Why some MLB executives think a leaner minor-league system is best for baseball

Tim BrownMLB columnist
Yahoo Sports
MLB submitted a proposal that would pare the number of affiliated minor-league teams by 42, most of those in Class A or below. (Joseph Weiser/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
MLB submitted a proposal that would pare the number of affiliated minor-league teams by 42, most of those in Class A or below. (Joseph Weiser/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

SAN DIEGO — Baseball’s minor leagues are a bloated and antiquated system that does not adequately serve either the player or his development, according to several Major League Baseball executives, who support a proposal to eliminate a quarter of minor-league teams and a movement to rethink how the sport may better prepare its next generation.

“The system has been around for a long time,” Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen said. “We have a lot of great partners. A lot of great relationships. There’s a great history within the game for the minor leagues. It’s part of the fabric of what we’re doing. But, it’s been a while since we talked about what’s the optimal way for us to develop players.”

MLB and the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues are negotiating a contract that would replace the current agreement, which expires after the 2020 season. As part of that negotiation, MLB submitted a proposal that would pare the number of affiliated minor-league teams by 42, most of those in Class A or below. The remaining teams would be realigned, primarily by geography.

In response, Pat O’Conner, president and CEO of Minor League Baseball, the communities of the teams that could lose their affiliations, and various politicians — including presidential candidate Bernie Sanders — have vowed a fight to maintain the status quo. A slew of lawsuits from eliminated teams and their fans have been predicted. Sanders appeared to threaten the standing of baseball’s antitrust exemption. In a recent address that opened the minor-league version of baseball’s winter meetings, O’Conner said, “Big storm clouds loom on the horizon.”

This week, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred insisted the terms of the proposal were not an inevitability.

“Let me say this: this has been portrayed as a decision that has been made,” he 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.

“Major League Baseball has been and will remain flexible in its negotiating position. I hope that Minor League Baseball, which has taken the position that they're not willing to discuss anything but the status quo or any changes that would provide for upgrades in adequate facilities, better working conditions for our players, that they move off the take-it-or-leave-it status quo approach and come to the table and try to make a deal.”

He added, “I think they've done damage to the relationship with Major League Baseball, and I'm hopeful that we will be able to work through that damage in the negotiating room and reach a new agreement. You know, when people publicly attack a long-time partner after they've committed to confidentiality in the negotiating process, usually people don't feel so good about that.”

Minor League Baseball issued a statement Friday, countering many of Manfred’s recent claims and complaints about the system and the existing agreement. 

There appears to be work to be done to administer to MLB’s requests for better facilities, travel conditions and salaries, among other complaints. And while the or-else option has worked up a good bit of acrimony in those who stand to lose teams, a not uncommon opinion within baseball operations departments holds that — from a purely developmental standpoint, and for a moment setting difficult and legitimate sentiments aside — a leaner minor-league system might be best for baseball players.

This, of course, assumes current player development budgets, spread over seven to as many as nine minor-league teams per organization, remained similar. Each of the baseball operations officials interviewed by Yahoo Sports insisted they would. Club owners are the final arbiters of such decisions. Sanders, for one, stated MLB’s proposal had, “Nothing to do with what’s good for baseball and everything to do with greed.

“Instead of paying Minor League Baseball players a living wage, it appears that the multimillionaire and billionaire owners of Major League Baseball would rather throw them out on the street no matter how many fans, communities and workers get hurt in the process.”

‘I will go toe to toe with Bernie Sanders on professional baseball’

Mark Shapiro, president and CEO of the Toronto Blue Jays, cut his teeth as a farm director with the Cleveland Indians and still holds player development as his first professional priority. He also believes he has a clearer view of how best to raise a young player.

