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Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Best of BP: MLB Shrinking MiLB is a Microcosm of the Nation’s Deepening Divide - Baseball ProspectusBaseball Prospectus

How much are players hurt if, instead of getting drafted and becoming low paid organizational fodder, these players get funneled into college programs and independent teams?

Somewhat lost among the frenzy of sign stealing, Major League Baseball’s continued ineptitude when it comes to domestic violence, juiced (and unjuiced) baseballs, and various other scandals, was the league’s plan to contract 42 minor-league franchises, slashing baseball’s minor-league system by a quarter in 2021. Others have discussed the myriad negative consequences this will have on the game, from the Mike Piazzas and Jose Altuves of the world never getting their shot to the effect this bold-faced refusal to simply pay minor-league players a living wage will have on already tense labor relations. However, the most impactful consequence of eliminating so many minor-league teams will ultimately be the effect it has on the communities those teams call home, the reverberations of which will be felt across the country.


Jim Furtado Posted: December 31, 2019 at 11:02 AM | 19 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: minor leagues

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   1. Mayor Blomberg Posted: December 31, 2019 at 04:20 PM (#5912029)
The author mentions the relocation of the Nationals' MiLB franchise from Woodbridge to Fredericksburg as part of the "push from ownership groups for more urban stadiums." I get that F'burg is probably larger than Woodbridge, but how does going from a 6,000-seat stadium in the DC suburbs to a 5,000-seat stadium midway between DC and Richmond count as anything besides wanting a new stadium?
   2. Walt Davis Posted: December 31, 2019 at 08:25 PM (#5912064)
Of course size of the stadium is not the measure we're interested in. Over the last 5 years, Woodbridge averaged about 3,500 per game which was about middle of the pack in the Carolina League. I have no idea if they'll draw better in Fred Vegas but the loss of 1,000 usually empty seats probably won't affect that. That said, Fredericksburg town is teeny (<30,000) and I can't imagine the surrounding areas are more populous or wealthy than Prince William Cty (where Woodbridge is). So this does seem like an odd move based on numbers unless maybe there are a lot of teams in Prince William Cty.

On the general point, teams (minors especially) have to follow the population (and income) shifts. There are some surprising patterns of growth in some areas** but, in general, rural areas are in trouble in terms of aging populations, income, low education, etc. The entire Appy league totaled about 400,000 in attendance with nearly half of that being the Pulaski Yankees and the Johnson City Cardinals. Bluefield and Bristol both drew under 700 per game for 32-33 days a year. That doesn't seem viable.

** Surprised to see that despite the collapse of the US textile industry that Burlington NC and Alamance Cty have been growing by about 1% per year for the last 20 years. I'm not sure if that's suburbanization of the Triangle or substantial immigration (or both) ... or did somebody sneak in a major employer while I wasn't looking? ... but it is at least average growth.
   3. Walt Davis Posted: December 31, 2019 at 08:52 PM (#5912065)
Nerdy factoids:

By Census pop projections, it looks like deaths will not catch up to births anytime soon but they'll get pretty close. Currently there are about 50% more births than deaths but by 2040-2045 the gap will be down to about 10%. The "natural" population growth rate (i.e. births-deaths as proportion of total pop) over the next decade is projected to be in the range of 3-3.5% with the projected net migration (basically projected to be stable over the next 40 years) exceeding the natural increase around 2030 and being nearly double the natural increase around 2040. Of course Trump has already slashed legal migration substantially (not sure if these numbers include estimates of illegal migration) so if he has his way, net migration numbers will fall ... and if he has his way, out-migration numbers might go up.

The natural growth rate really continues to drop for 2030-40 then goes off the table for 2040-50 to about 0.1% per year (i.e. about 1% over a decade) before starting to grow a teeny bit. By 2050, net migration is projected to be more than 2.5 times larger than the natural increase.

