Written by Arik Sikula
Major League Baseball recently made an announcement that significantly affects minor league baseball and all those associated with it.
The “One Baseball” plan will cut the number of baseball cities, stadiums, and workers that are involved with Major and Minor League Baseball. The number of teams affiliated with major league clubs was reduced by 42. The change of the MiLB structure is causing ripple effects around the world, but it is a double-edged sword.
With a wave of teams changing leagues and affiliations – and some losing affiliation – MiLB players will finally get the treatment and payment they have demanded. But the restructuring also reduces the number of players in MiLB and limits the number of players affiliated with MLB organizations. Also, the 2020 MLB draft saw a reduction of 35 rounds to only 5 rounds, so the competition will be increasing dramatically within affiliated clubs where players try to make their name on the back of their jerseys have a value attractive to clubs whose team name covers the front of the jerseys.
MLB has partnered with independent leagues and created draft leagues, but the amount of resources being allocated and the details have yet to surface, and there is no guarantee of how long MLB will continue its support of those leagues. Independent leagues are likely to see an increased talent pool, while some cities will be left high and dry. In addition, though new leagues, teams, and stadiums are forming, the overseas market for baseball is expected to be flooded with players left off the shrinking number of roster spots in America.
Bluefield WV changed from the Appalachian league to a newly formed MLB draft league consisting of college players.
The changes MLB made have been demanded for years. MiLB players have been earning less than minimum-wage salaries for their “opportunity to play in the show”. Stadiums, food, and hotels were less than professional. But while the impact is re-making the standard of how lower-level players are treated, the effects shred past prospect lists and into locker rooms (and lack thereof), abroad. I am going to break down my winners and losers for this specific change in structure.
(new) AFFILIATED BASEBALL PLAYERS & ASSOCIATED ‘INDEPENDENT LEAGUE’ PLAYERS
Minor league players will receive higher pay, stay at better hotels, and not be required to play their first season or two in stadiums that do not meet the qualifications for MLB affiliation. First-year players have been receiving $1100 / playing month to start their careers. The reported salaries for the different classifications will increase 20-45% throughout the MiLB, and the overall minor league experience should improve.
The partnership with MLB for two of the independent leagues, the Atlantic League and the American Association, could prove to be exciting for players. Having their Trackman data (output/production) in the hands of front office members and scouts of MLB clubs will give a sense of attainability to players that before would have been happy to see a few radar guns pop up behind home plate. But while the potential for partnership with a business worth approximately $10 billion USD sounds appealing, the partnership with the Atlantic League had been closer to appalling. Being a test case for the automatic strike zone and other rule changes made veterans feel less than appreciated and more an apparatus to a larger scheme than the promised opportunity. Making resources and information accessible to teams that did not have access in the past should give players some hope of gaining a tough affiliated roster spot.
BASEBALL SCHOOLS AND ONLINE TRAINING
The restructuring provides uniformity in that each parent club will have four minor league teams – AAA, AA, A+, and A. Rookie league teams that housed a lot of extra draft picks have been cut under the restructure, so there should be more competition for fewer player/coach/managing spots. But that also means opportunities for other avenues for baseball. IMG Academy, Driveline, and many others are popular places where players go to train. A few of the best schools of baseball are extremely competitive internally and have flirted with ideas of having their own games and leagues. Remote learning and training is staying constant with the times, as virtual coaches and trainers are in demand. As the continual reduction of assets allowed to be kept under the big-league name continues, the evolution of academies, remote trainers, and new ways to approach baseball should spike.
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These schools have already helped numerous players hear their name called during the MLB Draft. Once an unlimited draft, MLB put rules in place in 1998 to limit the MLB draft to 50 rounds. Started in 1968, the draft then changed to 40 rounds in 2012. 2020 saw only five rounds. While rumors are of 20-30 rounds for 2021 and beyond, the opportunities to ‘earn an opportunity’ to the big leagues are becoming increasingly more difficult. Players that do not see their name on the draft board, or probably on their iPhone, will look for avenues to continue their careers and earn spots on an MiLB roster. With age being a factor in many organizations, it is vital that players continually improve, while putting up statistics to show they have the durability to cover a season and be contributors to a club.
With schools offering remote training, the players getting older and fewer spots in the US, other countries will likely see an influx of imported American talent. Hundreds of players are contracted each year to play at an array of competition levels around the world. More players earned contracts for international baseball than were drafted this past season.