“I’m not a politician and I’m not trying to get votes,” Shapiro said. “I’m not worried about any constituency. I’m just trying to run a business and do the right thing. And to promote the game that I love, that I’ve committed 30 years of my life to, not 30 minutes of my life. I’m not going to get into a debate with him. But I feel like there’s not a staff member giving me a briefing document. This is my life. I’m living this. I’ve lived it for 30 years. I’m never going to go toe to toe with him on domestic policy. But I will go toe to toe with Bernie Sanders on professional baseball.”

Baseball is unique among the major sports in the size and scope of its developmental leagues. Also, correctly projecting 17- and 18-year-old players, even college players, into the major leagues is a notoriously elusive endeavor. The matriculation rate from the minors to the majors runs at about 10 percent. Therefore, organizations long ago adopted more-is-better philosophies, as unheralded players not infrequently rise in promise and sturdy prospects falter, often over single summers. 

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has been vocal about his disapproval of MLB's plan for 42 Minor League Baseball teams. (Joshua Lott/Getty Images)
Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has been vocal about his disapproval of MLB's plan for 42 Minor League Baseball teams. (Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

Shapiro and Hazen, among others, have come to believe a smaller pool of players afforded greater attention is preferable to employing many more players who, given the numbers, are living near poverty, are spread over a limited number of coaches and advisers, and may work in conditions that would be unacceptable in most other lines of work. Shapiro, Hazen and two other executives, one a general manager whose organization insisted he speak anonymously, said organizational budgets for player development already are stretched thin, so simply pouring more money into ballparks that don’t belong to them and cutting checks for more meal money and salaries is not an option. Still, last spring, the Blue Jays raised their minor leaguers’ salaries by half, an industry first.

In a trimmed-down system, Shapiro said, the Blue Jays could slow-play young players into the routine-driven grind that is professional baseball rather than immediately throwing them onto buses headed for the rest of their lives, sink or swim. Even the relatively recent and industry-wide increases in coaching staffs, nutritional information, emotional support and technology assistance, he said, have left the typical minor-league experience lacking.

“What has not evolved in some circumstances is the environment that we’re developing players in,” Shapiro said. “While we think about the way our major league players travel and we obsess about that, we put our minor-league players on insane bus rides that don’t allow them to recover properly. It’s an antiquated part of the game that hasn’t come up with the rest of the game.

“So, to me, when you go into a window of negotiation, every aspect of that negotiation is really rooted not in money but in player well-being. That’s what it’s about. And player well-being as a matter of looking at the facility they play in as a resource. Not just a place but a resource. Looking at the schedule they play as either an impediment or an aid to help them recover, and have their performance the best they can be, and looking at what we pay them not as something that gives them wealth, but that gives them the ability to eat properly, that allows them to live in the type of house that allows them to rest and recover.

“When I say player well-being, I feel like we need to better articulate that that’s what we’re trying to do. Not leave it up to the individual team to make a decision on that, because obviously we made one on that. But to say as an industry, we’re putting a lot of energy, time and effort and money behind player development, but we have this one area we don’t control, it’s uneven. And it should be more even.”

‘For us, minor-league baseball is not a moneymaker’

One of the general managers who asked not to be identified said his organization is forced to make difficult decisions in staffing and other support because of the size of the operation. Young players, presumably those who might benefit most from extra attention, are potentially getting lost.

“For us, minor-league baseball is not a moneymaker,” he said. “There’s no profit. The return is generating major league players. We’d do it better in smaller classes, with more teachers.

“Second, improving their lives. Fewer players, pay them more. Having lived a day in that life, it’s hard. It’s not an easy existence to be a minor-league baseball player. We’re not talking about reducing budgets. What we’re doing is repurposing the money we would have spent … and directing it more toward making this group better. That’s in salaries, food, facilities.

“Third, from the list of 42 teams, a lot of the facilities, particularly the older ones, are not up to standards of professional baseball. It’s a decided downgrade in short-season baseball from SEC programs or even Texas and Oklahoma high schools.

