Partner Leagues Face Player Shortage As MLB Clubs Purchase Contracts At Record Rate
Are you a former professional pitcher or shortstop? Do you have some minor league experience?
Then if you haven’t given up on the dream, get off your couch, get back into a training facility and start getting back into shape. Because right now, there’s probably a job waiting for you. Actually, there are probably multiple teams waiting to sign you.
A confluence of events has left the baseball talent coffers dry, which has led professional partner leagues (known as independent leagues until this year) to set records for the number of players that have had their contracts sold to Major League Baseball teams.
The Atlantic League has sent 46 players to MLB clubs this year. The American Association has sent 64, and the Frontier League has sold 36 contracts.The Pioneer League has sold four contracts in its first year as a partner league.
That’s 150 players sent to MLB clubs and the partner league seasons are just a month old. At this time in 2019, those leagues had sent 77 players to MLB clubs. The American Association has already broken its record for player transfers in a year (50). The records for the Atlantic League (72) and Frontier League (53) are also on pace to be shattered as well.
At this time in 2019, the American Association had sold the contracts of 28 players; the Atlantic League had sold 35 contracts and the Frontier League had sold 14.
Talking to those involved in all aspects of the transactions market, there are a number of factors that seem to have come together all at the same time.
1) The normal flow of talent was disrupted.
Normally, the partner leagues get a massive influx of players who are released at the end of MLB spring training. But last year, the pandemic meant that those player releases were staggered. And there weren’t many operating independent league clubs in 2020 to sign them. So a number of those players left the game and haven’t returned this year.
With a five-round draft last year, MLB teams came into 2021 with fewer minor league players on rosters. So when spring training finished this year, the releases that partner league teams expected to pore over to fill out their rosters didn’t happen at anywhere close to their normal scale.
In 2019, by Baseball America’s records of transactions, MLB teams released 508 minor league players between Feb. 15 and April 6. This year during that same timeframe there were 80 releases.
So when the partner leagues began their seasons, they were already beginning with a smaller player pool. That means that partner leagues have had to get more creative when it comes to filling rosters. Multiple teams said that they have had to lower their sights—teams that in the past were searching for players with significant affiliated minor league experience have been looking at college seniors to try to fill depleted rosters.
2) The reorganized minor leagues left MLB teams without ready fill-ins.
When MLB reorganized the minors, cutting 40 teams and installing 180-player roster limits for each team, there was sure to be several knock-on effects.
All of a sudden minor league rosters switched from having a significant surplus of players in extended spring training (players who would have been sent to short-season and Rookie-level league clubs come June) to having a just-in-time inventory.
In most cases the only players left in extended spring training were players who are ticketed to head to Arizona and Florida complex leagues. Many of these are teenage Latin American signees in their first year in the U.S. They aren’t ready for Low-A, even as a fill-in injury replacement.
“There used to be a surplus of players built into the system,” Atlantic League president Rick White said. "But with the 180 active player rule and with the elimination of 40 affiliated locations, teams can’t look to their own system anymore. As the ripples go though the pond, they can’t absorb that loss."
So even if it was a normal year, MLB teams would be looking to the partner leagues for more players than they have in the past. In the past for example, a team with an injury at Triple-A could call up a reliever from High A to fill-in at Triple-A while another player was promoted to High-A from Low-A and a third came from extended spring training to Low-A.
This year, with no fill-in candidates in extended spring training, teams instead are searching through the partner leagues for a replacement. In many cases the players they sign head straight to Double-A or Triple-A.
That would have been true in a normal year. But when it comes to injuries, this isn’t a normal year. The number of players signed has been greatly increased by the number of injured players who need replacing.
“We’re talking with teams that we hadn’t talked to in three or four years,” White said.
3) Some of the cost savings generated by cutting teams is being spent on player acquisitions.
If you want to know just how crazy the market has been, just look to the fact that the American Association doubled the price of acquiring players from $5,000 to $10,000. The rate of players who moved on to MLB teams hasn’t slowed at all.
“MLB teams haven’t blinked,” American Association commissioner Joshua Schaub said.
Whether it’s $5,000 (the price in the Frontier League and Atlantic League) or $10,000 (American Association), the large number of players whose contracts are being sold is adding up.
The cost in the offseason can be different than the cost during the season, but 127 players have transferred and the cost for baseball as an industry has likely gone well over $600,000 so far with more to come. Multiple MLB teams said they have already spent significantly more on player acquisitions than they do in a normal year.