(The projections are for 2017-60 but I think these are the latest available.)
   4. John Northey Posted: December 31, 2019 at 09:42 PM (#5912071)
With minor league teams vanishing doesn't that open up a hole for indy league teams to form? Thus somewhere for the future Piazza's to play? Yeah, the parks won't be as nice nor will many other aspects but baseball is baseball. In Thunder Bay where I used to live we only had a team that was made up of US college players and the odd Canadian. It was fun to watch - we went opening day each year and got excellent seats (they had a promotion for $25-50 a seat (depending on age) you could sit behind home plate in an all-you-can-eat area with unlimited hotdogs, popcorn, caeser salad (yeah a bit odd), and servers who brought you drinks. Well worth it. My daughter loved it. Now I live in London Ontario and as far as I know there is nothing here despite the city being 4 times the size of Thunder Bay and it used to have a AA team years ago. Sigh.
   5. The Run Fairy Posted: December 31, 2019 at 10:18 PM (#5912074)
Now I live in London Ontario and as far as I know there is nothing here despite the city being 4 times the size of Thunder Bay and it used to have a AA team years ago. Sigh.

London is home to the London Majors of the Intercounty Baseball League. The play out of Labatt Memorial Park, which is held to be the "oldest continually operating baseball grounds in the world". I'm not from London but I make a road trip once or twice per year to see them, it's worth checking out when the season starts next year.
   6. Walt Davis Posted: December 31, 2019 at 11:42 PM (#5912077)
#4: Sure, assuming indy ball can survive while offering players a livable wage (i.e. as "livable" as the current low minors pay) ... and provide them with an equivalent level of coaching and (meager) facilities that they'd get in rookie league or whatever. Basically that assumes that low-level, small-town minor-league baseball is a profitable venture even without MLB's subsidy ... in which case it would be hard to blame MLB for reducing/eliminating the subsidy. (Note this happened a few years ago with the Australia pro league. It still exists but I don't know if it's sent anybody to the majors recently.

Or of course as long as the Piazzas of the world are so naive as to stick with their dream even though it pays them nothing and they try to get by picking up shifts at the Home Depot that they'll play indy ball anyway (see 99% of the indie rock bands), then presumably they rake well enough or strike so many guys out that they get signed by somebody.

Anyway, there are a bejillion ways this could go, assuming Congress doesn't "force" MLB into keeping all the minors going. Guys picked after, say, the 20th/30th round might end up better off -- they're now FAs and can exercise at least some choice over which team to sign with. I assume we would see a lot more high school kids go onto college ball (or possibly go to Australia, Taiwan, Korea, Japan). Since you've got to wonder about any HS pick after the 5th round or so who signs, maybe those are the kids with really crappy grades -- maybe this leads to boon for junior college ball. Presumably teams will still sign Latin players at 16 but they still need to give them someplace to play for a year or two so maybe some of the rookie league teams get reconstituted in the DR. It will be interesting to see whether, with fewer spots to fill, this leads to fewer draft-eligible kids or fewer Latin kids (i.e. what mix).

The direct savings aside, surely MLB must be hoping that colleges will step in to provide the rookie/low-A level of development for these kids. But that will (mainly) be for N American kids, not Latin American ones. Maybe Latin American kids are where junior colleges step in?

Slightly related -- the Australian basketball league (not baseball) has started a new program where they entice a few top HS players to play their one year here before entering the draft. LaMelo Ball plays for my local team (currently injured); some other guy who had committed to Arizona decided to come here instead; there's another guy who was drafted out of Brazil by somebody, played for their summer league team and is now here. They sign a contract with the league who then assign them to a team, I assume they get more money than the usual schlub here. I'm sure it's still not a lot but more than the NCAA would pay them and if your grades suck or you're planning to go into the draft after one year anyway ... they certainly don't see as much elite talent as they would in a top conference but they are playing against veterans who are trying to make a career of this.

By the way, based on the one game I saw, LaMelo Ball can't shoot. Not just as in he's inaccurate (38% FG) but as in his form is completely messed up (elbow out, shoots from the side, sidespin not backspin). The rest of his game looked very good for 18 so maybe a shot coach can fix that. Around here they try to sell us on the idea he's a possible #1 overall (Bleacher Report puts him #6). RJ Hampton is also in the NBL this year, also seems to be hurt and didn't seem to be getting a lot of PT before that. (I haven't seen him play.) I suspect the league is forcing the teams to be extra cautious with these injuries -- last thing the NBL needs is for its shiny "steal a year" program to have its top two shiny guys end up dropping down the draft due to injury. Even if they're at no greater injury risk here than the NCAA, it won't take much bad publicity to keep the top guys away. (Ball has been out a month with a "bruised" foot.)

