A Complete Guide To MLB And MiLB’s Negotiations

The talks between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball over the structure of the minor leagues have been lengthy and confusing. If you’re a baseball fan, they also have likely been confusing. In an attempt to explain what’s happened and how the two sides have gotten to this point, we are pulling all of our reporting from the past two years into one place. Fans who want a general overview can read this timeline of the past two years and have a solid understanding of the basics. Those who want to understand more can click the links to read and understand in much more detail.

Dec. 2018: At the end of 2018, Baseball America asked MiLB President Pat O’Conner about the upcoming Professional Baseball Agreement negotiations with Major League Baseball. At the time, it was already clear that the PBA talks would be more than a simple renewal. O’Conner said: 

BA: There’s a big event coming up (the PBA). When a new one arrives it’s a significant event.

O’CONNER: No question. That’s the connective tissue. It’s a big deal. I’ve done three of these. In the last 25 years we did a deep dive, we did a tweak and we really just renewed. We’re probably going to do a deep dive and both sides welcome that. It’s the only fair and right thing to do for the relationship. Facility standards have basically been unchanged in the last 25 years. Now you think about the needs of a major league club. You didn’t have a masseuse. You didn’t have a strength and conditioning coordinator. You didn’t have a videographer. You didn’t have a nutritionist. You didn’t have an extra coach on the staff. Just logistically there is a physical plant need that we need to address.

Baseball America also asked about the possibility of MiLB consolidation in the deal. 

BA: Is there a concern that MLB is looking for consolidation? I assume on Minor League Baseball’s side, you want to come out of these with as many teams as you came into (the PBA) with.

O’CONNER: Sure the skeletal structure of this game is important to the game. We have opinions beyond the fact that we are not looking to reduce teams. We have concerns about what changes to the structural system will do to the game itself—not the economics of the game, not the function of the game, but the game itself. The bigger question to us is MLB when are you going to expand? If history were to repeat itself, if they add two teams, I’ve got to come up with 10 to 12 cities. I don’t have 10 to 12 cities today. Now I think that subtraction by addition . . . Could it be in an expansion a major league team with seven affiliates says ‘I’m good with six.’ So you don’t add 10, you add nine. You come up with something there. Where do you expand? Where those affiliates will be? Is it truly international? All of that will come out over time. A conversation over affiliates is a very sensitive one. I think it will be handled maturely and cautiously. We’re not looking to reduce clubs.

October 2019: Baseball America reported that Major League Baseball had presented to MiLB a proposal that would eliminate short-season baseball (outside of the Arizona and Florida complexes) as well as eliminate 42 affiliated clubs. In that same proposal, it was detailed that MLB was looking to move the draft later in the year.

In the story, we laid out MLB’s stated reasoning for the changes.

“From the perspective of MLB clubs, our principal goals are upgrading the minor league facilities that we believe have inadequate standards for potential MLB players, improving the working conditions for MiLB players, including their compensation, improving transportation and hotel accommodations, providing better geographic affiliations between major league clubs and their affiliates, as well as better geographic lineups of leagues to reduce player travel,” MLB deputy commissioner Dan Halem said.

October 2019: We also explained the history of the Professional Baseball Agreements that have long governed the relationship between MLB and MiLB.

December 2019: The contentious talks made the 2019 Baseball Winter Meetings one of the frostiest on record. In this story we try to explain some of the core issues keeping the two sides from an agreement.

December 2019: The two sides rather public disagreement quickly turned into a political fight. More than 100 U.S. Representatives sent a letter to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred asking MLB to reconsider its proposal. That letter brought back a quick reponse from Halem.

December 2019: As the Winter Meetings ended, MiLB went public with a point-by-point response to MLB’s plan to reduce the minor leagues.

December 2019: In response, MLB laid out the threat that had long hung over the negotiations. If MiLB was not amenable to some form of MLB’s plan, MLB could walk away from talks and set up their own system. Baseball America explained

Those 191 words contain the threat that could forever change professional baseball in the United States. If no PBA can be reached by the end of the current deal (Sept. 30, 2020), MLB could decide to leave behind the existing minor league structure and develop a new system. Assuredly, some existing MiLB teams would be offered a choice—join the new MLB system or stay with the current MiLB system (but without the players that are currently provided by MLB teams).

