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Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Williams: MLB’s Treatment of Minor League Players is Inexcusable

We’re all chasing a dream.

Some of us realize that we’re born into a system where you’re forced to spend almost every waking moment of your life working. The only way we can make it through this reality is finding work in an area that we’re passionate about.

Others are willing to grind most of their lives through something that they aren’t passionate about, or that they don’t like at all, simply to fill another life goal — a lifestyle, a family, or a chance to give unselfishly to others.

In today’s late-stage Capitalism economy, the entry-level employees continue to get financially squeezed by massive corporations that are operating legal monopolies, or something close to them.

I’m talking unpaid training, unpaid internships, low-paying entry-level jobs that don’t provide any actual financial security, and the only way you’ll ever get paid is after you’ve already made your company a lot of money.

I’ve always found it poetic how baseball is the perfect representation of America. “This field, this game: it’s a part of our past.”

If you look closely, it’s part of our present as well.

*****

Every summer, MLB teams get together to draft the next wave of amateur players from across the United States. Each team makes around 20 picks, and of those picks, most will not receive life-changing money to sign and begin their baseball careers.

The Pirates had a big draft in 2021. They signed 19 players from that class, spending almost $16 million dollars in bonuses in the process. However, out of that group, only 25% of the players received $600,000 or more. The other 75% of the signees received less than $300,000, with almost 60% of the total draft class signing for less than $150,000.

Once those players sign for their amounts, they are employed under a minor league contract.

They are not free to sign with any other team, even if their current team isn’t prioritizing their development or career.

They are not free to retire from the game in their first five years, without forfeiting part of the bonus they received, which is pro-rated during those years.

They don’t hit free agency until they’ve been in the system for seven full seasons. The players drafted in 2021 won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2028 season.

If a team releases them, they’re free to sign elsewhere. However, this is rare for anyone who isn’t an upper-level player, already giving several years to their pro careers under the poverty system.

All of these players are paid very little.

The lowest level players are paid $5,000 a year or less. In the upper levels, you’ll see salaries of $10,000 a year or more. All of the amounts are well below the popularly suggested $15 minimum-wage, which has been suggested for so long that it’s already about $10 too low for the level of inflation that has taken place over the last decade.

Those amounts are paid only during the regular season. Players are contractually required to stay in shape all year, and have year-round camps where attendance is required as part of the job training, but not paid as a job. They only receive paychecks, though, during the regular season.

That’s what MLB is trying to uphold in their latest refusal to treat minor league players like human beings. As Evan Drellich of The Athletic reported, MLB is arguing for minor leaguers to remain unpaid during Spring Training.

MLB is trying to say that the players are getting paid in experience.

You know, like unpaid internships and unpaid training that you see in the corporate world.

The problem with this argument is that there are so many alternatives to MLB training. Each week, Cody Potanko has been running stories on Pirates Prospects about the work that prospects are putting in at independent training facilities around the country — many with the same or better equipment and coaching techniques as what varying MLB organizations provide.

If MLB is saying that the players are paid in training, then the players should have the right to refuse that training and opt for a better situation, especially since they’re not otherwise being paid for their time. I’m sure many “organizational players” would prefer that, rather than filling out Spring Training rosters for the prioritized prospects.

Except, none of the players can do this.

They can’t do this because the players are employees of those MLB teams. They just don’t get treated like employees because there’s no union to represent these players. They lose their rights because the MLBPA has agreed with the owners for years to reduce the earning power and rights of these unrepresented players. They lose their rights because there’s no court in America that is willing to go against MLB’s anti-trust status, allowing MLB to continue breaking what would otherwise be labor law violations in any other industry.

It wouldn’t matter how many training camps or practices they were required to attend if these players were paid properly. If they were paid like the full-time employees they are.

*****

MLB teams have started to reduce the number of minor league players each system has. They set a limit of 180 players, and want to reduce that now to 150.

They removed 40 minor league teams from pro ball, and outsourced a lot of lower-level training in the process.

They cut the draft in my time covering baseball from 50 rounds, to 40 rounds, then to 20 rounds.

