Editor's note: In the days leading up to Rob Manfred's one-year anniversary as commissioner on Jan. 25, we asked our writers what one change or innovation they would make to improve baseball if the sport were starting over today.
The change: Increased wage scale for minor league players.
How it would work:
Minor league baseball player salaries are one of the game's dirty little secrets. It's pretty safe to say that virtually any college student's summer job pays better than that of the average minor league farmhand. Whether a player is picked first overall or signed after the draft without a signing bonus, a first-year pro can expect to make barely more than $1,000 a month in wages.
This is probably a good time to step back and look at some of the good things MLB does for its minor leaguers. The big one is the college scholarship program. High school-age signees, in addition to their signing bonuses, receive scholarship funds that are set aside until the player wishes to start using them, either in the offseason, or at the end of their pro career. International signees often receive free English lessons, and some American players get Spanish lessons.
Many clubs provide life education programs for their minor leaguers, addressing such things as financial management, dealing with the media and the public, and basic life skills, just to name a few. Clubs do realize that their minor leaguers represent their future. Given all of that, why not pay them a living wage?
As things stand, minor league wages are grossly low for at least the first three years of a player's career. A player doesn't see a material increase until he either A) is placed on the franchise's 40-man roster, increasing his monthly wage geometrically, or B) qualifies for six-year free agency, at which time the free market decides his value.
Major League Baseball, in case you hadn't noticed, is swimming in cash. Some clubs, obviously, are swimming at a much deeper end of the pool, but there isn't a single club out there that couldn't handle this increase in much the same manner you would shoo a fly off of your shoulder.
One of the many hotly debated political issues of our day is the minimum wage. Should it be raised, and if yes, by how much? Worthy points can be made on both sides of the issue. The main arguments against raising it revolve around the affordability of such a rise to employers, especially in retail, who operate with thin profit margins. Will employers simply cut their work force if the minimum wage is raised?
Such issues don't exist in baseball. The profit margins aren't razor thin. Other classes of employee within the sport also have a strong argument that they are underpaid. Some scouting and player development salaries reside squarely on both sides of the poverty line. The key difference between those two groups and the minor league players is this: only the players have a rigid, institutionalized wage scale. There is competition for scouts and development staff; some clubs pay better than others. The minor leaguers have nowhere to go.
The increases in minimum wage levels across the country are making the minor leaguers' relative plight more acute with each passing day. Litigation is ongoing on behalf of the minor league players, with resolution unlikely before 2017. While it might now be too late, with the wheels of justice grinding slowly, for such a move, MLB should take the lead and double the wage scale for entry-level minor leaguers. The raw dollars involved to make such a move would just be a pinprick on a franchise's income statement.
Why it would help baseball:
Each major sports league and its member clubs give significantly to charitable endeavors. While that certainly is noble, it is hollow if an entity doesn't take care of itself first. Minor league players are the future of the major league game. They are the future members of the players' union, with whom it would be wise to cultivate a relationship from the day a player becomes a pro.
Minor league players, who have a year-round responsibility to keep themselves in impeccable physical conditioning, often live in extremely cheap, borderline-unsafe housing, and can drift toward fast-food diets despite minor league club personnel's best efforts to make ends meet during the season. Not every player has a hefty signing bonus on which to draw.
The ultimate irony is this: MLB and its clubs have done a great many things to make life better for the game's youngest participants. The college scholarship funding, life skills coaching, etc., have made the players more educated and aware. Now, if they only could afford to put this knowledge to use.
An organization is only as strong as its weakest link. This, simply, is why this change would help the game.
How realistic is it:
It could happen with the stroke of a pen, tomorrow. If the minor league players had a strong union, like their major league brethren, it would have happened already. Do non-40-man roster minor leaguers have the cumulative financial clout to support a union? That's an arguable point. MLB should make it a moot one, and take care of its own.