January 2020: MiLB sent a letter to MLB laying out in detail their viewpoints and their stances on the negotiations. MLB quickly sent a reponse back to MiLB.

January 2020: There had been plenty of public discussion of how political pressure could rise to remove baseball’s antitrust exemption in an effort to thwart MLB’s plans. Baseball America explained why that was highly unlikely.

March 2020: The already difficult discussions between MLB and MiLB were quickly derailed by an unexpected, unrelated event. The coronavirus pandemic led to a shutdown of baseball in March. Immediately talks between MLB and MiLB were put on hold. Almost as quickly, MiLB teams realized that the shutdown could have a significant impact on the economic health of MiLB teams.

“I’ve been in the front office when we went through the aftermath of 9/11. During the recession in 2008-2009 I was opening up the Bowling Green ballpark, selling a new ballpark when the economy was going the wrong way. Those are blips compared to this,” said Erie Seawolves President Greg Coleman.

April 2020: The coronavirus shutdown quickly led to suggestions of a short-term renewal of the current PBA, which would push discussions about MiLB contraction, realignment and other issues to a year or two into the future. Baseball America explained why that was very unlikely to happen. We also noted that before talks resumed, MLB had already set in place the conditions that virtually required MiLB contraction. In an agreement with the Major League Baseball Players Association, MLB reduced the first-year player draft to as few as five rounds. By doing so, it ensured there would be fewer players coming into pro ball, which also means fewer players to fill short-season rosters.

MiLB was in no way a party to the negotiations about the draft. But other than the amateur players who will now go undrafted, it’s hard to think of a group that will be more affected by the decision. A year ago, more than 950 players entered the minors through the draft. This year, that number could be reduced to around 160.

With so many fewer players, the rationale for having short-season and rookie clubs (the ones that are largely on MLB’s chopping block) becomes much more tenuous. The Yankees signed 30 players in the 2019 draft. If this year’s draft is limited to five rounds, they will get to sign three.

April 2020: We asked a wide range of MLB front office officials to weigh in on what they thought about the proposed changes to MiLB.

April 2020: Baseball America reported that MiLB negotiators were willing to agree to a reduction of MiLB teams as part of a broader deal with MiLB. It also was noted in the story that MLB might take over governance of the minor leagues.

April 2020: While there was plenty of speculation of which MiLB teams could be eliminated, Baseball America laid out why it was impossible to really know who was ticketed for elimination.

May 2020: By May, MiLB owners as well as MLB teams were operating under the assumption that MLB would get its wishes to cut the number of teams and that MLB would be operating MiLB in 2021 and beyond. That created a “wild West” situation where MiLB teams were working hard (and sometimes in violation of current PBA rules) to find an MLB partner.

For MiLB clubs (and to some extent MLB teams) the perceived danger of sitting back and waiting for decisions to be made is viewed as riskier than running the risk of violating MiLB’s current rules. MiLB teams expecting to be eliminated from affiliated ball see plenty of upside in finding a MLB suitor.

For any team that moves from being on the cut-list to being safe, another team will have to be added to the list of teams dropped from affiliated baseball. So that first wave of discussions between MLB and MiLB teams led some MiLB teams who considered themselves safe to also consider discussions to ensure they have a safe landing spot.

If an MiLB team gave an MLB team an ownership stake in its club for no compensation or at well below-market value value, it could raise legal questions, according to multiple MiLB owners. But determining fair market value right now is quite difficult. With the MiLB season currently suspended because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, MiLB teams are facing significant financial losses. It has put the economic viability of some teams into question.

May 2020: To try to explain what was going on in negotiations and what it would mean, we answered the questions that fans kept asking us.

June 2020: Baseball America reported that there was a possibility that other independent teams, most notably the Somerset Patriots, could end up as part of affiliated baseball.

June 2020: On June 30, the MiLB season was officially cancelled. MiLB announced that MLB had informed it that because of the coronavirus pandemic it would not be able to provide players to MiLB teams. It marked the first time since the creation of the minor leagues that no MiLB games were played and no champions were crowned.

July 2020: We marked the three-month anniversary of the last time MLB and MiLB’s negotiators got together for formal talks by looking at what they would be talking about once they did return to the table. Included in our reporting was the possibility that MLB would flip high Class A and low Class A. (The final result appears to be a little different from how we first reported it).