All of those independent training sites? That fits the plan. MLB’s message? Normalize getting better on your own dime, players, and when you’re good enough, that’s when MLB owners will pay you to help fund their business with your talents.

It’s questionable if they will even do that properly, as the MLB owners have been treating the MLB Player’s Association to the most openly manipulative treatment I’ve ever seen.

They locked out the players, when no lockout was needed. They didn’t talk to the players for months, then claimed the players shared equal blame for the lack of communication — when the players submitted two offers that MLB owners ignored. They finally made an offer, which the players found underwhelming, and pro-owner media is already calling for the players to make big concessions to get a deal done and play baseball on time.

Keep in mind, this lockout is caused 100% by the owners. They could end it at any moment.

The problem is that baseball’s economics have spiraled out of control, especially in the last decade.

Before the pandemic came along, MLB had reached a record $10.7 billion in revenue. Since the pandemic, they’ve signed deals that will guarantee them $2 billion per year in national TV deals. The local deals have reached record numbers, but at a disproportionate rate that favors large markets. MLB.tv has boomed in the digital subscription era, and some estimates have MLB making at least $6 billion a year just from TV deals.

If MLB ended the lockout, the Competitive Balance Tax that has been operating as a soft salary cap for the top spenders would disappear. That tax expired with the last CBA, and without it, there would be free spending for the top MLB teams, with no penalties. That means the Dodgers, who make $250 million per year on their local TV deal, could out-spend every team. The New York Mets, freshly purchased by a billionaire with deep pockets, could join that fray. The New York Yankees, Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros, and every other team making massive local TV money in bigger markets could round it all out to form an MLB Premiere League of spenders.

MLB is trying to maintain that soft salary cap to keep down costs at the top, without having any sort of salary floor to off-set spending, or any massive increase in spending for the lowest players.

In 2013, the MLB league minimum was $490,000. Last season, that minimum was $570,500. That’s an increase of 16.4%.

As a fun cost-of-living comparison, in 2013 I rented a condo in Bradenton for $1,200 a month. That same condo now costs $2,250, which is an increase of 87.5%.

Or, for a more baseball-centric comparison, in 2013 Zack Greinke received $147 million for six years. This past December, Max Scherzer received $130 million for three years.

The revenues are going up for the top teams. The payments are going up for the top players.

The other players are just told to get better, because their pay has remained stagnant.

And in every system, there are still 180 of those players trying to get better while being paid poverty wages.

*****

MLB teams could pay each minor league player a $50,000 compensation package — covering salary, benefits, taxes, social security, etc. — and the total cost for each team for their 180 minor league players would be $9 million dollars a year.

Nine million dollars.

This is a league that committed $1.7 billion dollars to the top free agents in December 2021 alone.

Teams throw that $9 million amount away on a good relief pitcher. That same amount could house, feed, and fully employ 180 people per organization. That $1.7 billion total from December could fund every single minor league system in baseball for almost seven years.

Instead, MLB operates under a system where 180 players work for poverty wages each year, and the only reason there’s no massive public outcry is because a small percentage of those players each year become instant millionaires.

A few more will have a comfortable life during their time in pro ball, if they spread their bonus out. After that, they’ll have needed to either make it to the majors, or saved and invested well in order for that money to make a difference as they’re a 23-28 year old high school or college drop out with only an unsuccessful minor league career behind them.

Let’s be honest though. These are 18-22 year old players getting handed a ton of money, often with very little economical education, and dreams of that money continuing to come during their long MLB career. Expecting them to maintain a strict, financially sound budget is forgetting what we all were like at the same age.

And then, there’s the other 60% of players. The players who receive bonus amounts so low that they’re required to work for poverty wages for years if they don’t properly utilize their bonuses. They are “chasing the dream.”

MLB needs these players in order to field teams in the minors, to develop their big bonus signings.

They need dozens of low-bonus players signed at age 16-18 in the Dominican for less than $10,000 each to field teams for the international signings who make headlines simply for their bonus amount and young ages.