Japan, Korea, China, and Taiwan are popular, high-level destinations for players with MLB or other professional experience, and the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Australia hold the highest competition during the winter months. Europe and South America offer many leagues that are getting better and will benefit greatly from “One Baseball”. The increasing popularity of baseball in newer markets and in American independent leagues offer aspiring professionals chances to continue their careers and move up the baseball ladder.
Many American independent leagues have strict age or experience requirements that make it impossible for the players to play the game and create statistics. Players then turn to an increasingly competitive international market to gain the experience needed to show clubs they are valuable assets inside the white lines.
Arik Sikula releases a pitch in Liga Mexicana de Béisbol action
Numerous communities across the USA lost their baseball seasons in 2020. Unfortunately for fans in many towns, the 2019 season was the last in which they will have had the opportunity to watch baseball in their beloved stadiums. While the wave has not reached its peak, many fans sit and wait to see if their towns will field teams in 2021. Will those teams even have a league? The anticipation is felt from fans of the teams, and those who own teams that have to decide on budgeting and staffing. Many are pressing the pause button and lie in anticipation of the possibility of post-season play.
These small towns have benefited from the camaraderie that their baseball teams have provided for communities. The decisions of the teams to determine if they have the budget to travel to new towns, pay for the rosters, and other rules are masked in anticipation by finding solutions to provide an experience for community members to feel safe when they see fireworks fly after their home team delivers a W.
Lansing Lugnuts – Michigan – moved from Low-A to High-A and are affiliated with the Oakland As.
TENURED PLAYERS, COACHES, STAFFS, & SCOUTS
Veteran players, managers, coaches, trainers, wait to know if their careers will continue. The “One Baseball” plan has the trickle-down effect felt not only from the player’s side. Cutting forty-two teams means forty-two fewer managerial and coaching spots, as well as those for front-office personnel. The staffers do not know if there will be a season to play. Owners are having to decide whether or not to keep staffers on their payrolls.
In addition, many MLB organizations are revamping what scouting will look like for their clubs. With fewer games, come fewer games to scout. With minor, independent and draft leagues having live streaming and data sent directly to the organizations, the need for scouts and the costs to support them are being examined. Nothing beats the eye of a scout to know if the player has trouble with the curve, but, like other veteran players and coaches, scouts need to make sure they are ahead of this curve and find opportunities within the game.
Many fans have followed specific clubs and organizations for many years. The change in affiliations and the path to the big leagues has changed dramatically. It’s fun for enthusiasts to watch the draft, follow the first few years of a player’s minor league career, and play owner by predicting future rosters, but their options are more limited by the structural changes to MiLB. The traditional method of finding the diamond in the rough by examining the boxscores and games is lessened as data analysts identify those outliers. Traditionalists may love the idea of a long and enduring minor league career, but those are decreasing as the average age of players is decreasing as fast as average fastball velocity is rising.
Hiram Bithorn Stadium, P.R., the biggest stadium in PR. Bithorn was the first player from PR to make it to the Big Leagues.
The years of a player hitting a ridiculous 433 home runs in the minor leagues or accumulating more than 3,000 minor league strikeouts are over. Opportunity will knock from other countries. MLB is also facing demands to lower the seven-year contract that enslaves the minor leaguer to be part of their organization for seven minor league seasons. A lot of minor league records will (hopefully) be remembered as much as Nolan Ryan’s 5,714 strikeout total or Pete Rose’s 4,256 hit total.
These records are timeless.
Sometimes, when baseball is not played like in 2020, it seems like time stands still. But time does not wait.
ADAPT OR DIE
Licenses and certifications are seemingly becoming requirements for staff and scouts, but nothing beats a personal reference. Players are demanded to throw harder and run faster. Announcers are fact-checked, and umpires are scrutinized now by electronics instead of elation. Everyone within baseball will have to bring his, or her, best to get a spot on a team.
Fair-weather fans may not notice the difference when all the leagues have settled and baseball returns to their cities. Two-for Tuesdays, fireworks, and hot dogs being sold will continue to be a staple for each home team. The carousel of teams coming in and out of a city will continue to circle, and the pitcher’s mound will still be 60 ft/6 inches from home plate (for now). The more traditional and dedicated fans will sit in anticipation to know which hat will be worn and what part of the players’ careers they will see.
The prices of food and drink, putting a great product (comparative the league) on the diamond, and the overall entertainment will continue to be factors for the fan experience. But let’s not discount the impact of what is happening to the cities, staff, fans, and players that want the opportunity to take part in America’s pastime.
In a game that demands players and staff make adjustments to get better every day, the MLB is doing the same thing.
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Annually our members sign over 300 contracts overseas. There are a variety of levels overseas which present opportunities for players and coaches, both aspiring and established professionals.