There have been further effects. The price for Mexican League teams looking to add veteran US talent has also gone up—the significant pay raise that comes from jumping from an indy ball league to the Mexican League has usually been enough to induce players to head south of the border, but this year, that price has gone up because players know they have a better chance of landing a Triple-A job.
4) Injuries are taking a bigger bite
Everyone feared that the long layoff would lead to more injuries as players returned to action in 2021. And so far, those fears are being realized.
As of June 23, there were 910 major and minor leaguers on injured lists. That’s one injured player for every seven healthy players on active rosters. The Cubs, Phillies, Mets, Reds and Yankees all have 40 or more players currently on injured lists.
The thinner minor league rosters were going to lead to a heavier reliance on teams turning to partner leagues to fill roster spots. The increased number of injuries has led to there being a larger demand than usual for those fill-ins.
5) It's Been Rewarding For Long-Time Veterans
Usually, MLB teams have little interest in indy ball/partner league players once they turn 30 years old. This year, those adages seem to have been thrown out the window. RIghthander Kevin McGovern spent 10 years in the independent leagues. He pitched in the Pecos, Frontier and American Association, but he'd never spent a day in affiliated ball. This year, the Cardinals purchased his contract from Fargo-Moorhead (American Association). As a 32-year-old he made his affiliated MiLB debut this month. He's currently 0-0, 1.42 in two appearances (6.1 innings) with Double-A Springfield.
"Age right now is not a factor," said Jamie Keefe, manager of the Atlantic League’s High Point Rockers. "We are getting calls. I got five or six calls about Mitch Adkins. He's 35."
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6) The quality of play is suffering
Complaints about the quality of play are as constant in baseball as complaints about the umpiring. When the Cincinnati Red Stockings played the first pro game in 1869, feel confident that someone in the crowd talked about how the play was better a few years before.
It’s hard to fully quantify how one year’s level of play compares to another. But conversations with scouts, managers and front office officials finds a constant theme—the consistency and level of play in both affiliated and partner leagues has dipped because of the injuries and the roster moves needed to fill those spaces.
This is especially true in the partner leagues.
“To lose five guys in the first 16 days of the season, four of whom are pitchers, and three of them are big leaguers or Triple-A guys? That will put a dent in any pitching staff,” said Josh Robertson, general manager of the American Association’s Cleburne Railroaders.
Partner league managers and player personnel directors keep hitting up their contacts in MLB front offices, looking for an early word of pending releases. Almost always what they hear is that no one is going to be released, and by the way, do you have a shortstop or pitcher we could sign?
“We can’t find replacements,” American Association commissioner Joshua Schaub said. “We can’t find pro level players to replace the players they sign.”
To try to fill the spots, partner league teams have been scouring the college ranks to try to convince graduating seniors to sign with their teams. While MLB teams are prohibited from signing graduating seniors until they have passed through the MLB draft, partner leagues face no such prohibitions. Those players are still eligible for the MLB draft. Tanner Roark is a past example of a player who played in indy ball (Frontier League) before being drafted and signed by an MLB club.
"I went from calling every MLB club to then talking to other indy ball managers. Now I’m on to the colleges--D-I/D-II/D-III schools I know. My first year in the Atlantic League that wasn’t in my thought process," Keefe said.
In the case of the American Association, the cost of a player transfer is waived in the case of a player being drafted. In other leagues, the cost of the transfer remains unless the player negotiates a waiver of the fee as part of his contract.
The confluence of events means that some of the factors leading to the run on partner league players will likely dissipate in 2022 and beyond. But the smaller affiliated rosters will likely ensure a more steady back and forth between affiliated and partner leagues than existed in the past.
The Orioles and Red Sox are the only MLB teams that have yet to sign a player from a partner league in 2021. Here’s a look at how many players each MLB team has signed. While 150 players overall have been transferred from partner leagues to affiliated ball, only the 128 deals that have been officially announced are included below.
|Los Angeles Angels||14|
|New York Mets||7|
|Toronto Blue Jays||7|
|Kansas City Royals||6|
|St. Louis Cardinals||6|
|Chicago White Sox||4|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||1|
|New York Yankees||1|
|San Diego Padres||1|
|San Francisco Giants||1|
|St Louis Cardinals||1|
|Tampa Bay Rays||1|