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Cooper: MLB Can No Longer Afford To Treat Minor Leaguers Like Seasonal Athletes

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For decades, the debate has raged. Are 18-to-21-year-old prospects better served by developing in college programs or with professional instruction in the minor leagues?

The issue has always been complex, with no universal answers. The calculation changes based on each player’s signing bonus out of high school. For example, a first-round pick could command $4 million, whereas a mid-round pick might get $250,000 or even $100,000 if drafted after the 10th round.

But as we enter for the 2020s, the debate seems to be reaching a conclusion. College baseball has won. Or, more accurately, Major League Baseball has stopped trying to participate in the debate.

It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that MLB is waving the white flag and conceding that colleges are better equipped to develop the the vast majority of players in the 18-21 age range.

At the very least, MLB is conceding it’s more efficient that way.

Two main factors will effectively close the door to professional baseball for many high school players—and player-development will look much different in 2021.

The two minor league classifications in between complex Rookie ball and low Class A, i.e. short-season and Rookie-level, are expected to be eliminated. And the draft is scheduled to be shorter—down from 40 rounds in past years to 20 in 2021. Of course, the draft was just five rounds this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Front office officials with multiple organizations said that under a five-affiliate format—Rookie complex, low Class A, high Class A, Double-A, Triple-A—it would be difficult to draft and develop less polished or inexperienced high school players who aren’t clearly ready for full-season ball soon after they are drafted.

Such a shift will lead to myriad changes. College baseball is not a full scholarship sport, and so there are legitimate concerns among MLB front office officials as to whether this move will make baseball even less competitive when it comes to attracting multi-sport athletes. Others fear this will make it harder to attract black players.

But that’s been only part of the long-running debate. The question that college coaches and MLB scouts have long debated is whether the average player develops better in the minor leagues or in college baseball. MLB argues that its players get more games, more at-bats and more innings than college baseball players. And there is a truth to that.

College baseball has argued that, even with fewer games, it provides more training. And coaches have argued that the social and developmental aspects of college, not to mention the educational benefits for players’ post-baseball careers, make college the smart decision for prospective big leaguers.

Both sides have solid arguments.

But baseball is now a year-round sport, and when it comes to training, weight room work and other aspects of development, MLB is stuck in an obsolete mentality.

MLB hasn’t fallen behind because it isn’t aware of the latest technology. It’s not because strength and conditioning coaches in the minor leagues are not up to par with their peers in college. But MLB still treats minor leaguers as part-time athletes in a time when that’s not an effective way to develop.

A college player at a quality program can count on having access to a top-notch training facility and can consult with trained professionals who will help him. He hits in a batting cage or pitches off a practice mound equipped with industry standard radar-tracking devices and high-speed cameras. He eats at a cafeteria where the food is plentiful and he has access to nutritionists who will help guide him to eat in a way that is healthy for his performance needs. There’s also likely a sports psychologist he can consult with as needed.

Therefore, college players have the opportunity to develop for 10 months a year.

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The pro player has similar resources, but only for seven or eight months. From the moment a minor leaguer shows up for spring training in early March, he has access to top-notch training facilities. He uses the same tech that the college player uses. He also has access to some nutritious food, at least for dinner at the ballpark (and potentially lunch).

But the season ends in September. And at that point, or a month later if he’s invited to instructional league, the pro player is sent home. In some organizations, the player will be given an offseason training plan. But unless he decides to relocate to live near his organization’s Arizona or Florida spring training facility, that player is on his own from October to February. If he wants to train—and he needs to—he’ll have to find his own facility to do so and pay out of his own pocket.

“The majority of minor leaguers go home and have to find work in the offseason and don’t have the time nor means to train full-time as a professional athlete,” said one minor league baseball coordinator. “It doesn’t make sense that organizations sign players for thousands of dollars, sometimes millions, and then leave them to train on their own for the entire offseason.”

The change to that approach could be as simple as an MLB organization telling its minor league players that it will cover the costs for them to join a training facility near where they live in the offseason. It could be as elaborate as a team paying its minor leaguers year-round to relocate to train at the club’s spring training complex.

For major league players, who are all well compensated, and for draftees who received significant signing bonuses, it’s an easy decision for them to pay out of their own pocket to train, retool and work to improve during the offseason. The potential long-term benefits are well worth the investment.

But for every million-dollar minor leaguer, there are 10 teammates who didn’t receive a large signing bonus.

MLB has said that the reduction in the number of minor league players will be used to boost the salaries of the remaining minor leaguers. That helps, but it’s long overdue for MLB to treat baseball and player development like the year-round process that it is. Covering the costs of offseason training would be a step in that direction.

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