Proposed MiLB Reorganization Part Of MLB's Larger "One Baseball" Plans
In its dealings with Minor League Baseball’s negotiating committee, Major League Baseball has made clear its desire to take over control of running the minors. As MLB has explained it to MiLB, it believes that it can run the minors less expensively while producing more revenue for minor league teams. Such a move would also allow MLB to exert more direct control over some of the aspects of Minor League Baseball that currently cause hurdles for MLB’s desires.
That MLB takeover is expected to happen later this year, either through an agreement with Minor League Baseball teams' owners to adopt a new system or through a decision to set up MLB’s own development system after the current Professional Baseball Agreement expires on Sept. 30.
Understandably, that massive realignment of the minors has been the focus of much attention. But in reality it is only a part of MLB’s plans for baseball in the 2020s and beyond. Through its marketing muscle and new agreements, MLB is looking to take on a much larger role in guiding baseball at all levels in the United States and around the world.
Five years after he took over as commissioner, Rob Manfred appears much closer to his goal of “One Baseball,” a term he began using regularly as soon as he took over for Bud Selig. Under MLB’s plans, it will play a much more significant guiding role, and possibly a larger financial one, in the game at almost all levels.
Under its plan, MLB would stand as the coordinating decision-maker and guiding force at the head of much of baseball and softball throughout the U.S.
“Every baseball organization in the country is aligned on the idea that more people should be playing, watching and loving baseball and softball," MLB executive vice president for economics and operations Morgan Sword said. "We are hopeful we can do more going forward to create a mutual recognition of that shared interest."
Baseball America has gathered information on MLB’s plans through conversations with dozens of people at all levels of the game. No one was willing to go on the record about plans that have yet to be fully finalized, and many of the people were only aware of small snippets of MLB’s big-picture goals.
But in piecing together fragments from around the sport, the overall vision of MLB’s plan becomes relatively clear, and it largely expands on what Manfred said soon after he took over as commissioner in 2015. Then, the commissioner quickly made clear his view that MLB should be the driving force for baseball throughout the U.S. and around the globe.
Speaking to the American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA) in 2015, Manfred laid out his vision of “One Baseball” as Baseball America reported at the time.
“Major League Baseball is committed to the idea that we are going to be more actively engaged with all parts of the baseball community at all levels....Our tagline for this effort is ‘One Baseball,’” Manfred said. “We want one umbrella effort, with Major League Baseball at the top of it, but involving college, high school and various youth programs. Going forward, we have to attack the youth and amateur market in a single unified and coherent way.”
Over the past five years, MLB’s efforts to build “One Baseball” had largely been focused on the amateur arena. Under MLB’s direction, USA Baseball, which is significantly funded by MLB, has taken on a larger role as a guiding force in amateur baseball. USA Baseball now provides significantly more coaching resources for amateur coaches and has spearheaded the “Pitch Smart” directive to help protect young pitchers from overuse.
The RBI Baseball program has continued to expand to help provide baseball opportunities to underserved populations in cities around the country. And over the last few years, USA Baseball and MLB have developed the Prospect Development Pipeline, which provides instruction and scouting events for top high school players. It provides a supplement, and in some cases an alternative, to the traditional summer showcase events.
Recently, MLB has worked to build deeper connections to college baseball, although the exact depth of their relationship under the “One Baseball” model is not entirely clear.
MLB planned to hold the draft in Omaha at the site of the College World Series this year before that plan was scrubbed because of the novel coronavirus. The fact that MLB and NCAA were willing to work together on the draft, often a subject of disagreement in the past between the two sides, signifies a closer working relationship between the two parties.
MLB’s push to eliminate the rookie and short-season leagues in Minor League Baseball, along with a reduction in the number of rounds of the draft, can also be viewed as benefiting college baseball. Those are items that college coaches in some cases have long requested.
The recent “New Baseball Model,” spearheaded by Michigan coach Erik Bakich, proposed moving the college season back by four weeks to a March-July schedule.
The plan notes the opportunities for closer ties to MLB. The proposal said “with minor league baseball contracting and the MLB draft being shortened, the opportunity to develop a partnership with professional baseball is better than ever.” The proposal also said that “with less juniors needing to utilize the MLB college scholarship plan to finish their degree, discussions of Major League Baseball subsidizing college baseball’s 11.7 scholarships can actually gain traction, especially if the scholarships are for need-based families.”
The “New Baseball Model” plan would be difficult to implement without the later draft dates that MLB has now indicated it is adopting.
Beyond that, MLB’s recent moves, such pushing the MLB draft later and cutting its number of rounds and trying to eliminate short-season and rookie ball, are all ones that have been met by near universal acclaim from college baseball coaches, as these moves all put further emphasis on college baseball being the primary development vehicle for North American players aged 18 to 21.
When Manfred first spoke about “One Baseball,” his comments focused on amateur and youth baseball. At the time, MLB’s existing Professional Baseball Agreement with Minor League Baseball still had five years remaining. Now that the PBA is expiring, the timing appears to be right for MLB to expand “One Baseball” to encompass the professional game. If MLB achieves its goal, MLB will massively expand its umbrella over various aspects of the game in the 2020s.
Much of the focus for MLB’s desires at expansion has been centered on its likely successful attempt to take over control of the minor leagues, which are currently run by the Minor League Baseball office in St. Petersburg, Fla. But MLB’s efforts go beyond just MiLB.
