MLB threatens complete teardown of minor-league system is possible amid contentious negotiations

Jack Baer

As negotiations with Minor League Baseball’s teams continue to go nowhere in a very public fashion, Major League Baseball has suggested the possibility of a nuclear option.

The potential move, according to the Boston Globe’s Michael Silverman, is to allow the league’s current minor league deal to expire next September and create a new system where teams are free to affiliate with any minor-league squad they choose.

From the Globe:

“If the National Association has an interest in an agreement with Major League Baseball, it must address the very significant issues with the current system at the bargaining table,” the statement read. “Otherwise, MLB Clubs will be free to affiliate with any minor league team or potential team in the United States, including independent league teams and cities which are not permitted to compete for an affiliate under the current agreement.”

The exact mechanics of such a move aren’t reported, but the overall threat is clear. Rather than strip the proposed 42 teams of their major league affiliations, MLB is indicating the alternative would be much worse for the current minor league teams than itself.

Several minor league teams are already owned by their affiliate, so you’d imagine their affiliation will remain intact whatever happens. However, the minors are composed of a number of leagues that would want to keep their teams together, so it’s hard to think how a mixing and matching existing minor-league and independent teams could be at all practical.

Tearing down a system that has existed in its current form since 1963 would be an incredibly spiteful move, but that’s the position MLB has opted to take as it tries to milk every last dollar it can from the minors, having already lobbied Congress to remove its players’ minimum wage rights.

MLB's minor leagues agreement expires after 2020. What happens from there is anyone's guess. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
MLB's minor leagues agreement expires after 2020. What happens from there is anyone's guess. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

The minor leagues responded to MLB’s threat on Saturday, saying they didn’t disagree with MLB’s desire to limit “contentious public statements.”

MiLB agrees with MLB that contentious public statements are not conducive to the ability to conduct serious and good faith negotiations. However, as we are dealing with a matter of compelling public interest, we believe all should agree as well that accuracy in the public commentary is of the utmost importance and that the dissemination of non-conforming "information" serves no proper purpose. We sincerely hope that we can move forward with MLB in the spirit of the excellent partnership we mutually have enjoyed for so many years and reach agreement on a new Professional Baseball Agreement that is in the best interests of the game of Baseball and its future in communities across America.

MLB vs. the minors has gotten ugly

Our first warning that the negotiations between the majors and minors was going to be contentious was when MLB’s opening proposal of eliminating 42 minor league teams came out. Things haven’t improved since then.

The National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, representing the minors, has refused to compromise on the possibility of removing the affiliation of the 42 teams. The matter has managed to reach both Congress and the presidential race, and it was a major point of discussion at this year’s winter meetings.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said that the league “will remain flexible” in negotiations and asked the NAPBL to do the same.

From the Associated Press:

“This has been portrayed as a decision that has been made,” Manfred said. “The fact of the matter is at the point in time this became public, we had precisely three negotiating sessions. It is by no means a fait accompli as to what the agreement is going to look like.”

Manfred maintained big league owners are concerned about keeping baseball in non-major league communities, pointing to the hundreds of millions of dollars MLB subsidizes annually to aid minor league operations. The proposal includes plans to keep independent franchises in communities that lose affiliated clubs.

“Having said that, our players deserve to play in facilities that are up to grade,” he said. “They deserve to have reasonable travel limitations. They deserve to be paid fairly.”

Naturally, the league wants to make fair pay for minor leaguers an issue now that it could come in a way that financially benefits the teams overall.

The minors responded to Manfred’s comments with an extensive, four-page statement that rebutted the commissioner issue by issue. That was the context from which MLB’s possible nuclear option emerged, and it’s hard to see things getting much better from there in the near future.

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