Minor league baseball appears to be a crossroads with major changes coming after the 2020 season, thanks to reports that are coming out in major publications such as the New York Times. There are reports that a proposal to contract 42 minor league teams, thereby eliminating short-season leagues, has been approved (at least in theory) by all 30 major league teams as a method of cutting costs and allowing major league clubs to focus more on their higher end draft picks and international signings.
The proposal would have some realignment of teams and entire leagues wouldn’t necessarily be axed, although most of the teams in the Appalachian League and New York-Penn League would likely be gone. Hand-in-hand with this proposal, the draft the draft would be shortened to 20 rounds and moved to after the College World Series with incoming players only beginning to play the year following the year they are drafted and a cap on players in a major league system would be instituted and set at about 150 players.
Teams cut out of their major league affiliations would be invited to join a “Dream League” run by MLB that would be a place to showcase undrafted players, similar to how the independent leagues are currently run, although, the extent of funding coming from MLB for the “Dream League” is currently unknown, but it’s likely that the biggest costs: equipment, staff and players, would be downloaded to the individual clubs.
There are several ramifications of this move that, by all reports, is something that MLB wants to do but still needs to figure out logistics for. The first major obstacle would be a slew of lawsuits coming from communities who have recently used public funding to upgrade older facilities or build new ones. Another one could be a loss of baseball’s anti-trust exemption under labour laws.
But the whole idea of this proposal is to improve conditions overall for minor league players, whether it’s by cutting down on travel or being able to pay them more and to do this by cutting down the number of players that the teams will have to pay.
While this will certainly be to the benefit of individual players, it won’t help others. Those who would be late-round picks under the current system (which has already seen a reduction from 50 rounds of the draft to 40) or even non-drafted free agents, would likely not be drafted or signed under the proposal. This will make it much harder for a player like Jackson Rees, for example, a non-drafted free agent, to show off what he’s got. Independent leagues will be the only way for non-drafted players who might be late bloomers, to get noticed and the competition for those leagues will intensify.
Needless to say, there is a lot of concern about grassroots baseball, particularly in the towns and cities that host the clubs in the lower levels of the minors. For these towns, the minor league teams help keep baseball alive and, while the attendance is fairly low, the teams offer something that most other forms of entertainment don’t: professional sports in a family-friendly environment right in their backyard.
I can speak for having been to Bluefield and Princeton, West Virginia, two towns with their teams on the chopping block, that going to a ballgame is an inexpensive activity on a summer night that allows them to see professional baseball up close.
Still, this is the first step in the negotiating process between MLB and MiLB as their current contract ends after 2020. Complicated financial issues issues, such as payouts to contracted teams, potential lawsuits and other matters will have to be worked out before this becomes the new reality for the minor leagues. There still may yet be a middle ground.
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