Image credit: (Photo by Zach Lucy/Four Seam)
When Major League Baseball proposed to Minor League Baseball last year its plan to cut the minor leagues from 160 teams to 120 affiliated teams in negotiations for a new Professional Baseball Agreement, such a proposal was greeted by many MiLB teams as unthinkable.
The world has changed dramatically over the past six months, especially now that the coronavirus pandemic has halted sports. When MLB and MiLB negotiators convene on a teleconference on Wednesday, multiple sources with knowledge of the negotiations say MiLB will indicate that it agrees to 120 affiliated teams in a new PBA.
Such a concession by MiLB could be a clear step toward a deal. MiLB has now agreed to find ways to come to agreement on almost all of MLB’s public demands. Now the open question is whether MLB will be willing to accept the concession as a foundation for a potential deal.
According to a source with insight into the thinking of both parties, MLB and MiLB have already found common ground on a number of the major outstanding issues that MLB deputy commissioner Dan Halem laid out publicly in a letter to members of Congress last November.
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Neither MLB or MiLB would comment publicly about ongoing negotiations.
While the exact details of timetables and funding mechanisms need to be worked out, both sides agree on the need to adopt improved facility standards. MiLB has signaled its understanding that the current Player Development Contracts by which minor league teams and parent organizations reach affiliation agreements will be modified to give MLB teams greater control over choosing their affiliates. MiLB has indicated a willingness to work with MLB on shortening travel and improving the geographical cohesiveness of leagues.
Now MiLB is expected to signal its assent to a system going forward where each MLB team will have four full-season affiliates, plus one Rookie-level team at its spring training complex. Such a move fulfills the largest remaining demand MLB has requested in these negotiations. MLB teams have looked to reduce the number of affiliates each team has. MLB had already reached agreement last month with the MLB Players Association to cut the number of rounds in the 2020 and 2021 drafts, which will almost assuredly cut the number of players MLB teams sign each year.
If both sides agree, it would mean as many as 42 current minor league teams would be lopped off by eliminating short-season and Rookie ball. Two independent league teams, the St. Paul Saints and Sugar Land Skeeters, would be added to affiliated ball. The two sides are working on a potential deal to ensure the majority of those 42 markets would have still have baseball with ties to MLB in a system that has long-term viability.
MLB’s initial plan last year laid out a “Dream League” for undrafted players as well as summer wood bat leagues for college prospects to replace affiliated ball in many of the cities that were on the chopping block. MiLB operators raised concerns that those proposals were not financially viable over the long term.
Now, MiLB and MLB are expected to discuss the parameters of a system where the two sides could work together to ensure that most of the cities that currently have affiliated baseball will have ties to MLB clubs, even if those cities’ teams will not be fielding draftees and signees of the MLB club. It wouldn’t be MLB’s initial proposal, but a system that has been adjusted to give those cities a better chance of having a viable long-term baseball operation.
There are many details for such a system that would need to be worked out, as far as what kind of financial and other support such teams would get from MLB and affiliated MiLB teams. But the general idea would be to ensure such cities continue to have reasonably high quality baseball in an economic system that would have staying power.
MiLB’s willingness to agree to 120 affiliated teams is a dramatic indication of just how much has changed in a few months. Before the novel coronavirus shut down all sports, MiLB was waging a public relations and political campaign to try to get MLB to agree to more than 120 teams.
Now, many MiLB teams are just trying to survive. Several MiLB teams have had to layoff or furlough significant numbers of staffers because the current season is suspended with no clear start date in sight.
For MiLB owners, the biggest desires in the negotiations are long-term security (avoiding a repeat of this difficult PBA negotiation in a few years), an assurance that their franchise values will be protected and a plan that provides as many cities and teams as possible a viable path forward.
Such a desire may lead MiLB teams to agree to a plan which would allow MLB to take over control of the governance of the minors, a possibility Ballpark Digest first reported last week.
If that happens, it would allow MLB to exert more direct control over all aspects of the minors, eliminating some of the governance issues that have bothered MLB in the past. Some MiLB owners have privately said that they find such a proposal appealing if it means that it gives them long-term security under the protection of MLB’s umbrella. No such proposal has yet been floated.
Said an MiLB source, “The minor league office going away has not been negotiated. Any conclusion otherwise is presumptuous at best.”