp run throughout the season. Major League Baseball has not said who would pay those players or what the pay schedule would look like.

“I know they’ve talked about some ways to incorporate some of the facilities that are home to teams that they would eliminate and still have baseball there. I don’t know all of the particulars, but the most important thing for me to developing players is for them to play the game, so the more places there are, the better off I think we are going to be,” reiterated Proefrock.

Baseball knows that the issue of minor league player’s pay is going to balloon in the very near future. They likely will have to give up the fight at some point and pay living wages to young players, who in some cases now don’t even make minimum wage when all of their time working out with the team and preparing and playing in games is taken into account. While Major League Baseball is practically running a money printing press, they are balking at giving a chunk of that back to young players. The issue could be a part of the next collective bargaining agreement, which needs to be negotiated in time to start the 2022 season. MLB could make a preemptive strike by giving young players higher salaries, but cutting the number of players they would have to pay.

Proefrock has been in various front office roles and can look at the issue from various sides. His unique perspective is one that should be listened to by Major League Baseball, because the effects of minor league contraction isn’t just a financial issue for the game and the cities and towns that would lose teams, but it’s an issue that could eventually affect the product that baseball puts on fields at the major league level. With hints of MLB expansion down the road, cutting the player pool now seems to be especially bad timing.

“I think Major League Baseball has some issues and Minor League Baseball has some issues,” said Proefrock. “It’s just something that we have to work out. I’m not familiar with all of the particulars of it, but it’s a partnership that’s important and that will continue to help us develop players and I hope it all works out to the point where everybody is happy and we can keep the relationship and develop players for the major leagues.” 

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