Cubs Would Lose Two Affiliates, but MLB’s Ruthless Proposal to Eliminate 42 MiLB Teams Would Not Decimate System

In the latest iteration of his ongoing plot to kill baseball, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is taking a page out of The Terminator by trying to snuff the sport out before it gets fully developed. Analogical discrepancies aside, the idea is that MLB’s proposal for changes to the professional baseball agreement that governs the relationship with minor league teams would make sweeping changes to the farm system concept as we now know it.

The PBA doesn’t expire until after the 2020 season so this is all still open to negotiation, but the slash-and-burn strategy being employed at the outset tells you all you need to know about the league’s thoughts. According to Bill Madden of the New York Daily News, the man spearheading this proposal from the MLB side is Jeff Luhnow, the man who’s presided over systematic cheating as Astros president and GM.

Madden further reports that Luhnow received major support from two former employees, David Stearns of the Brewers and Mike Elias of the Orioles, though that’s really just circumstantial. The proposal then received a unanimous 30-0 when it was first presented “a few months ago,” so it’s not as though any non-Luhnow acolytes get to claim moral high ground. If you would prefer to feel your team is less icky, perhaps you’d like to cling to a sliver of belief that some execs weren’t very well informed of what was actually in the proposal.

After all, isn’t that pretty much how government works?

J.J. Cooper has an incredibly detailed account of the potential changes over at Baseball America — since it’s a free article, Ben Badler won’t be upset that I’m linking to it — so check that out for more specifics of the entire proposal. In the meantime, I’ll provide some of the highlights here.

  • The number of minor league clubs affiliated with MLB teams would be cut from 160 to 120, with two current independent teams gaining MLB affiliations. That means 42 current teams — most from the short-season New York-Penn, Appalachian, Northwest, and Pioneer leagues — would no longer be affiliated.
  • The number of roster spots for minor league systems would be limited to 150-200 players. Since that number is currently uncapped, it could mean up to a nearly 50% reduction for some teams. The Yankees currently employ 285 minor leaguers across eight affiliates, so that’s 85-135 fewer players.
  • All four MiLB classes would remain intact, but would be completely reworked to based on geography. For example, the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in which the Iowa Cubs play would shrink from 16 teams to 10.
  • The short-season Northwest League in which the Eugene Emeralds play would move to full-season ball.
  • The draft would be moved from June to August and could see its length halved, from 40 to 20-25 rounds.
  • Undrafted and newly unaffiliated players would either find spots on indy teams or join the proposed Dream League, a joint MLB-MiLB venture that would serve as something like the G-League in the NBA. While there would be a loose general affiliation, it’d basically be a giant independent league.
  • MLB teams would be limited to five minor league clubs in the US, with four full-season teams plus one complex-based rookie-league affiliate. The Cubs currently have four full-season affiliates, one short-season, and two rookie-league teams in Mesa.

Whew, that’s still kind of a lot even without all the additional context behind the individual moves. For instance, how moving the draft is aimed at letting prep and college players complete their seasons or how basing leagues on geography will eliminate some of the crazy travel schedules these players face. The Des Moines-based I-Cubs are surely one of the teams that would be removed from the PCL, which is understandable given their distance from other teams in that league.

MLB’s public stance is that this proposal is aimed at improving overall wellness for minor leaguers, which would include better facilities and less travel. It would also likely mean higher pay for affiliated players, with Cooper reporting that many expect minimum salaries to increase by as much as 50 percent. That’s in keeping with the Blue Jays’ proactive decision to bump the pay of the players in their system, a move that did not sit well with the rest of MLB.

Since teams are responsible for paying the salaries and benefits of players and coaches of all minor league affiliates, an increase in the minimum pay means adding to the bottom line. Remember, though, we’re just talking about raising the minimums here. The average monthly pay for a short-season player is $1,100 per month, so you’ve got a lot of players earning much less. It’s also important to note that players aren’t paid during spring training and extended spring training, a situation that led a class-action lawsuit filed by minor league players.

Do you see where this is all heading? While MLB may try to paint this as a move to help minor league players, it’s pretty transparent that any improvements are going to be directly financed by contracting one quarter of current affiliated teams. Since most of the teams being contracted are at the lower levels where 35-man rosters are the norm, you’re looking at a reduction in nearly 1,500 players and another 200-300 coaches.

It’s not as simple as just handing out pink slips, however, as there will be plenty of additional financial matters tied up in this. Not only will owners of those 42 teams have to be compensated for the loss of value that comes from losing their previous affiliations, but Cooper notes that impacted municipalities could take legal action as well.

Those additional costs would certainly run into the tens of millions, if not hundreds, so would MLB really be saving enough from the proposal to make up for it? Probably not, though it’s hard to discount the extreme hubris of a group of really competitive rich dudes, so maybe they think everyone will kowtow to their desires and fall in line peacefully.

As for how all of this will affect the Cubs’ system, we don’t have all the details just yet. No current Cubs affiliates were among the list of teams that would be eliminated as part of the proposal, but that doesn’t mean they’d all remain in the organization. In fact, one of the bullets above indicates that two teams would have to be cut or shifted to another parent club.

If they’re only allowed four full-season affiliates, it stands to reason that the Emeralds — who would move to full-season under the proposal — would have to seek out a new organization. The Cubs already have South Bend, Myrtle Beach, Tennessee, and Iowa, so losing the Northwest League club seems the most likely possibility. With the Reds potentially losing three teams, including the rookie-level Billings Mustangs, perhaps the Ems can stay in the NL Central.

The Cubs would also have to drop one of their two Arizona Rookie League teams, which might simply result in shifting more of their operations abroad. That’s really too bad, since the AZL serves as a way for many young foreign players to acclimate to life in these United States (that’s a Reader’s Digest joke) as their professional careers get underway. On the other hand, maybe the Cubs could use this as an opportunity for young American players to learn a new culture by playing in the Dominican.

I’m neither wealthy nor in control of anything more than a moderately successful Cubs blog, so I’m really not in a position to make any proposals of my own. If I were in such a position of power, I think I’d suggest to my fellow billionaires that we be willing to part with a negligible portion of our respective generational wealth in order to pay minor leaguers a little more money. Maybe there are even ways to better partner with local ownership and municipalities on cost-sharing and/or revenue generation that would mitigate our losses.

You never know, maybe paying players better would allow them to perform better as a result of being able to focus more on baseball instead of having to pick up part-time jobs. It would allow them to maintain proper nutrition as well, particularly during spring training and the offseason when they’re either not being paid or don’t have access to the team’s facilities. Crazy talk, huh?

Beyond any of the main details, nearly all of which conjure images of 30 Monty Burnses rubbing their hands together in malicious joy at having screwed over the little people once again, this whole thing just makes me sad for minor league baseball. There’s really nothing better when it comes to entertainment value for your dollar, and most of the people associated with those teams are stewards of their local communities. Ripping that fabric apart would result in so many victims, including whatever’s left of MLB’s reputation after Manfred’s perpetual assault.

Here’s to hoping this doesn’t happen in nearly the manner it’s currently laid out.

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