July 2020: Baseball America laid out in detail how MLB’s push to reorganize the minor leagues was part of a bigger and broader initiative by which it was also looking to expand its connections and reach to include the independent leagues, amateur baseball and softball. We looked at what MLB’s plans for “One Baseball” would include.

August 2020: Before the two sides got back to the negotiating table, MiLB President Pat O’Conner removed the MiLB negotiating team and replaced them with a “transition team.” Our reporting indicated that MiLB’s now-replaced team had indicated their willingness to accept a reduction in MiLB teams and potentially accept MLB taking over governance of the minor leagues.

A number of MiLB owners have long said they feared O’Conner might try to disrupt negotiations if they were headed toward an agreement that would result in MLB taking over governance of the minors, which would result in the elimination of Minor League Baseball office’s role.

At this point, there is a core internal disagreement that MiLB owners and offices have to resolve. There are MiLB owners who view maintaining independence from MLB as important, but there are many others who are quite willing to have MLB take over running the minors as long as their concerns about franchise valuations and long-term security are met. Other MiLB owners prefer an MLB-run minor leagues to the current system.

August 2020: MiLB’s new negotiating team presented a proposal to MLB that would have reduced the minors to four full-season levels, but would have also preserved MiLB’s independence with MiLB retaining a reduced office in St. Petersburg, Fla. Baseball America reported that multiple MiLB owners told MLB that they did not feel the new negotiating team represented their interest and desires.

August 2020: We explained MiLB’s new proposal, which included having the Florida State League and New York-Penn League split a full season, with players playing the first half of the year in Florida before traveling north for the second half of the year. It also would have significantly raised the admittance fee to $35 million.

August 2020: The MiLB Board of Trustees replaced O’Conner’s “transition team” with its own negotiating team, giving MiLB its third negotiating team in just 10 days. The move set up a potential internal struggle between the MiLB Board of Trustees and O’Conner. O’Conner had laid out that he believed he retained sole power to choose who negotiates for MiLB.

It’s not clear, however, whether or when the new group will actually get a chance to negotiate. Before the Aug. 11 Board of Trustees meeting, O’Conner spelled out in clear terms that he believes he holds sole power to select and guide who negotiates for MiLB in its discussions with MLB.

O’Conner believes the National Association Agreement that governs Minor League Baseball gives him power in such matters. The trustees have sent the proposal for the new negotiating team to O’Conner for his approval, signaling their understanding of O’Conner’s authority over negotiations. O’Conner has not yet approved the new committee.

In recent weeks, there has been a steady push from many MiLB owners to wrest the power of negotiations away from O’Conner. Multiple owners have said privately that they see O’Conner’s interests in the negotiations as different from theirs.

August 2020: If a PBA agreement ever came to a vote, we explained how it would be ratified.

August 2020: O’Conner approved the Board of Trustees negotiating team with a couple of tweaks.

August 2020: One of the foundational issues involved in the MLB-MiLB talks is MiLB owners concerns about franchise values and long-term franchise value appreciation. Figuring out exactly how to value an MiLB franchise has always been complicated, and with these talks, those complications have only grown.

August 2020: If you wonder where this MLB-MiLB argument began, you can look to high Class A, where an imbalance of desirable MiLB teams and undesirable ones meant that the affiliation shuffle every two years kept pushing up Carolina League franchise valuations.

August 2020: The two sides were scheduled to meet on Aug. 27. That was the first meeting since the two sides talked on April 22. The Aug. 27 meeting was just 35 days before the current Professional Baseball Agreement expired.

August 2020: On Aug. 27 at their first meeting in four months, MLB laid out in detail its plans for the minor leagues. Baseball America reported on all the details.

August 2020: One of the ideas in the MLB proposal? A Baseball Cup by which MLB teams would play against MiLB teams in an in-season tournament.

September 2020: As the deadline to the expiration of the current PBA neared, Baseball America examined why MLB’s leverage (and MiLB’s lack of leverage) in talks was so imbalanced.

September 2020: We answered more fans questions to try to explain what all the very complicated negotiations mean for MiLB, players, teams and fans.