MLB eventually gets some of these low-bonus players to the majors, at which point MLB teams tend to lock them up under long-term team-friendly deals just by dangling their first big payday of their lives — after years of working for the same team and generating their own value despite poverty.

There’s really no argument for MLB to be refusing to pay so many of their employees with so much money in the game. It should be the easiest decision for the MLB owners and the MLBPA to divert a small amount per team to ensure that so many players receive a living wage.

*****

If you want a real life example of life as a minor leaguer, take former Pirates prospect Casey Sadler.

The Pirates drafted Sadler in 2010 as a 25th rounder for $100,000. That bonus would be eaten up by agent fees and taxes, and wouldn’t stretch far. Let’s say that Sadler received $70,000 of that money. He didn’t reach the majors until 2014, working for small amounts until then. If he spread that bonus out, his bonus gives him an extra $10-15,000 a year.

Sadler took to Twitter recently to share some of his story and his salary levels.

One factor here that MLB has recently eliminated is player housing. In the past, the players were required for their housing. A minor leaguer like Sadler would be housed at Pirate City for free, although there was a dues system for clubhouse attendees and for the living quarters. Some of those have since been eliminated, but further reduced the MiLB paychecks by using their money to pay other team employees.

In Sadler’s case, he owned a house in Bradenton, but also was responsible for an apartment in Indianapolis and a place in Pittsburgh during those times when he was a split player between the two levels.

Remember that $1,200 condo I mentioned that I had in 2013? Across the street was a two bedroom apartment that continuously housed no fewer than six players on that year’s Bradenton Marauders roster. If the players moved up, someone new would come in from the lower level and assume their rent. However, this created a messy system where players were legally responsible for rent in an area where they weren’t living, and paying rent in a new place where they’re not actually on the lease.

I was a blogger, selling books about these players and their chances of making the majors. They were working part-time jobs, stealing extra meals from the team-provided post-game spread, and being relegated to eating fatty fast food with their limited remaining funds while sleeping on cheap mattresses on the floor of what would otherwise be a living room.

MLB has recently agreed to provide housing for minor leaguers, which they should have been doing all along, due to how often those minor leaguers are transferred against their wills.

Sadler detailed some of his own struggles to get by while starting a family at the same time.

There is one conversation I had with Sadler years ago, and I don’t know how we got on this subject or how it’s remained in my memory. He mentioned that he and his wife would go to Cody’s Roadhouse when they wanted a date night and an escape from work. I used to pass that steak house all the time in Bradenton, and every time I passed it, I would remember that conversation with Sadler. I never went, though.

It was the way Sadler talked about it that always stuck with me. It was the best way to normalize a minor league baseball player and his family.

This was their favorite place. Despite being mentioned in future MLB roster projections across the internet on sites like mine, he wasn’t eating at Ruth’s Chris. This was a regular guy, and a good person in all of my many interactions, who just happened to pursue professional baseball for a career. His life, outside of that career path, was like anyone else who watches the game — just trying to escape work for one night a week to go to a favorite local restaurant with his wife.

Sadler has since made money in the game, and I’m glad for him. But how many players didn’t have the same perseverance? How many players didn’t get the same chances?

How many players struggled through poverty wages only to end up with nothing more than MLB training that is useless in their next lives?

How much of that poverty system is justified because they’re all trying to be professional baseball players, which is seen as some dream that doesn’t deserve to be paid?

We’re all chasing a dream.

We all deserve to be treated like human beings and paid to live securely during that chase, regardless of what dream we’re chasing.

Major League Baseball has the money to be paying their employees, who are merely trying to chase the “dream” of becoming long-term MLB employees.

THIS WEEK ON PIRATES PROSPECTS

Williams: MLB’s Treatment of Minor League Players is Inexcusable

Major League Baseball Absolutely Makes Money Off Minor Leaguers

Does a Top Farm System Lead to a Contender?

Demographics of the Pirates’ Prospects Over the Years — Origins

Robbie Glendinning Returns Stronger from Tommy John Surgery

J.C. Flowers: Righty Attacked Hitters At Two Levels in 2021

It’s All in Your Head: Deion Walker Showing Maturity Beyond His Years

+ posts

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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