Not that I expect anything like that to happen in baseball -- it would require Japan or Korea to do it probably and they'd put their MLB relationship at risk. What I can imagine is MLB putting some more borderline prospects out "on loan" for a year to foreign leagues. The NBL program of course is competing with the NCAA for a top prospect not the NBA.
   7. McCoy Posted: January 01, 2020 at 08:48 AM (#5912092)
I think it basically means college and junior college will become the primary source for players. A team might have one or two minor league teams and the rest of the possible players will be in college.
   8. Rennie's Tenet Posted: January 01, 2020 at 11:15 AM (#5912107)
With minor league teams vanishing doesn't that open up a hole for indy league teams to form?

Indy teams have moved into towns vacated by affiliated teams. I don't know how many. I think about half the teams proposed for contraction have moved into their current towns since 1990, which is the last time MLB made a big issue of minor league facilities.
   9. Rennie's Tenet Posted: January 01, 2020 at 11:20 AM (#5912109)
What I can imagine is MLB putting some more borderline prospects out "on loan" for a year to foreign leagues

I think part of the MLB plan is to put a cap on the number of players an organization can have under contract. Of course, teams always find ways to slide around roster limits.
   10. John Northey Posted: January 01, 2020 at 02:02 PM (#5912147)
In truth do we really need AAA/AA/A+/A/short A/rookie/low rookie? The majors need a AAA team to feed the big team, a AA for prospects, and maybe an A as well. Short season teams are perfect for indy leagues and often the quality is around what indy gets now anyways. I could see ML teams signing kids and loaning them to Indy teams in the future (with strict rules on usage) while the draft goes down to a 10 round affair. Players from outside the US/Canada would be cut back a bit too.
   11. winnipegwhip Posted: January 01, 2020 at 02:15 PM (#5912151)
If MLB plans to use colleges to get their players they are (as usual) being short-sighted. With the NCAA only allowing a maximum (many schools provide less) of 11.7 scholarships to be spread out among a minimum of 27 players very few players get a full ride to school. The sport therefore continues to lose athletes to other sports. (If Yasiel Puig grew up in the USA he would have been a football or basketball player in my opinion.)

One fortunate development to help MLB if this is their plan is a cap has been taken off JUCOs which now can allow countless foreign players to play on teams. You now see Latin players going to school in D3 programs in Minnesota. This helps get more into post high school baseball but those players only have a window of two years to develop.

Of all the big four sports baseball is the one which players can develop later in their teens and early 20's. Many players have developed late. Adley Rutschman's freshman year at college his line was 234/322/306. By the end of his sophomore 2018 season he was the consensus No. 1 pick for 2019. The number one pick of the draft is proof that evaluation is an inexact process and by slicing the minors MLB will make more mistakes in procurement of talent. You can stick a jersey on a player and say he is a major league talent but it does not make it so (see Orioles, Marlins, Tigers).
   12. The Yankee Clapper Posted: January 01, 2020 at 02:51 PM (#5912160)
In truth do we really need AAA/AA/A+/A/short A/rookie/low rookie?
If MLB is going to continue signing 16-year olds from the Dominican Republic (and other countries) it probably needs something below A ball unless they are just going to do drills & intra-squad games.
   13. Walt Davis Posted: January 01, 2020 at 04:46 PM (#5912181)
I think part of the MLB plan is to put a cap on the number of players an organization can have under contract.

Sure but there are still injuries, promotions, indy-league breakouts you want to sign, etc.

With the NCAA only allowing a maximum (many schools provide less) of 11.7 scholarships to be spread out among a minimum of 27 players very few players get a full ride to school.

Good point but the NCAA can expand that number if they want to or it could result in better programs at some of the lesser schools (i.e. a top program grabs some extra top HS players so they kids that would have gotten scholarships there now move down to a scholarship in a lesser conference. The bigger issue may be the latter one -- how many colleges are willing to put money into their baseball programs? Surely it's not a revenue-producer, at least not at very many schools. Basketball and football of course produce a lot of revenue and exposure for some schools so they have reasons for providing this service free of charge to the NBA and NFL; it's not clear there's any reason for them to develop players for MLB>

I'm interested to see what effect this has on the number of Latin players signed. A lot of the organizational filler comes from Latin America and I assume it's still an attractive option for a kid from DR or Venezuela and if the draft-eligible kids do go to college, those spots will still be there for Latin players. Somebody still needs to discover these kids before they'll have a pipeline to the indy leagues -- which might just be the current DR/Venezuela leagues MLB runs and I assume will still have to run. Then we get into politcal questions of how open will US governments be to handing out visas for indy ball, JUCO, etc.

