Major League Baseball suggested sweeping changes to the minor leagues -- including a significant increase in salaries, a higher standard of living conditions and better transportation -- during an initial collective-bargaining session with the group that oversees the minors, sources familiar with the meeting told ESPN.
After years of weathering criticism and lawsuits regarding minor league pay, MLB appears ready to remedy what long has been considered substandard treatment of its future players. The meeting took place within the last month, around the same time the Toronto Blue Jays were finalizing a new wage scale for their minor league players, which was first reported by The Athletic. The working agreement between MLB and the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, which operates Minor League Baseball, expires in September 2020.
"We have received many questions regarding the decision of the Toronto Blue Jays to increase the salaries of minor league players," MLB said in a statement to ESPN. "While each Club makes its own decisions regarding minor league salaries, the Office of the Commissioner is presently in negotiations with the National Association of Professional Baseball on the terms of a new agreement between the Major Leagues and the Minor Leagues to replace the agreement that expires in September 2020. The working conditions of minor league players, including their compensation, facilities and benefits, is an important area of discussion in those negotiations."
The complexity of such fundamental changes to the system could complicate bargaining, particularly with regard to the cost and how much each side is responsible. MLB's position on progressive policy for minor leaguers has strong support among major league owners, an owner familiar with the discussions told ESPN, but the expectation is that minor league affiliates would pick up at least some of the burden of the various improvements.
Currently, MLB pays the entirety of minor league salaries, which have been the subject of lawsuits to increase them and legislation to protect them. Players at Class-A affiliates receive as little as $1,160 per month, though with clubhouse dues and taxes, the take-home pay can be a fraction of that. Those in their first season at Triple-A make just $2,150 a month before dues and taxes. Minor league players are legally unable to earn overtime after Congress inserted a cutout into a $1.3 billion spending bill last spring that exempted teams from paying beyond the $7.25 minimum wage at 40 hours a week.
Public pressure on MLB has mounted in recent years from lawsuits that challenged that paradigm, though they've run into roadblocks. A class-action lawsuit filed against MLB is currently awaiting an appeal from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on its class certification. Garrett Broshuis, the lawyer arguing the case and a former minor league pitcher, is hopeful the conversations between MLB and the minor leagues can lead to substantive amendments because, he said, there are plenty of areas to amend.
"If Major League Baseball is serious about improving, there are so many different places," Broshuis told ESPN. "College baseball players receive a higher per diem than minor league baseball players do. College players don't need to pay clubhouse dues, whereas minor league players do. You look at housing, where you're making so little that six players live in a two-bedroom apartment on air mattresses. That's less than ideal."
As much as officials across baseball might agree, few have taken steps to renovate a system that treats players much the same as it has for decades. Even with Toronto increasing Class-A pay by more than 50 percent, players still will receive less than $12,000 a year, far from a living wage. The praise for Toronto across the industry was nonetheless notable, and bumping minor league salaries -- whether it takes the form of across-the-board changes or becomes a merit-based system -- would have benefits in both public relations and player wellness.
The latter, especially, can grow in manifold other ways. The travel, particularly in the low minor leagues, is miserable, with overnight trips on cramped buses typical. Off-days could be added to ease the wear of the season. A number of stadiums, particularly at lower-level affiliates, feature undersized clubhouses, nonexistent training facilities and troubled infrastructure. New standards could be set for minor league stadiums, with the expectation that teams will be responsible for the costs.
For those who don't, there could be a contraction of affiliates -- another way perhaps to save costs for the increased expenses elsewhere. Teams' player-development departments -- which covet the multilevel system that has more than 6,000 players in the minors each year -- would unquestionably push back on the idea of fewer teams.
Because it's early in bargaining, the shape of the changes remains fluid. What was clear from the bargaining meeting, sources told ESPN, was MLB's desire to overhaul a system in need of it -- and Minor League Baseball's understanding that as the beneficiary of the free labor, it's in no strong position to argue otherwise.