Report: MLB has a radical proposal that would eliminate 40 minor league teams

The Chicago White Sox take batting practice at BB&T BallPark in Charlotte, N.C., prior to an exhibition game against the Charlotte Knights on Friday, April 3, 2015. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Major League Baseball is hoping to downsize the minor leagues from 160 teams to 120 by 2021. (Jeff Siner/Getty Images)

Major League Baseball is planning to put forward a proposal that would slash the number of affiliated minor league teams from 160 to 120 by 2021, which would drastically change the way the developmental system works.

While the proposal, as reported by Baseball America, has the stated goal of improving facility quality and player pay, it appears likely to hurt MLB teams’ ability to develop talent, cost thousands of players’ jobs and leave dozens of cities without teams that their fans have grown up loving and investing in.

This discussion is coming about because the Professional Baseball Agreement between MLB and minor league teams is set to expire in 2020, and the two sides appear further apart than they have in decades. It’s not clear if MLB is fully committed to downsizing its minor league system or if this is just a starting point to negotiate, but discussions figure to be tough with so much on the line.

What is MLB planning to propose?

According to Baseball America’s reporting, MLB states that a quarter of minor league stadiums have facilities that are well below the level they’d like. But instead of investing in better infrastructure, the league wants to remove them from Minor League Baseball altogether.

Teams may currently have unlimited affiliates with as many players as possible in their system. But under the new proposal, teams could only have five affiliates with up to 150 minor-league contracts. That’s a big problem for teams like the New York Yankees, which currently have eight teams with 285 players.

The size and makeup of different leagues would change with some Triple-A teams being asked to move down to Single-A and some going the other way around. Owners would be compensated for their loss in value, but the situation would not be ideal. Even more concerning would be the shuttering of short-season and rookie ball, which effectively would mean that a majority of draftees would not play the year they are selected.

These rules would help to make sure that teams spend similar amounts of money and no team has an advantage because they choose to spend more money. But it’s hard to see how it benefits teams beyond lining owners’ pockets.

Why is MLB proposing these changes?

MLB has faced quite a bit of backlash for paying its minor leaguers below minimum wage. After lobbyists convinced Congress to exempt the league from federal labor laws, players have become more vocal about this issue, and the league is still facing a class-action lawsuit from 2014 on the issue.

Several reports have indicated that players are likely to see an increase in pay of up to 50 percent, but owners aren’t just going to give away money for free. They’ve looked to cut money wherever possible before, as illustrated by the qualifying offer dropping in value for the first time and blue bloods prioritizing staying under the competitive balance tax over trying to sign and keep good players.

The simplest explanation for why owners want this change is they want to save money, and if they get good press for raising players’ salaries in the process, that’s just gravy. And it should be disappointing to fans across the nation.

A large swath of baseball fans don’t have easy access to a major league park or major league ticket prices. Losing a team after a city spent public money on a stadium would be disastrous, even if MLB plans to help ease some teams into independent ball or wooden bat summer leagues.

And worst of all, there’s no clear explanation of why cutting back the number of teams would help MLB’s product on the field. Sports are a business, but owners should really be prioritizing the game itself over saving pocket change here and there.

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