In truth do we really need AAA/AA/A+/A/short A/rookie/low rookie?

From the MLB fan's perspective, this is the $64,000 question that nobody knows the answer to. Clearly not if you're Soto or Acuna or Trout ... or a college stud like Bryant or Rendon or Strasburg. But MLB development has never been much of a science. The prevailing belief has been that you don't want to "over-challenge" even the talented kids. It hasn't necessarily been "take it slow" but it has been something of "let's see if his amateur dominance carries over against other recent amateurs." If yes, then promote; if no, then figure out what needs to change and keep him there until he shows progress. Repeat for as long as it takes for him to reach the majors.

For college draftees, it probably wouldn't make much difference at all. Many of them skip rookie and some A- anyway. Maybe MLB will more frequently wait for them to play the full 4 years before drafting. For top-level HS draftees, it probably won't make much difference. As one example, Javy Baez basically went straight to A ball. Lower-level HS draftees presumably go to college more often. The HS kids who would have been drafted in rounds that will no longer exist were probably not signing all that often anyway but will now be FAs who can maybe go to college or sign with an indy/foreign team where they will likely get competition on the order of rookie ball anyway. The college kids who would have been drafted in those rounds probably never had much chance anyway but have those same options plus, hopefully, a college degree.

In general, I doubt many future MLBers will get lost in this transition. Almost certainly some will although the vast majority of those would have been fringe AAAA types anyway.

The $64,001 question is whether indy ball sufficiently profitable that we will see enough teams spring up to fill the gap (and what level of pay can they offer while remaining profitable). If the answer is yes, then it's easy to understand why MLB would decide to no longer subsidize these teams. But if the answer is yes, one additional question is whether it would be more profitable for such a team to be affiliated with a ML team even without a subsidy ... and if that answer is yes, then don't go through all this grief, just reduce the subsidies.

But I suspect the answer is no, that it is not widely profitable to run these teams without the subsidies. And I don't expect the NCAA to be interested in providing that service beyond the extent it already does. Which just gets us back to the first question -- does it matter if some future Latin kid or late-round HS draftee who signs for some reason ends up over his head for a year or two in A-/A. Will that wreck his development such that he never makes it? [Granted, I don't understand how indy ball survives now, how there can be pro lacrosse leagues ... and apparently 4 of them per a recent poster ... why anybody would move to a foreign country to be paid very little to play "pro" basketball and why enough people are willing to pay enough money to watch those games ... so I likely under-estimate the ability of indy leagues to expand.]

I haven't had much success even finding a recent example of a very late HS draftee who signed and later made it. Not that I've looked hard and I'm sure they exist but a brief look suggested what I expected. For example, Max Muncy was a 41st round pick out of HS and wisely went to Baylor instead. He was later a 5th round pick and went straight to A-ball. There's no reason to think his path would change although possibly he'd have a bit more competition for his (I assume at least partial) scholarship.

It may be more the Latin kids. But even Willson Contreras (IF who would become a C who didn't hit very well when young) skipped over rookie ball to short season A- after two years in the DR leagues. He then had to repeat short-season A- which is when they began the transition to C. Does that level even exist anymore? If he's pushed into a tougher full-season league, presumably he hits even worse in year 1 and maybe the Cubs cut bait before switching him to C ... or maybe they have the bright idea of switching him to C mid-season of year 1 and he gets a head start on his path to the majors. Will any fringe-y players who struggle in that first step get a second season or is Willson released and then tries to find his way through indy ball? There may also be pressure from below -- suppose the Cubs sign a HS C drafted in the 5th round? Rather than spending a half-season in rookie ball, that kid will need Willson's spot but Willson isn't ready for promotion yet.