September 2020: MiLB President Pat O’Conner announced that he was retiring. The announcement was viewed as an acknowledgement that MLB would take over the operations of the minors going forward. In his retirement announcement, O’Conner stated that the desires of MiLB’s owners for what they wanted in the negotiations did not align with his views.

“It is clear my vision for the organization, and the path to achieve that vision, is not adequately aligned with the Board of Trustees,” he said. “I feel it is in the best interests of the organization that I retire and allow the Board of Trustees to pursue its vision in the manner they chose.”

September 2020: A week before the PBA was set to expire there was optimism that a deal might be reached in October (that did not happen).

September 2020: The three largest independent leagues (the American Association, Atlantic and Frontier Leagues) announced that they have become “Partner Leagues” with MLB. The leagues will have closer ties both in baseball terms and in business terms. The announcement brings to fruition much of what Baseball America laid out in its “One Baseball” story months before.

September 2020: The Appalachian League announced that it has agreed to become a summer amateur wood bat league in partnership with USA Baseball under the direction of MLB. The announcement signifies the first resolution of a league ticketed for elimination under MLB’s plans to reorganize the minors. The Appalachian League was always in a unique situation as its teams are all owned by MLB clubs. The league hopes to fill a niche in the competitive summer wood bat space.

October 2020: On Oct. 1, MLB and MiLB woke up to a new landscape where there no longer was any current agreement between the two sides. We explained what had changed now that the PBA had expired.

October 2020: MLB announced that it had hired MiLB owner Peter Freund to assist with negotiations and helping to smooth its takeover of MiLB operations.

October 2020: MLB proposed to the New York-Penn League that at least some of its members join a new summer amateur wood bat league.

October 2020: MLB’s proposed facility upgrades will require most MiLB teams to undertake significant work at their stadiums. The facility standards would significantly improve the lighting at ballparks, require larger clubhouses, food preparation areas and locker rooms for female baseball staff.

November 2020: MLB has proposed significant changes to MiLB travel and scheduling rules. Bus travel would require two buses instead of one. There would be more hotel rooms for MiLB traveling parties and trips over a certain distance would require the teams fly.

November 2020: The Yankees are moving their Double-A affiliation from Trenton to Somerset and they are moving to Hudson Valley for high Class A. In the moves, Staten Island, the team’s current short-season affiliate would also be left out of the Yankees’ future plans.

November 2020: The Mets will field teams in Syracuse (Triple-A), Binghamton (Double-A), Brooklyn (high Class A) and St. Lucie (low Class A).

November 2020: Having heard feedback on how its proposed travel and start time rules would cause significant issues, especially for popular MiLB Thursday night promotions, MLB altered some of its travel rules.

November 2020: MLB announced that Peter Woodfork will be MLB’s new Senior VP of Minor League Operations.

November 2020: An MLB proposal would eliminate clubhouse dues for MiLB players and staff, but in doing so it may also require an awful lot more out of MiLB clubhouse managers.

November 2020: We’re keeping a run list of MiLB affiliation announcements for 2021.

November 2020: With short-season baseball set to disappear, we explain how it came to be in the 1960s.

November 2020: Under MLB’s plans the number of games each full season league will play will change from the 140 games it has been in recent years.

November 2020: MLB is expected to invite the 120 remaining affiliated teams to sign professional development licenses (PDLs) in the next week or two. MLB has told MiLB teams that it will do so in the “first week of December.”

November 2020: MLB has altered its plans for MiLB clubhouse managers.

November 2020: MLB gave Fresno an ultimatum: accept a move from Triple-A to the low Class A California League or be left out of affiliated baseball.

November 2020: The summer amateur wood bat Draft League (comprised of four New York-Penn League teams plus Trenton) was announced. Also, the Pioneer League announced that it will become a professional partner league for young undrafted players and released minor leaguers. Combined with the Appalachian League’s earlier announcement it means that 23 of the expected 43 teams being dropped from affiliated baseball now have 2021 plans.

December 2020: MLB is expected to restrict each MLB team to 180 domestic minor leaguers during the season in addition to up to two Dominican Summer League teams. That could lead to some creativity in how teams use their roster spots.

February 2021: All 120 invitees officially signed their PDLs, ushering in a new era of minor league baseball. Read more…

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