“Being as we’re not in it to operate at a profit, and don’t expect that we ever will be, this is all a developmental endeavor, if we are able to take the dollar surplus that we can pull back from these teams that doesn’t affect our major league product, we’re not minimizing our major league payroll to make it happen, but we can make the lives better of, let’s say, 160 players instead of 212 players, whatever the number ratio is. We just reduce the head count. They are paid more, they are fed better, they work in better facilities, they travel easier than they have before, we increase the student-teacher ratio at all levels, it seems to be in our best interest to do that and it seems to be the better road for the human being on that end. If we can do it and do it smarter, more isn’t always better. I say this, while I think more progressively, perhaps, I’m a traditionalist.”

The GM also favors a level playing field — organizations being allotted equal numbers of affiliates and minor-league players. Say, 160 players spread over five teams.

Baseball’s dissatisfaction with the current system stems in large part from the decayed condition of some minor-league ballparks, many of them in the lower levels. Hazen played two minor-league seasons before joining the Indians’ front office as an intern.

“I’ll give you one example,” he said. “Going into a road affiliate, it’s hard seeing one of your players getting treatment out on the concourse. The visiting clubhouse is so small the training room doesn’t really fit inside. There’s a table outside. I just don’t know that that’s always what we want for our guys that we’re signing out of these colleges that have these state-of-the-art facilities. Even these high schools that have state-of-the-art facilities these days.”

‘There’s a casualty to progress’

To a man, they understood the pull of the minor-league game, of summer nights spent with cold beer in plastic cups, of the communities that have come to be identified with the game, and the game with them, along with the economic impact that losing those games might have. They also think they know what is best for the young men they are responsible for. Also, it is their jobs to turn those players into major leaguers, or into something that represents their best shot at it.

“Unfortunately, there’s a casualty to progress,” one general manager said. “We want to make progress as a game. I want everybody to love baseball. The message I would give them, this is the most accessible game in all of sports. While we’re trimming down by 42, there’s still 120 minor-league teams for you to go watch around the country, there’s 30 major league teams, there’s baseball on TV every single night for months at a time. The game is really accessible and I would love for it to be accessible live in every small town. But we can’t do that. The towns the league has opted to put on the list of those that will be eliminated, they’re on there for a reason. And I’m guessing that reason isn’t because they had overwhelmingly positive gate turnouts or that their facilities were in good shape. I think that’s been the criteria.

Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen played in the minors. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen played in the minors. (AP Photo/Matt York)

“The arguments are fair. The community argument is the one I don’t have anything for. Progress. Any time in a walk of life that what you’re looking to do is progress, you’re making a decision to leave something behind.”

He considered his own experience in some of those communities, or traveling from some of those communities to others, and said, “Minor-league baseball from the player’s perspective isn’t always a great experience. It just gives you a story to tell.”

His point: Just because everyone else went through it doesn’t make it right, or most effective.

Said Hazen: “These are fascinating, unbelievable places in our country. I’ve been on buses that I haven’t been back to since that I remember very fondly. There’ve been great partners in the minor leagues. Look, when we get asked by the commissioner’s office, by baseball, about, what can we do to make the game better for our players? And for clubs? In this case a lot of the focus was on the players. There’s years of conversations about how these things could move forward. I think we have a responsibility, my personal belief, to putting them in the best position possible. That part of it we have to deal with.

“The second thing is, we all understand that growing this game we all love is always at the forefront of our mind. Doing anything to harm that doesn’t feel like anyone’s intent. But I think modernizing how we’re taking players we are responsible for, to their holistic development, I think we also have a responsibility to speak up for that at times.”

The dialogue has grown heated. Minor League Baseball (and others) seem sure Major League Baseball owners seek to create revenue streams where there was none, or little. Both sides appear to believe the other side has had the best of it all along. The contract expires in less than a year. In between, young men who, in the end, have skills to learn, bodies to train, careers to carve out, ballgames to play.

“I think player development is at the heart of what we do,” Shapiro said. “That’s not taking the romance out. That is saying it’s the heart of our game. But we need to be better. We can’t be doing it the same way we were doing it 50 years ago.”

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