Willson didn't really hit at A ball at 21 either; or at A+ at 22; broke out at AA at 23. But the Cubs kept promoting him so they must have seen something so we can assume his partiulcar path to the majors would still be there. And his actual path might still have been interrupted if the Cubs had drafted a prospect C somewhere along the line.

Still, it's that path that might be most at risk. What if the Cubs don't see enough at 17-18 when he's still in the DR (he's actually Venezuelan but played in the DR leagues), will he find his way to indy/JUCO/NCAA? If the reduced number of slots in the minors forces them to release him after age 19, where does he go and does anybody have the bright idea to switch him to C?

I wonder how many of these position switches will get lost. To an extent, the Contreras experiment and switching Strop from IF to reliever at age 21 (sending him back to rookie ball for the first half of the season) occurred because teams had these minor-league slots to burn. With 20% (?) fewer slots, it's more likely that the gamble on Strop will block the progress of a reliever with seemingly better potential ... and he obviously would not have rookie ball to go back to.

Still, it's easy to see possible ways those things still happen. Even if Willson and Strop get released as IFs, they might catch on with another team or indy ball and still transition to new positions (although that seems less likely). Or if teams also run some centralized training facility, then Strop can go there instead of rookie ball to start his development as a pitcher (and Willson can do the same too).

Sorry, that was a long, meandering ramble even for me ... supposed to be first day back at work, I'm procrastinating.
   14. winnipegwhip Posted: January 02, 2020 at 01:05 AM (#5912260)
Good point but the NCAA can expand that number if they want to....

Even if they did wish to expand they have to align that with Title IX and they would have to add equal scholarships to female sports within their athletic departments or remove scholarships from other sports and I don't think the NCAA is going to reduce basketball or football scholarships on the men's side.
   15. DL from MN Posted: January 02, 2020 at 08:10 AM (#5912272)
I can see those college seniors finding a spot with a last-chance wood bat league after they graduate. They wouldn't get paid but what's one summer. After that season they would be looking for other opportunities.
   16. Rally Posted: January 02, 2020 at 08:26 AM (#5912273)
Sure, assuming indy ball can survive while offering players a livable wage (i.e. as "livable" as the current low minors pay)

From what I recall reading about Indy ball, players are barely a step up from volunteers. Their pay makes current low-level affiliate players look wealthy. Players are basically subsidized by either their own savings, family money, or help from host families. Unfortunately, there just does not appear to be any path that would result in the players getting enough money to cover living expenses, just not enough money going into the sport to start with.
   17. Dr. Pooks Posted: January 02, 2020 at 11:43 AM (#5912321)
I haven't had much success even finding a recent example of a very late HS draftee who signed and later made it.

Rowdy Tellez was a 30th round HS pick by the Jays in 2013.

He's not quite a major league regular yet (the Jays just signed Travis Shaw). I remember Tellez though was a supposedly a higher round talent with signability concerns who the Jays ended up redirecting monies to after they couldn't sign their first pick, Phil Bickford.
   18. Walt Davis Posted: January 02, 2020 at 04:49 PM (#5912453)
#16 ... that's what I assumed ... although of course that doesn't necessarily mean the owners aren't making enough profit that they could pay the players better. But it does suggest that replacing low-level minors with such teams will limit the "Piazza" stories to those kids who will put up with almost anything for another shot or two at their dream.

#14 ... well, let's see how the 2020 election goes. I don't see the Trump admin enforcing Title IX with much enthusiasm. But as I said, I don't think the NCAA has any incentive to help MLB here anyway so I think it's a moot point.

#17 ... according to the Wikis, Tellez got an $850,000 bonus so you're right in thinking he's not really an example.
   19. Starring RMc as Bradley Scotchman Posted: January 02, 2020 at 05:57 PM (#5912475)
If MLB plans to use colleges to get their players they are (as usual) being short-sighted.

I've pointed this out before, but college baseball can never be to MLB what college football and basketball are to the NFL and NBA, for one reason: the baseball season is incompatible with the school year.

If the college season could somehow be structured to play in the spring, summer and early fall, it might work. A player could, say, play for his college team in the spring, a college-afilliated wooden bat league team in the summer and again for the college team in the fall (even if he's already graduated). Too complicated, probably. (Maybe the college season could be split into two parts, part 1 from Aug to Oct and part 2 from March to June?)

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