At the same time it was negotiating with Minor League Baseball, MLB began talking to the major independent leagues quite publicly at the 2019 Winter Meetings in San Diego. At the time, the prevailing thought was that the independent leagues could offer a backstop of potential markets and stadiums if MLB opted to walk away from Minor League Baseball at the end of the PBA.
The conversations appear to have gone further and in a different direction. It is expected that, as part of its takeover of control of MiLB, it is also looking to enter into a much closer relationship with at least the Atlantic League, American Association and Frontier League, and possibly other independent leagues. While those leagues will not be affiliated ball, they will have significantly closer ties with MLB. It is possible that independent baseball will be renamed in the process to signify the newfound relationship with MLB.
The walls that have divided affiliated and independent baseball would blur significantly under this new plan. The current territorial rules that have long prevented many independent league markets from being in affiliated ball are expected to be torn up.
Simply being able to tout an association with Major League Baseball would be valuable to current independent leagues, something the Atlantic League noted when it formed a relationship with Major League Baseball to test rules changes in 2019.
MLB’s direct influence over the game will likely go far beyond that. MLB has looked at setting up a summer wood-bat league or leagues for rising sophomores, likely to be played in the cities that have previously hosted Appalachian League teams. It already has ties to the summer wood bat Cape Cod League, which it sends financial support. It could develop further ties with other existing wood-bat leagues.
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MLB is also expected to create a showcase league for older college players as well, allowing rising seniors who are seen as draftable prospects to play in a league after their college season ends, showcasing their talents in advance of the MLB draft (which will take place later than now) while retaining eligibility to return to school for their senior year if they do not sign to go pro.
The status of the proposed MLB “dream league,” which was described by MLB officials as a league for undrafted players ,is less clear at this point. But whether through coordination with existing independent leagues or setting up leagues of its own, MLB has discussed ways to have non-drafted players surface through various leagues.
Also, if MLB is going to live up to its frequently stated promise of offering baseball in each city that is losing affiliated baseball under its plan, it will need to set up multiple leagues while also working with existing leagues to add teams in cities left out of the 120 MiLB teams expected to operate moving forward.
Such a system would allow MLB to exert control, or at least have significant influence. over the direction of baseball at many levels. And it would present MLB with the opportunity to market across multiple levels of the game. Potentially, MLB could add 200-300 additional cities and teams to sponsorship deals that currently encompass the 30 MLB teams, or set up separate deals that would package affiliated, independent and some amateur leagues.
Such coordination would also likely involve MLB providing statistical services, Web hosting and other items like video hosting and production. MLB could more deeply integrate and promote MiLB games in the process—envision pop-ups in MLB.TV broadcasts that tell you when top minor league prospects for that team’s farm clubs are stepping to bat and offer to take you to that broadcast.
The additional revenue MLB would raise in such deals could be significant for minor league and other operators. Such promises of increased revenue are one of the reasons MLB has found many MiLB owners receptive to letting MLB coordinate and run the affiliated minors.
Closer ties to other leagues would also potentially fit with MLB’s proposed license system for the affiliated minors. Under MLB’s proposed system, there would be two different licenses. For teams who already meet or exceed MLB facility standards in new ballparks in desirable markets with solid ownership groups, there is expected to be a long-term license that could stretch for a decade or longer without the need for renewal. Teams would be required to continue to meet MLB-prescribed standards.
Minor league teams among the 120 full-season clubs MLB expects to work with beginning in 2021 who fail to meet all of the standards will be offered a provisional or shorter-term license.
Baseball America has been unable to learn exactly how long those provisional licenses would be, but multiple people said they expected they would be between three to five years. If at the end of its provisional period, the facilities have not been upgraded to meet MLB’s desires, the team could lose its license to operate as an affiliated team.
But with MLB playing a much larger role in coordinating leagues at various levels of baseball beyond affiliated ball, such a move would likely lead to the city and team that loses its license dropping down to either independent or summer amateur ball, rather than simply losing baseball overall.
Similarly, MLB’s coordination and association with multiple levels of baseball would provide a ready group of potential cities and stadiums to move up to affiliated ball. A nearby independent team with a facility that meets MLB’s standards could slide into affiliated ball while the affiliated team moves to independent ball, much like the way teams in European soccer leagues move up or down with relegation (although in this case, the moves would be determined by MLB, not by on-field success or failure). These teams would also provide a ready source of potential sites for expansion if MLB expands by two teams as expected.
Making such a system work would likely involve wiping away the currently expansive territorial rules. Currently, multiple independent and summer college league teams operate within the territories of affiliated minor league or major league teams.
Multiple people with knowledge of MLB’s plans said they also expect MLB to deepen its ties to youth leagues. MLB already has a deep relationship with Little League Baseball and plays an annual game at Williamsport, Pa. in conjunction with the Little League World Series.
There may be other aspects of the MLB “umbrella” of coordination. Multiple sources said they expect that MLB will also play a much larger role in girls and women’s softball in America going forward, bringing the two diamond sports closer together as far as support, marketing, promotion and development.
When Kennesaw Mountain Landis became Major League Baseball’s first commissioner in 1920, he took the title of Commissioner of Baseball.
At the time, such a title was more aspirational than accurate. The Federal League, a third major league with no ties to MLB, had folded just five years before. And Landis’ powers over the minor leagues, which stretched from coast to coast, were very modest.
Over the past century, the commissioner’s role has grown, but 100 years after Landis became the first Commissioner of Baseball, Manfred is slated to make that title much more of a reality.